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How to Choose a PhD Topic

Written by Ben Taylor

Choosing a PhD topic can seem like a pretty daunting prospect. You’ll need to decide on a subject that’s substantial and original enough to occupy your time for at least three years – and one that you won’t find yourself losing interest in.

Focusing on the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, this page features a selection of tips for finding a PhD research topic, with suggestions on identifying research opportunities and coming up with a thesis idea.

Speak to your tutors

If you’re currently at university, one of the first things to do is to speak to the tutors and academics in your department. These are the kinds of people who are likely to have an excellent grasp of what the main themes of research interest in your subject are.

It’s worth asking them for information on the following areas:

  • What academic journals are publishing the most up-to-date work?
  • Are there any particular articles or writers they’d recommend?
  • Which university departments have a particular reputation for specialising in this field?

If you’re not currently studying at university, don’t be afraid to get back in touch with your previous tutors. After all, you’ll need to contact them for a PhD reference during your application anyway.

Once you’ve had a chance to speak to some academics, you’ll hopefully come away with a few potential PhD topics to begin researching.

Read the literature

The next step is to follow up on the leads you’ve garnered by doing some research of your own and reading around the subject. Try to find the most recent publications and journal articles, as this will give you the most accurate position of the current state of play in your field.

These are some questions to ask yourself as you do this research:

  • Does it leave any unanswered questions?
  • Is there any missing context?
  • Does it go far enough?

You should be prepared to critically analyse the publications in your chosen area (this will be a big part of the literature review at the beginning of your PhD, so you can consider it preparation). Don’t be afraid to challenge any assumptions made by the authors – you may spot something that becomes an important part of your PhD thesis.

Find where the funding is

Depending on the discipline, there are often certain ‘priority’ areas that a university or Research Council is keen to fund PhDs in. Some institutions list these areas on their website – sometimes as ‘research groups’ or ‘research centres’ – but in other cases you might have to do some detective work to discover where the opportunities lie. These are a few ways you could go about that:

  • Check out the work of current PhD students at your prospective university and see if there are any common themes linking their research
  • Ask your tutors if they’re aware of any emerging areas in the field that are attracting extra attention from funding providers
  • Think outside the box – collaborative, interdisciplinary projects may be able to draw on funding pots from other departments or universities

While it’s important to have an idea of these priority areas, you shouldn’t necessarily let them govern your search for a PhD topic. It’s no use deciding on a topic that attracts some funding if it’s not something you’re passionate about. Which brings us on to the next point…

Imagine yourself 18 months in

One of the aspects of a PhD that sets it apart from any other academic challenge you’ve encountered so far is the sheer amount of time you’ll be spending on it: at least three years and a thesis of around 80,000 words.

It can be quite easy to romanticise the life of a PhD student, but try and imagine yourself 18 months into a programme, after the novelty has worn off and you’re left with the real nitty-gritty of your project. Do you reckon you could cope with the most boring part of your research, whether that’s trawling through endless archive materials or painstakingly writing up the results of a detailed survey?

If the answer is yes, that’s probably a good sign that your topic is something that holds enough interest to occupy your attention for its duration. If you’re not sure about the prospect of spending days or weeks on a single part of your project, maybe it’s a good idea to consider something that you will be happy to devote your time to.

Coming up with a PhD thesis topic

Once you’ve decided on a research topic, you need to think about how exactly you’re going to shape it into a dissertation. Our guide to writing a PhD thesis has more detail on how to go about this, with information on structure, planning and writing up.

Last Updated: 25 June 2021