PhD blog: Identifying a focus and staying on topic

By Carolyn Blackburn, PhD student, School of Education

Identifying a focus

One of the most challenging initial tasks a PhD student is faced with is identifying a topic to be studied that is sufficiently focused to be manageable and ‘doable’ but not so narrowly focused that it feels like a straight jacket and inhibits creative lines of inquiry. The focus can arise from personal interest, from work you’ve been involved in and are motivated to extend, from listening to experts in a particular field or from discussions with your supervisor.  Regardless of its origin, the focus must be justified by identifying gaps in the current literature so that you ensure contribution to new knowledge and avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’.  It’s crucial at this point to ensure you’ve really explored the relevant literature including original sources and keep-up-to-date with new and emerging research in the field.

Staying on-focus

Once a focus is identified, it’s a challenge to follow the multiple lines of inquiry necessary to systematically review the literature whilst at the same time not becoming distracted and diverted by areas of interest that are complimentary to your study, but nevertheless outside the scope of what you intended to study.  If you’re not careful it’s easy to write a whole literature review that neither aligns with your research aims, title or questions. Similarly when you collect data and analyse it, keep your research questions in mind. It’s easy at this stage to become distracted by something that would be really interesting…if you were doing an entirely different PhD.

Regular meetings with your supervisor will help with this, but I found it useful to keep talking about my research to diverse audiences.  Make sure you present at research cafes and other internal mechanisms for dissemination, but also try to talk about your research at external conferences. The more you talk about your work in relation to existing studies in the field, the more you can see any pitfalls with your chosen topic. In addition conference audiences can help to identify where you’ve strayed too far from your aims and questions in a supportive and collegial manner.

Once you’re confident about your topic and have presented at some informal research events, submitting your early thoughts to a journal in the form of a research paper is another effective way to get peer review and identify any deviation between your aims, questions, literature, methodology and findings.

Above all, enjoy the process of becoming an expert in your field.

British Science Festival events 2014

British Science Festival 2014 is now less than a month away and no matter what you’re interested in, there are plenty of fantastic events in store.

Birmingham City University are hosting four events at various venues throughout the week, here is a quick guide and booking details:

Birmingham: The Smarter, Greener, Science City

Wednesday 10 September, 14.00-20.00

Click on the image below for the full programme

Smart Green Flyer image_Page_2

Location: Millennium Point

An event showcasing local research and innovation around smarter and greener cities. There will be tours, talks and demonstrations throughout the day, with a keynote by Dr Rick Robinson, Executive Architect of Smart Cities, IBM.

There will also be a drinks reception, however spaces are limited for this so make sure you register.

Visit the Eventbrite page to for the full programme and to register.

Jewellery Design and Manufacturing Workshop

Saturday 6 September, 10.30-12.00, 13.00-14.30, 15.30-17.00

Location: School of Jewellery

Our experts at the School of Jewellery will show you how to create your own piece of jewellery. This event is open to families, book now on the British Science Festival website.

40 Years of Star Wars: Changes in Film Technology

Saturday 6 September, 11.00-12.00

Location: Lecture Theatre G15, Muirhead Tower, University of Birmingham

Kerry Gough of the School of Media and Mathew Randall of the School of Digital Media Technology will talk about the science of Star Wars across its past, present and future.

Booking required, book now on the British Science Festival website.

Zero Carbon House Birmingham: Sun, Light and Material

Thursday 11 September, 09.30-10.30

Designing Zero Carbon Buildings

Location: Parkside Building

Architect John Christophers will describe how natural light and pioneering low carbon building materials are combined to create an inspiring architecture responding to the new realities of climate change.

This is the keynote for the Zero Carbon Buildings Conference 2014, so limited free places are available. Those who register are eligible for the keynote only, not the full conference. For more information on the full conference visit the Conference website.

To register your free place for this keynote visit the Eventbrite page.


Research Events

Here are the latest research events from around the University. This page is updated on a regular basis.

British Science Festival events

The University has organised several events as part of the British Science Festival 2014. Click on an event for more information and to book your place.

6 September
Jewellery Design and Manufacturing Workshop, School of Jewellery
40 Years of Star Wars: Changes in Film Technology, University of Birmingham

10 September
Birmingham: The Smarter, Greener, Science City
, Millennium Point

11 September
Zero Carbon House Birmingham: Sun, Light and Material
, Parkside Campus

Art and Design

Thursday 11 & Friday 12 September: Zero Carbon Buildings Today and in the Future 2014, Parkside Building, City Centre Campus. Includes a technical visit to the Birmingham Zero Carbon House on 13 September.


The research seminar series has concluded for this academic year. Check the School of English pages for information on upcoming events.

bcuBusiness, Law and Social Sciences

Email Louise Brand if you’re interested in attending research events in BLSS. Research staff and students from all faculties are welcome.

23 October: Cyberbullying in Post-16 contexts, 16.30-17.30, Attwood Building, City North Campus


4-7 September: Jazz Beyond Borders Conference (part of the Rhythm Changes Project). Amsterdam.

18-19 September: Creative Citizens Conference, Royal College of Art, London.

More information and the latest events from the Birmingham Centre for Media and Culture Research are also posted on their eventbrite page.

Computing, Engineering and Built Environment

Email Ian McDonald if you are interested in attending CEBE’s research events. Research staff and students from all faculties are welcome.

More events to be confirmed – venues and times may be subject to change. All changes will be communicated on Twitter @myBCUResearch