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Deciding on a Research Topic

“How do I decide on a research topic?” is a question that I’m sure many aspiring student researchers such as myself have pondered at one point in their academic journey. For an undergraduate or graduate student looking for opportunities to either work or volunteer in a research project, this may not be a pressing concern. This is because, for the most part, the goal of these students (as was my case), is to gain useful experience that can be transferable into their own research projects. As such, a candid advice to the group of students looking to gain research experience (either paid or volunteer) is to be open to any and every opportunity because the perfect fit might end up being the one you least expect.

Deciding on a research topic is not as easy as it seems. I often find myself advising new students to follow their passion, but the question becomes, what if my passion is not a “priority area”?. Priority area here relates to the fundability of one’s research project. My response to this concern is this – “so what?”. Conducting research is a long journey that requires dedication and commitment to complete. In my experience, you are less likely to get frustrated or bored if you are exploring a topic or an area that genuinely interests and excites you.

Although passion is a necessary ingredient when it comes to choosing a research topic, it is not the only component. Your passion must be guided by logic. Logic in this context relates to how researchable and achievable your chosen topic is. An advice I have received is to not be too ambitious – essentially, do something that play to your strengths. And just as important, be mindful of time and resource constraints. The best part about being a student is you do not have to do this alone – your supervisor, the librarian, even fellow colleagues are at your disposal. Talking things out with others is a super helpful way to refine your thoughts. These conversations can sometimes point out flaws in your thinking which can help orient you towards the right direction.

Another important piece that should be considered when deciding on a research topic is relevance. How relevant is your chosen topic to the field in which it is situated? For example, if you are enrolled in a psychology program, your research must relate in some way and be of importance to the field of psychology. In other words, you must be able to defend or justify why your chosen topic area is worth investigating (i.e., how will the data generated from your proposed topic be practically utilized?). The idea of novelty comes into play here – how original is your research topic? It therefore becomes important to do a quick scan of the existing literature to make sure your chosen topic is not an area that has been over-researched as identifying a gap might prove challenging.

These tips are based on my experience so far as a graduate student. I hope they prove beneficial to your respective situations.

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