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.