ARTICLE 17: How to Find a Topic for Ph.D. or Master’s Degree Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


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 the doctoral or master’s degree level:

  1. Consider the research that you have 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, if it is a Ph. D. that you are conducting research for, 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 for interesting topics.

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.

Good keywords can save you lots of time and effort.

Keywords can generate new keywords.

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

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 dissertation or thesis 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. Formulate a purpose for your research.
  2. Develop a research problem, research question or hypothesis.
  3. Select keywords and use them to gather data.
  4. Focus the topic to make your research viable.
  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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