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Selecting your research topic is the first step for a successful career

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Moustafa Gabr with a guest post about selecting your research topic. Dr. Gabr is a recent PhD graduate in chemistry from University of Iowa. He completed his undergraduate studies in pharmaceutical sciences in Egypt. After earning his Master’s degree in medicinal chemistry in a joint program between Georgia State University and Mansoura University, he pursued a PhD in bioinorganic chemistry. Moustafa has more than 25 publications in medicinal chemistry and chemical biology. His ORCID is 0000-0001-9074-3331. Moustafa has a strong passion for utilizing chemistry tools to answer long-existing questions in biology. His Twitter account @gabr2003

There is no question that choosing research advisor is the most important decision graduate students make during their doctoral training. Now you have chosen an advisor who you think can provide a mentoring style and healthy environment that would lead to your success in graduate school. The step that you should be considering at this point is the selection of your research project. Since you have joined this specific research group, you are already interested in more than one line of research pursued in this group. Most likely, your advisor has given general guidelines for your proposed project as well as recommendations for specific start points. Now it’s on you to pursue your own research path which will start with selecting a research topic.

Let your reading in literature guide you. The more you read about relevant research problems and the proposed solutions for them, the more you are capable of proposing alternative solutions to the existing research questions as well as identifying new questions. In your first year, try to focus on literature relevant to your current research. However, reading in other research areas will be very helpful starting from your second year in graduate school.
Scientific progress is incremental. However, that doesn’t mean that it lacks innovation. You can start with trying to use previous findings from your group or other groups to find a novel connection or a new research direction.

Be realistic. There are many interesting research projects, however, you need to choose a project that is feasible. As an early graduate student, you have a heavy course load and numerous skills to develop. The last thing you want to add at this point is a project with limited feasibility based on research costs, time needed and required facilities. With the level of experience of a first year graduate, this information can be obtained by communicating with senior graduate students and your advisor.

Consider your career goals. Indeed the research project you are choosing now will affect your progress in graduate school. Importantly, this research will set the stage for your postdoctoral experience as well. Research projects that address questions related to broad-ranging problems are most likely to attract opportunities for you in both academia and industry. A trending research topic at the moment might be outdated research in the near future. When you are selecting your research topic, keep in mind that you should select a project that has the potential to be a hot topic in the next few years when you are in the job market.

Collaborative versus independent research. A main objective for you as a junior researcher is to be an independent thinker and build expertise in your field. However, seeking what current or potential collaborators can add to your research might be a pivotal factor in furthering your career motives and objectives.

Now you have your research topic: Write and talk. The first thing you want to do is to write your primary research question in one sentence. Summarize your proposed approach in few sentences. Putting your idea into words will develop clearer vision which fosters more ideas. Talk to peers about your proposed research and see if they are convinced with the significance of the research problem. Pay attention to their questions which can guide you to reorganize your thoughts.

Share with your peers!
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