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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