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Q&A: How To Narrow Down Your Research Topic

Q&A: How to narrow down your research topic

Some time ago, I received the following question (edited for anonymity):

I am an aspiring PHD student and i want to know how i can narrow down my research topic. it has various aspects to it. i am confused on how to choose the correct attributes and aspects for my research.

Here’s my quick answer to the question:

Dear X,

Thanks for reaching out to me through my blog.

To answer your question, please check first this post written by Dr. Helen Kara – I think it addresses a fair number of your doubts.
Her books on this topic are very helpful as well.

Let me know if you have further questions.


To provide a bit more depth to this answer, I have listed here five ideas to help you narrow down your research topic:

  1. Identify the gap in the literature: Defining a research question is not an activity you can carry out in a vacuum. You need to have a good grasp of the literature, and the gap worth studying, from your literature review.
  2. Mindmap your field: If you are confused by the number of aspects that play a role, you can try to visualize your field and the different attributes by making a mindmap. Identify the areas that require further research in this mindmap as well as the areas that are already well-established.
  3. Specify available methods: If you have an idea of a research question, ask yourself which tools and methods you have available at your university and in your lab to answer the research question. For example, if you find a topic that would require experimental work, but have no lab access, then this topic may not be a good fit, and instead you could look for an approach that can be addressed analytically.
  4. Look at what you find interesting: When you have a number of possible angles you could take within the same field, ask yourself which you find most interesting and exciting, and why. Thinking in this way can help you identify would be the best fit in terms of research for you personally.
  5. Discuss with your supervisor: As always, when you have a few ideas, have done your reading, and have thought about potential methods, discuss your ideas with your supervisor for input and further guidance. Don’t suffer in silence until you have the perfect research question.

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