How to Find a Topic for Ph.D. Research


It is always advisable to identify a real need for improvement or new ideas that will require research.

The following are steps that you can take to find a research topic on doctoral level:

  1. Consider the research that you’ve already done.

Your thesis for a Master’s degree is a good starting point for further research.

It is probably something that you are interested in and have some good knowledge about.

Remember, this time around you will need to create new knowledge and skills.

  • Your own interests are a great source for finding a topic.

List your interests and rank them to find a topic that you are interested in.

Surf the internet.

The topics that you Google is always a good starting point.

Visit the library.

  • Consider current events.

Current news is probably important and already something that somebody else regarded as worth reporting on.

Discuss the news with friends and colleagues.

Listen to what they are afraid of, look forward to, etc.

  • Keep your eyes open and make a note of everyday observations.

Keep your eyes open and listen to what people talk about.

People often talk about their needs and fears.

  • Do not underestimate the value of your personal experiences.

Your personal experiences, challenges, disappointments, and successes in life can be topics for research.

People often have similar experiences and they might need some assistance or guidance, which you can offer them.

Developing your research topic

You will probably need to develop a research topic even after you have found an idea that you like. Such an idea can be developed into a research topic by following seven steps:

Step 1: Select a general topic.

Sometimes somebody else might suggest a topic if you cannot find one.

A lecturer, a sponsor, a family member, a friend might suggest something.

It is not a good idea to choose and develop a topic that you know nothing about.

Step 2: List keywords to help you look for information about the topic.

Keywords can help you find more information on a topic on the internet, in a library or from a lecturer, family member or friend.

Good keywords can save you lots of time and effort.

Keywords can generate new keywords.

Step 3: Get an overview of the topic.

Improve and expand on the idea that you have.

In the beginning, you should collect anything that you can find on the topic of your research.

Do not throw away any information now already – you never know how your research might develop.

Information that does not look relevant now might turn out to be critically important later.

Besides the more you read about your topic the better will you understand it.

Step 4: Begin to focus the topic into something that you can cover well.

At some stage, you will need to narrow your research down to the important issues that relate to the purpose of the research.

Search for examples and important information – examples will help you with your fieldwork and information is necessary as a theoretical background.

Do not go for volume – focus on quality and relevance.

Step 5: Write a statement of purpose for the focused topic.

Your statement of purpose will guide you through your research.

Focus, focus, focus.

Your statement of purpose will motivate you, help you to formulate your problem statement, question or hypothesis, and help you to work systematically and efficiently.

Step 6: Create subtopic headings for the research.

Subtopics will help you organize your research report in such a manner that your arguments will flow smoothly toward the achievement of your purpose.

Keywords can often be used as subtopics.

You will probably change and delete subtopics as you progress with your research.

Step 7: Brainstorm questions about the focused topic.

Research teams often use brainstorming.

You can also do so, for example by organizing focus groups to discuss salient issues.


You can find a research topic from:

  1. Your previous research.
  2. Other people.
  3. Your personal interest, experiences, observations.
  4. The news.

Once you have decided on a topic, you will need to develop and refine it.

  1. Start by developing a research problem, research question or hypothesis.
  2. Select keywords and use them to gather data.
  3. Focus the topic to make your research viable.
  4. Formulate a purpose for your research.
  5. Break your topic down further into subtopics.
  6. Refine, restructure, add, delete.

You are now on your way with your research.

Remember to focus and to work in a spiral.

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The Research Problem, Question or Hypothesis for a Ph.D. Research Report


Did you notice that some Ph. D. students formulate their research question, statement to impress rather than to explain?

Here is an example of such a myopic research question:

“A Wittsteinian elucidation of the rationalist ontology of mathematics and its epistemological influence on the post-structuralist nature of language.”

A good research problem, question or hypothesis defines the focus of your research project.

The focus should, furthermore, be aimed at achieving the purpose for the research.

The Postgraduate Committee will use the research problem, question or hypothesis to judge if your proposed research topic meets the requirements for academic research on doctoral level.

You will need to narrow your research question, statement or hypothesis down to a project that you will be able to cope with, bearing in mind how much time and funds you have available for the research.

Keep in mind that research should always be the foundation for further research.

Let’s look at an example of a research question and then refine it until we reach the point where it meets the requirements for viable research on doctoral level.

  1. What is the effect of global warming on social interaction?

A research question like this creates more questions than it solves.

  1. It is extremely vague and the effect of global warming on social interaction can be a multitude of possible things, for example relationships in the classroom, at home, between married couples, friends, clients versus salespeople, etc.
  2. The effect of global warming on different continents, in different countries, different cultures, different seasons, etc. will probably not be the same.
  3. What is meant by social interaction?

One will need to explain and define the research question. However, even then it would be almost impossible to conclude generally applicable findings that will apply to the entire world and all people and times of the year.

Here is a refinement of the research question:

  • What is the effect of global warming on the social interaction of Europeans working in metropolitan areas?

This research question already hints on possible economic value. It is limited to a specific type of living area and it would probably be possible to choose a representative sample for the research.

You should be careful of not formulating your research question in such a way that it renders your research subjective and biased.

For example, if you were to ask:

  • Will global warming cause people working in metropolitan areas to lose interest in social interaction?

you might create the impression that you are of the opinion that global warming will cause people working in metropolitan areas to lose interest in social interaction.

It might still be a workable problem to investigate though. You can also reformulate your problem statement or question as a hypothesis, especially as the answer to your question might simply be “yes” or “no”. You might even be able to statistically prove your hypothesis as valid or not. Here you would probably use quantitative research and a technicist paradigmatic approach.

You can avoid the dichotomous nature of this last example (the answer can only be “yes” or “no” by formulating it something like this:

  • What will be the impact of global warming on the social interaction between Europeans working in metropolitan areas?

Regardless of how you formulate your research question, you will still need to describe the context for your research.

The purpose of your research can also help to clarify your research question, statement or hypothesis.

The scope of your research can help you to know where to go, what to investigate and when to stop with your research.

You research question, statement or hypothesis is not final if you did not submit your final report.

However, keep in mind that it will become increasingly more difficult and riskier to change your research question, statement or hypothesis the longer you wait to do so.


A research question, statement or hypothesis gives you a good indication of which data you need to collect and which methods you will use to access and analyse your sources.

A well-articulated research question, statement or hypothesis provides you, your study leader and any other readers of your research report with valuable information about your research.

You need to explain the focus, purpose, scope and motivation for your research.

You also need to and motivate your research question, statement or hypothesis clearly and objectively.

The rationale for your research question, statement or hypothesis can serve as evidence that your research project is viable.

You can change your research question, statement or hypothesis any time while you are still doing research. However, the longer you wait, the more incorrect data will you collect, and the more time will you waste on doing unnecessary work.

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Creating a Draft for a Ph.D. Research Report


In my previous post, I discussed writing a second chapter for your Ph. D. Research Report.

This post on how to prepare a draft for a Ph. D. Report ties in closely with my previous post on how to structure your research report.

You will write many different versions for a draft report, and you will continue reviewing what was probably just a structure in the beginning until you rich the point where you will have a final product.

But you need to start with a first draft.

The following seven steps will enable you to write a first draft.

Step 1: Make an outline of your headings.

The outline should be an abbreviated picture of the parts of your report that you can also use as the scope for when you need to defend your submission.

The Table of Contents of your research report can serve as the outline.

Initially, you will start with just a framework. As you progress with your research, the framework will grow into your actual report as well as the final table of contents for your research report.

The outline can help you prevent and identify flaws in the structure of your report.

Step 2: Check your research statement, question or hypothesis.

You will have written your research statement, question or hypothesis when you prepared your research proposal.

You can refocus the research statement, question or hypothesis at any point while writing your report, if necessary.

You can also refocus it as often as you wish, although you should not do this indiscriminately.

Refocusing your research statement, question or hypothesis would be necessary if you were too ambitious when you decided on the scope for your research.

You will need to refocus your research statement, question or hypothesis if you run out of time.

Your study leader will not like it if you run out of time because you dragged your feet.

Step 3: Write the body of your research report from your notes.

This is where you will ensure that what you write flows logically.

You should check if all your ideas, arguments, evidence, figures and tables flow logically, much like the narrative for a novel.

In the old days, we used notecards for this.

Now we have computers that make the work much easier.

Step 4: Check that you site all the information that you quoted from other sources with parenthetical citations.

Parenthetical citations are where you recognise the authors of the text, statistics, etc. that you use in your report.

You must cite your sources when using the following kinds of material, in whole or in part:

  1. Direct quotations.
  2. Paraphrased and reconstructed quotations. (Quotations of which you changed the original wording somewhat.)
  3. Statistical data.
  4. Images made by someone else.
  5. Song lyrics.
  6. Original ideas that belong to someone else.

We will discuss referencing methods in a future post.

Step 5: Write your introduction.

The introduction normally has two parts:

  1. A general introduction to the topic of your research.
  2. Your research statement.

Step 6: Write your conclusion.

You will conclude after you have done the literature study and fieldwork.

Through the conclusions you should:

  1. Create an impression with the reader that the work is complete and well done.
  2. Show that the research project has been brought to a logical and realistic end.
  3. Show that you have made a positive contribution to the field of your study.

You can restate your research statement, question or hypothesis here.

You can also summarise your main points of evidence here.

Step 7: Create a title page.

I already discussed the title page in a separate post on writing a title page and in the post on structuring your research report.

You can prepare the title page at any stage while doing your research and writing your report.

Reviewing your draft report

You can and probably will submit chapters or perhaps just sections that your study leader would like to see from time to time.

However, do not submit what you might regard as a final product unless you feel proud of the work that you did.

You should feel confident that your study leader will be satisfied with your work, so much so that you are looking forward to his or her feedback.

And even though you might expect to be showered with praise, you need to realise that the opposite might still happen. Be prepared for what you might regard as cruel, unfair and unnecessary criticism.

This is when you will need to show character. Now is the time when you will need to show that you can persevere.

Do not blame your study leader for not being as impressed with your work as you are. Listen, or read, the feedback carefully and give yourself time to think about the feedback, absorb it and to decide how you can benefit from the disappointment.

You can and should pre-empt negative feedback by evaluating and correcting your work even before your study leader tells you to do so.

Here are eight questions that you can ask of your work to find opportunities for improvement:

  1. Is it necessary to introduce new material, data, ideas, and thinking? If yes, then find the additional content and include it.
  2. Did you include arguments or information in your research report that adds no value because it is not relevant to the purpose of your research? If so, remove such padding from your report.
  3. Is there data or arguments that you included early in your report that later proved to be outdated or irrelevant?
  4. Is there more recent and relevant data or arguments in a later chapter or chapters? Remove obsolete data and arguments.
  5. Can you find any cognitive mistakes in any of your arguments, conclusions, assumptions or recommendations? If so, remove the errors or correct them.
  6. Is the structure of your chapters or sections in chapters erratic? Good software, such as ATLAS.Ti can often solve the problem. Sometimes logical thinking can also do wonders for the flow of your report.
  7. Did you respond negatively, aggressively or immaturely to feedback from your study leader, assistant study leader or perhaps even one or more external examiners? Apologise and thank them for their assistance. Correct your errors and inform them how you used their feedback to improve your work.
  8. Did you repeat theoretical data, arguments, etc. in your report? Even simple office software, like Microsoft Word, can find the repetition of sentences if you suspect that you repeated a statement and ask the software to find it.
  9. Did you, at any stage while writing your report, use a research method or paradigm incorrectly? It can happen that you “drifted” from one research method or paradigm to different, more suitable ones. This is not always wrong, but if the research methods or paradigmatic approaches contradict one another you will need to correct the error.  

Probably all research topics on a doctoral level are of such a nature that the perfectionist will never be satisfied with the report. There will always be something that needs improvement.

You must draw the line somewhere, even if the temptation to just do this and that might be strong.


The structure that you will prepare when you start with your research is already a first draft.

You can use the seven steps that I discussed to prepare your first draft.

You will end up writing and saving many versions of your research report until you reach the point where you are satisfied that you have achieved the purpose of your research project.

You can and should review and improve your draft report intuitively by correcting flaws when you identify them.

You can improve your product further by asking and answering the nine questions that I discussed.

Don’t become trapped in a never-ending process of review and further research.

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How to Write the Second Plus Chapters of your Ph. D. Research Report.


I will discuss chapters 2, 3 and 4 as one unit because they belong together.

The literature review can be more than one chapter, depending on the topic of your research and the amount of theory that is needed.

You can, for example, have a chapter on the literature study that you did in preparation for the oral presentation of your research proposal and a second chapter on the literature study that you did when you did additional literature study after your proposal was accepted and you embarked on the real research.

You could also have explained your research approach for your study proposal in your first chapter already.

You can also explain the research methods that you used for the initial literature study as part of Chapter 2 and have a separate chapter dealing with the literature study and practical data collection processes as a Chapter 3.

Let me show the option that I discuss here in a table:

Option 1 Option 2 Option 3
Chapter 1: Contextualising the study.Research done for the oral presentation of your study proposal. Chapter 1: Contextualising the study. Chapter 1: Contextualising the study.
Chapter 2: You research approach for the literature study as well as the fieldwork that you will do now that your research proposal has been approved. Chapter 2: Literature study prior to your oral presentation. Chapter 2: Your research approach for both the literature study prior to and after your research proposal.
Chapter 4: Fieldwork. Chapter 3: You research approach for the literature study as well as the fieldwork that you will do now that your research proposal has been approved. Chapter 3: You research approach for the fieldwork that you will do.

In essence, you will need to describe your research approach for the literature study prior to presenting your research proposal, the theoretical content that you will research after your research proposal has been approved and the fieldwork that you will do.

You should identify as much as possible theoretical information on similar research that was previously done, knowledge captured in books and other sources of information and related knowledge that might be of value for your research.

Reasons why you will need to study literature:

  1. To prepare for an oral presentation of your research proposal.
  2. To familiarise you with the knowledge and to determine if it relates to your research.
  3. To dispel myths about the field of study.
  4. To explain competing conceptual frameworks.
  5. To clarify the focus of your research.
  6. To justify your assumptions.

You should satisfy the following questions in your literature review:

  1. Are there sources relevant to the topic of your research?
  2. If there are sources, what do they say about the nature and the development of the topic? (Ontology and epistemology.)
  3. How are the issues researched in the existing literature?
  4. How detail and complete are the literature on the topic?

(Are the points made in the literature elicited and synthesized, or just paraphrased?)

  • How does the literature interpret the concepts and issues on the topic?
  • Does the review clearly indicate when sources are being quoted? (Is it the work of the writers or did they borrow it from somebody else?)
  • Are sources adequately referenced?
  • Do you agree with the existing literature on the topic?

You will need to summarise the existing theory about the topic as a last section of the chapter or chapters.

If your study is just a literature study – you will move on to conclusions and recommendations at the end of this chapter.

That would mean that you will not need to do any fieldwork or experiments.


It is essential to do as much literature study as you possibly can for two main reasons:

  1. To prepare for your oral study proposal.
  2. To serve as the foundation of the research that you will embark on.

Preparing this chapter or chapters might require many hours of hard work.

This will enable you to plan your research properly.

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How to Write the First Chapter of your Ph. D. Research Report.


Most universities will allow you to choose a name for your first chapter.

It can simply be “Introduction”.

You can also choose a more descriptive name of the contents of the chapter, for example “Contextualising the Study.”

Some universities might even allow you to insert a Preface before your first chapter.

You should check with the university first before you add a separate preface to your research report.

I will share a few thoughts on the preface near the end of this post for the sake of clarity.

Each chapter in your research report should have its own introduction, but that is not what I will discuss here, so don’t get confused.

Writing the first chapter is the launch pad to writing a research report.

It points the writing process in the direction it should go and lay out what your research project should achieve.

The following are possible headings for your first chapter:

  1. Introduction. It might be confusing if you include an introduction to a chapter called “Introduction”, but that should not be a serious problem.

You can discuss the following issues in the introduction:

  1. Your problem statement, problem question or hypothesis.
  2. Clarify the problem statement, question or hypothesis.
  3. Background information on the field in which the study will be conducted.
  4. You should narrow the wider scope (the background information) down to a viable target group or target area.
  5. Explain why the problem or hypothesis is important.
  6. Introduce and develop the topic for your research.
  7. Introduce the title for your research report (thesis or dissertation).
  8. Statement of objectives.
    1. Break the purpose down into objectives and objectives into sub-objectives or tasks.
    1. This breakdown can be useful when you need to prepare questions for interviews or questionnaires that you intend sending to members of your target group.
  9. Definition of related concepts.
    1. Concepts and words are often understood and used differently by different academics.
    1. It will often be impossible to determine what the right meanings are.
    1. Therefore, do your homework to determine as accurately as you possibly can what the concepts and words that you will use mean and then explain how you will use them.
  10. The motivation for the study.
    1. You need to explain why you wish to investigate the problem of your choice.
  11.  Current knowledge of the problem.
    1. Most universities will not even allow you to enroll for doctoral studies if you cannot show that you have enough prior knowledge of the topic of your research.  
  12. Potential benefits of the research.
    1. You need to explain who will benefit from your research as well as how they will benefit.
    1. This can be integrated with your motivation for the study.
  13. Ethical issues.
    1. You need to conduct your research and write your report in a manner that will be acceptable to any reasonable person and that does not transgress any legislation, rules or regulations.
    1. The university will require of you to confirm in writing that this is the case.
  14. The structure of your study.
    1. The structure of your research will depend on the university requirements, the research approach, research methods, paradigms, data collection methods and data analysis methods that you will use.
    1. Your personal style will also play a role.
  15. Summary of Chapter 1.
    1. Each of your chapters need to have an introduction and a summary.
    1. You can add conclusions and recommendations that you gained from the chapter here.
    1. Cutting and pasting sections from the body of the chapter is not a summary – it is an extract.
    1. The summary should not contain new information.
    1. It will, therefore, be unlikely that you will acknowledge sources in the summary.
    1. You should summarise the chapter in such a way that all the important facts and arguments are given in a concise manner.

The preface

Some universities will allow you to include a preface before your first chapter.

You will probably only write the preface after the research report has been completed.

Or you can write the preface while you are writing the rest of your report.

A preface is usually a combination of disparate elements, necessary for the clarification of aspects of the work, but not necessarily concerned with the development of the argument.

Some claim that a good preface consists of three distinct parts – a general presentation of the research problem, the purpose of the research, and stating your position in terms of your capacity and limitations to do the research.

All of this can also be included in a first chapter.

Be careful of not using the preface to rationalize.

Do not use the preface to make excuses for not submitting quality work. If that is the case, no preface can save you – your study leader and external examiners will see that your work is not up to standard.

You may wish or need to supply information on the historical or literary background of your research topic, intellectual climate and biographical material relevant to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the research material.

Do not use the preface to put the blame for your challenges on your family, your employer, study leader, the university, the world.


The first chapter of your research report prepares the reader for the scientific argumentation and evaluation of the information that you will gather and analyse.

You should use the first chapter to contextualise your study.

It explains the importance of your research topic, how you will investigate the problem or hypothesis that you formulated, the area and target group for your research and what your research project should achieve.

Although you will need to show what you expect to achieve, you need to guard against showing that you have already decided what the results of your research will be.

You need to be objective and conduct research with an open mind.

Some universities will allow you to include a preface before your first chapter. The best way to write a preface is to write it while your write your research report.

Go back to the preface when you think of something that you desperately need to write but that does not fit into the structure and layout of your research report.

Do not use the preface for anything that might damage your end-product. 

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How to prepare an Abstract for a Ph. D. Research Report.


Although one of the shortest sections in your research report, the abstract is also one of the most important sections.

The abstract is sometimes also called the synopsis or summary.

It is like an executive summary of a business reports.

The purpose of the abstract is to enable interested readers to grasp the salient elements of the report without having to read the whole report.

The abstract is a mandatory section of your research and should be short and informative.

It should cover the following:

  • The problem that was researched.
  • Your main argument or arguments.
  • The nature of the research.
  • The context of the research.
  • The research methods and procedures that you used.
  • Your main findings, conclusions and recommendations.

Some universities will require of you to cover everything in not more than 300 words – that is one A4 page.

Obviously, the abstract can only be written once you have completed your research and wrote your research report.

It should appear directly after the table of contents, authentication and acknowledgements.

The abstract should end with a list of not more than ten keywords.

Abstracts are often published in specialist journals.

Here is an example of the structure (headings that you can use in your abstract:

  1. Background to the study.
  2. Definition of the problem and research question.
  3. Research design.
  4. A title that is the same as or like the title of your research report.
  5. Conclusions.


The abstract should briefly explain the following:

  1. What you did – the topic of your research.
  2. How you did it – the methodology that you used.
  3. What you found out – the results of your research.
  4. What the significance of the research was – your conclusions and recommendations.
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The Table of Contents of your Ph.D. Research Report


I need to emphasize that the initial table of contents will be more a structure for a table of contents than a final one. You will probably have all the chapters that you must have, but you will have few lower level headings. Also, you might need to add a small number of chapters as you progress with your research.

The table of contents should follow directly after the authentication of your work.

Once you’ve written your research report, you will probably delete the provisional structure for a table of content and replace it with the chapters, headings and sub-headings of your final research report. Keep in mind that your table of contents may not differ from the chapters, headings and sub-headings in your research report.

At the end of your table of contents you should also have the references that you consulted, a list of figures and a list of tables.

Here is a list of the most basic headings that most universities will expect you to discuss in your research report:

  1. Title page.
  2. Confirmation of authenticity.
  3. Acknowledgements.
  4. Abstract.
  5. Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study.
  6. Chapter 2: Research Methodology.
  7. Chapter 3: Theoretical Background.
  8. Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis.
  9. Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study.
  10. References.
  11. List of Figures.
  12. List of Tables.

The title page. Take note that the title page is not mentioned in the table of contents and that it is the cover page of your research report.

Confirmation of authenticity. You will be required by the university to confirm that the contents of your research report are your own. Most universities, if not all, use a standard format for such confirmation.

Here is an example:

“I, (your full names and surname) declare that (the title of your research report) is my own work and that all the sources that I have used or quoted have been indicated and acknowledged by means of complete references.

(Your signature)


Acknowledgements. Acknowledgements are a matter of choice.

However, it is only good manners to thank people who helped you with your research.

The acknowledgement has real value for your research, though, for example:

  1. It will show the readers of your report that you conducted your research in a systematic, ethical and disciplined manner.
  2. It shows that you understand that research should not be done by one person only.

Abstract. The abstract is a mandatory summary of your research report. It must be short – you will be required to summarise your research report in three or four pages.

Some readers, for example your sponsors, might read only the abstract. Therefore, you will need to ensure that you cover all the questions that they might have.

Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study. Researchers making use of technicist research methods often claim that their findings and the principles and concepts that they develop are timeless and that it applies independent of context.

Even they, however, need to define the range and scope of their research – they will not be able to include the entire world, let alone entire universe, in their research projects.

Chapter 2: Research Methodology. In this chapter you will probably discuss:

  1. The research approach that you will use.
  2. The research methods that you will use.
  3. The paradigmatic approach that you will follow.
  4. The data collection methods that you will use.
  5. How you will analyse the data that you collect.

Chapter 3: Theoretical Background. You will probably need to do literature study as a foundation for your research. It would be rather difficult to jump into data collection and the analysis of data if you do not know what you should be looking for.

Just for interest’s sake – this is a rationalist stance.

Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis. You already discussed the data collection and analysis methods that you will use in Chapter 2. Here you will need to discuss the actual processes of data collection and analysis. This is a critically important chapter and might even be broken down into two or three separate chapters. It is from the contents of this chapter that you will come to findings and conclusions from which your solution to the problem that you investigated will come.

Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study. Chapter 5 will normally be your final chapter. This is where you will describe your solution. Depending on the purpose of your research and the research approach and methods that you used, you might develop a model, new knowledge, new methods to combat oil pollution at sea, new medication, and many more.

References. All sources that you consulted must be acknowledged in your research report.

Universities invariably have prescriptions in this regard, and you should abide by them.

List of Figures and List of Tables. The lists of figures and tables follow directly after the table of contents.

One can regard it as part of the table of contents.

The figure and table numbers in the lists must be the same as in the content of the research report.

Different universities have different requirements for the layout and format of the lists of figures and tables, although most are rather flexible in this respect.


Your provisional table of contents will probably be just a structure, consisting of chapters with no lower lever content.

Your actual and final table of contents must align exactly with the contents of your report.

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The Title (Cover Page) of your Ph.D. Research Report


The title page is the first thing that your promoter, also called your study leader, will see.

Obviously, it will be the first impression and you know as well as I that the first impression is important.

And yet it is alarming to see how many mistakes Ph.D. students make on their title pages. Then again, what some will regard as a mistake, others will see as correct, perhaps even creative.

Those who follow a relativist approach will probably regard most of the mistakes on title pages as not serious or simply irrelevant.

Structuralists will frown upon you if you don’t abide by the exact layout as prescribed by the university.

In my opinion you should pay as much attention to the wording of your title as possible and not overturn the applecart unnecessarily.

A first impression will probably not have much of an effect on your study leader or assistant study leader because by the time you submit your research report, they will already know you well.

They probably gave you advice on the wording of your title anyway.

The external examiners are a different story – all they will see is your final submission.

So, what are the requirements for a title page?

The title page should convey clearly and succinctly the topic being researched.

Avoid obscure and unnecessarily lengthy titles.

Some universities recommend that titles should not exceed 15 words.

Start off with a working title and revisit and reformulate it as you read for greater focus.

University requirements for the layout of a title page

Most universities have strict rules about the layout and appearance of a title page. Their policies in this regard will probably include the following:

  1. Use only one or two font types. More than two can be confusing and difficult to read.
  2. Use a clear font that is easy to read.
  3. Keep the title page simple. Too many words or pictures can have a distracting and confusing effect.
  4. The title page must contain the following information:
  5. The full name and surname of the student.
  6. The full title of the research report and the month, year and place that it was printed.
  7. The name of the university, faculty and department.
  8. The full names and surnames of the study leader and assistant study leader.
  9. The correct name of the learning programme.

Here is an example of a title page:

A Historical Perspective on the Cognitive Erosion of the Meaning of Otology versus Epistemology Since the Twentieth Century


Susan Anne Mitchell


Submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree

Doctor in Philosophiae (Ph. D.)

In the Faculty of Linguistic History

at the

University of Berne

Promoter: Prof Albert S. Baloye

Dr Ratchell South

November 2021


Your title page will create a good or bad impression in the minds of your readers, and that impression can decide if your submission will succeed or not.

Pay special attention to the wording of the title.

Read the university’s policies regarding the layout of a title page and abide by it.

Ask your study leader for one or two good examples of title pages and copy their format and layout.

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The Nature and Structure of a Ph.D. Research Report


Before we discuss the nature and structure of a Ph.D. research report, I need to point out that research on doctoral level is not about just writing an essay. It is hard and complex work, but the rewards are most certainly worth the effort.

Conducting research and writing a report is like the seafarers of old and the astronauts of today who, as the old space science movie used to begin, “venture where no one else has ventured before”.

You will enjoy interesting and exciting discoveries.

Sometimes you might weep because of what you discover.

At other times you will jump for joy.

It is, indeed, a roller coaster ride that I hope you will enjoy.

Let’s board the ship.

Characteristics of a research report for a Ph.D.

Here is a brief summary of the characteristics of a research report for a Ph. D.:

  1. The topic can be highly complex but need not be so.
  2. The content will be highly specialized in a highly complex area of expertise.
  3. The scope can be extensive or at least apply to a realistic community or geographical area.
  4. Analysis of data will require sophisticated analytical processes.
  5. Recognised research approaches, methods and paradigms should be used.
  6. The report should be 30,000 to 70,000 words in length.
  7. The bibliography can include generic and specific sources.
  8. More than 130 sources should be consulted.
  9. Marks are not awarded and the report should be worthy of distinction before it can be accepted as meeting the requirements.

The research design

You should design your research report in such a way that it will satisfy the purpose of your research.

Although the design will consist of several headings, or steps, it does not mean that you will follow a linear process. You will inevitably need to return to previous work, construct and reconstruct until you achieve an acceptable level of complexity, validity, authenticity and reliability.

The design is linear, but the research process is always a spiral.

Most of all, however, you will need to achieve the purpose of your research.

Your research design will probably move from underlying philosophical assumptions and theoretical knowledge to new knowledge and a solution to a problem.

Even though the basic structure of a research report is prescribed by universities, all of them will allow a measure of flexibility by allowing you to add chapters. Omitting chapters might be risky because you might leave out important steps in the writing of the report or in the research process.

Changes in the internal or external environment, new information, unforeseen obstacles and unexpected opportunities to improve your work can move, perhaps even force you to change the structure and layout of your research report.

Research is not just about collecting and interpreting data, it is also a process by means of which you would manage change. That is why your design should be flexible.

Never pad, i.e. never include data in your report that is not relevant to the purpose of your research.

Structure your report, including the chapters, sub-sections, paragraphs and even sentences in such a manner that they logically flow from the problem to the solution.

The design of your research report will depend on your research skills, the topic of the research and what the university prescribes.

The design of your research report should include which type of research you will conduct. your research can be exploratory, descriptive or explanatory.

Exploratory research would be research on a topic that you do not have much information about. You will, therefore, need to collect and analyse a substantial amount of data. Mostly a mixed approach.

Descriptive research would be research on a concept, people, situation, etc. that you are familiar with and that you wish to describe. Mostly a qualitative approach.

Explanatory research involves testing a hypothesis and coming to conclusions about the validity of the hypothesis. Mostly a quantitative approach.

The scale and scope determine the boundaries of the design.

The boundaries put the problem statement or hypothesis into perspective.

You will also need to acknowledge the limitations of your research process. Some universities will allow you to overcome limitations with assumptions. This, however, can damage the validity of your findings and the reliability of your recommendations.

Acknowledging that you are developing or deconstructing the findings of somebody else will lend validity and authenticity to your work.

Don’t underestimate the quality of research done by academics before you.

Be modest about your claims to the originality of your work.

Don’t regard quotations from the work of other researchers as a substitute for sound arguments by you.

Regard the work of others as corroboration of your own and use it as such.

Let’s look at the basic structure of a research report.

All research reports should have the following elements:

  1. The title page.
  2. The table of contents.
  3. A list of figures and tables.
  4. The abstract.
  5. Confirmation of authenticity.
  6. Acknowledgements.
  7. The preface or introduction.
  8. The chapters.
  9. Bibliography and references.
  10. Appendices.


Research design is the blueprint according to which you will conduct your research.

Accept that change will occur while you do your research. Accept this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Consult as many sources of data as you can find, but guard against trying to include too many research methods, paradigms and data collection methods in your research.

The insights that you offer must be your own.

Remember that scrupulous honesty is as important in small matters as in large.

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The Relationship Between the Ph.D. Student and the Study Leader


Some universities will appoint a study leader for a prospective Ph.D. student only after the research proposal has been accepted.

The university will mostly appoint an academic who has specialised knowledge of the field in which you plan to do your research.

Appointing a professor who is an expert in the field of your study will not always be possible.

In practice, it often happens that a student approaches a professor for advice, which might include asking him or her to act as their study leader.

Regardless of how you and your study leader came together, the possibility of conflict always exists.

Some prospective students might not be aware of the challenges that they and their study leaders might face. We tend to be optimistic about new relationships and this is not limited to social relationships.

I need to emphasise, though, that the possibilities for conflict that I discuss in this post are exceptions.

Study leaders and their students are adults and most of them know how to interrelate and cooperate in a mature and objective manner.

It even happens that students and their study leaders become good friends.

Even so, you should be aware that things might go wrong and the better you are prepared for the possibility, the better will you be able to deal with it, should it happen.

What can go wrong?

Here are some examples of what can go wrong between you and your study leader:

  1. A study leader might decide early in the relationship that the student will not succeed just because they don’t like each other.
  2. A study leader might discriminate against the student based on race, gender, religion, gender orientation, appearance.
  3. Even if the study leader does not discriminate, the student might accuse the study leader of discrimination.
  4. It can happen that a study leader and student become emotionally or physically involved to the extent that it damages the quality of the research being done.
  5. A study leader might make unacceptable advances towards a student.
  6. A student can make advances at a study leader.

I don’t think “making advances” is necessarily a problem, but it is risky, especially if the attraction is not mutual.

  • Attempts at bribery and corruption are always possible.
  • Some of you might think of other possible obstacles.

Perhaps we should consider the duties and responsibilities of the parties to a Ph.D. relationship first before we discuss ways in which to avoid or manage conflict.

The duties of a study leader

The prospective study leader often arranges for the student to deliver a research proposal.

The study leader should act as an advisor on the structure and layout of your research report.

The study leader should also be able to assist you with the academic content of your research.

The study leader will also evaluate your work at intervals to which you will agree in advance.

The study leader will tell you when your dissertation or thesis is ready to be submitted.

Good study leaders make their expectations and rules for the project clear from the word go. Issues that you should agree on include:

  1. How regularly you will meet.
  2. The preferred method of communication. It will probably be a mixture of emails, phone calls, meeting at the study leader’s office.
  3. Mastery of methods and timelines for completing your research.
  4. Some universities require of doctoral students to do some lecturing. This needs to be cleared out with your study leader.
  5. The monitoring, evaluation and reporting of progress.

What you as the student are responsible for

  1. You need to focus on gaining new knowledge and skills and not just on obtaining a Ph.D. certificate to add to your Curriculum Vitae and hang on your office wall.
  2. The factual content, logical development of arguments and conclusions arrived at are your responsibility.
  3. You will need to plan your research timetable. Your study leader might help you with his.
  4. You will need to submit sections of your research report for evaluation in accordance with the timetable.
  5. Changes suggested by your or your study leader might sometimes need to be submitted to the Postgraduate Committee for approval. (Some universities call it the Higher Degree Committee.) This will, for example, be the case if the changes imply changes to the purpose of your research or any other changes that might impact on the grounds upon which your study proposal was accepted.
  6. You must show acceptable progress.
  7. Your research report must be entirely your own work. You will be required to submit a statement to this effect when your work is completed.
  8. You should discuss your progress, work and ideas with your study leader.
  9. Nobody else may revise your work or do it for you.
  10. Family and friends may help with proofreading.
  11. It is always a good idea to have your research report language edited once it is completed.
  12. Always ask your study leader for consent before you use external assistance with your research.
  13. Keep in mind that you are probably not the study leader’s only postgraduate student and they have other work as well.
  14. Don’t ignore the study leader’s recommendations without discussing it with him or her first.
  15. Permission must be obtained from the university before you may publish your research report or any part of it.

How to avoid, resolve or manage conflict

You and your study leader should have a set of shared expectations. That is why you need to get along well from the word go.

Both of you need to be aware of the constraints under which the other works and you should respect the fact that your study leader cannot spend too much time helping you.

The study leader should abide by the principles of adult learning. In brief that means that:

  1. Both the student and the study leader should accept responsibility for achieving success. (My study leader assured me from the word go that he would feel personally responsible if I do not successfully complete my doctoral studies.)
  2. The study leader should create a desire in the student to achieve success. There are many ways to motivate a student. (Story about the first chapter that I handed in for evaluation and the “bloodbath” feedback.)
  3. The study leader and the student should make the study process attractive and fun. (My study leader and I regularly met for breakfast.)
  4. Set the timeline against specific objectives to achieve before specific cut-off dates and manage it well.
  5. Arrange reading and discussion sessions – the study leader should become actively involved in the student’s work but must not do the work for him or her. The study leader must also know when to allow the student to fly solo. (Diligent students invariably reach a point where they know more about the research topic than the study leader.)
  6. The study leader should give guidance and support and must ensure that the student grows all the time.
  7. Communicate as often as is realistically possible.
  8. Students must accept responsibility for their own studies.
  9. Mutual respect and good leadership.
  10. Allow the students to decide when they are ready to be evaluated. The timetable is an important management tool but not cast in concrete.


In summary:

  1. Ph.D. students are adults and should be treated as such but also behave as such.
  2. The study leader may not do research or write any part of the research report for the student.
  3. The study leader and student need to cooperate and together accept responsibility for successfully completing the study project.
  4. If unavoidable it might become necessary for the student and study leader to sever their working relationship. The longer you take to take this radical step the more damage will it do to you and your study leader. Make sure that you know the policies and procedures of the university in this respect.
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