Defining the research topic

So, well, after the application and acceptance process ...my supervisor and I set up the project guidelines, how it is going to be, what it is going to be roughly about. First of all, the reason I applied for this particular programme is because I knew there had already been a DPhil student who had just finished, and I knew what he was working on. I liked his project. And my supervisor was happy that I was keen on keeping that going and...and so it moved on from there. So, we set his DPhil as the background story, basically, and then we start from there. (Doctoral student, STEM)

The Education Committee's Policy on Research Degrees suggests that supervisors and students work to establish a clear project proposal by the end of the first term. This is particularly important given the expectation for transfer within four terms. Oxford students early on expressed the desire for help from their supervisors in this regard. For instance, James reported his supervisor "helped me narrow down my area of interest to a project ...something realistic and manageable in three years." Achieving this provides a focus for preparing for transfer within expected deadlines. While the ways in which the research focus is agreed varies to some extent as regards disciplinary practices and institutional expectations, students' backgrounds as well as personal motivations play a role.

Here a supervisor describes how he helps students define the topic including students coming from a different cultural background:

Making clear that the expectation [to define a topic] is the first step; that's particularly true if you have students from all sorts of different cultural and academic backgrounds, where these kind of expectations might not be there ...what has happened to me in quite a few cases ...is ...when [topics] are suggested by the student, they really don't fulfil some of these criteria ... I encourage them to keep on going if some topics don't fulfil the criteria, show them good examples obviously, discuss good examples, encourage them to have a look at related literature, the limitations and potentials of studies that they find in research reports. If that doesn't work, with ...people ...who have not been brought up in a similar research tradition, it's sending them back to their own ...cultural background [to] look at what kind of research is valuable in their background - what are the big professors back in Japan researching about, and why are they researching these topics, and do they fulfil these criteria. In most cases, they do, and that's more convincing than you telling them about this brilliant research in this country and so on. (New supervisor, Social Sciences)

Not to be forgotten is that a student may feel a personal commitment to their topic, which is hard to give up, but will lead to delay. For instance:

Acme's father developed Alzheimer's and she wanted to honour her father by taking up his field of research. Her supervisor discouraged her from switching topics because it would delay her progress, but this created emotional turmoil for Acme. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

What do you think the doctoral process consists of? Here is one supervisor's view. Would you agree?

Becoming an independent researcher involves the ability to choose a topic on which to research, and that means choosing something which is both relevant and do-able within the timeframe set aside. The topic itself is intrinsically important, it should not have already been solved ...it can be solved, or you should have at least a conjecture that you could solve it, or make an interesting, novel contribution ...do-able within 3 years. (Experienced supervisor, MPLS)

Supervisor ideas - Points to reflect on or discuss with colleagues

How can you help a student find the balance between identifying a topic that gives them the 'passion' to keep going but that is also manageable in the limited time of the doctorate?

To what extent are you prepared to allow your students to 'canvass widely' before trying to narrow their thinking on the topic?

How does the process of setting a research topic vary according to whether you and your students are focused on the DPhil as a process (i.e. preparing an independent researcher) or a product (i.e. producing a thesis)?

Student strategies - An early seminar presentation

Many experienced supervisors, and successful DPhil students, suggest that preparing a research proposal for presentation at a seminar within six months of commencement helps with focusing on the topic. Suggested questions include:

  • What is it that you are researching?
  • Why is it important that this be researched? (The perennial 'So What?' question!)
  • How will you go about researching this?

Concept mapping

Concept maps have been found to be helpful as a means of focusing discussion on the topic or research question. If the student makes a concept map, this can form the basis of different discussions between the student, supervisor and also other interested individuals. See Constructing a concept map for a simple procedure to follow.

Critical reading

Not to be overlooked is critical reading: developing an understanding of the field and being able to critique different research methods, methodologies and epistemologies, as this supervisor elaborates:

The judicious choice of a problem ...means that somebody understands enough of the literature, and therefore can critically deconstruct research literature, to understand how to place a particular research topic within the body of extant knowledge from the literature and from conferences. I think that is incredibly important and that's why every week we have a laboratory reading group, which I run here, and which attempts to teach people how to read... read in science. (Experienced supervisor, MPLS)

Although the relative responsibility of supervisors and students for determining the research topic varies between disciplines, experienced supervisors across all disciplines highlight the need for significant time and effort from the supervisor at the beginning of a DPhil studentship to assist students in establishing their topic/ problem/ question. This was also seen to apply to students who began with a project either for which they had been selected and funded, or which was given by their supervisor. Clear formulation of the problem/ topic/ question is seen as essential to a successful outcome, because it encourages focus and engagement. The problems that can arise if this process is not successful are particularly evident in unnecessarily lengthy studentships.

Furthermore, current pressures for timely completions can make the need for both the focus and ownership of DPhil research topics more problematic. For this reason, the selection of a topic and a project plan that sets appropriate boundaries on the programme of study is of equal importance. Such a plan can avoid problems and ensure in advance that the necessary resources will be forthcoming. It can also assist in ensuring that there is sufficient scope/challenge for the research education programme. There is a continuum, as some scientists say, from high risk 'death or glory' projects to 'stamp collecting', which at its worst can involve replication of techniques in a new area.

Wisker (2005, p83) suggests the following stages in helping students to conceptualise their research focus:

  1. Write a title and subtitle to focus the research area and the topic.
  2. Identify the boundaries of the research areas and the gaps in the field by asking these questions:
    • Who are the main theorists in the field? Are their theories/ ideas/ hypotheses different? Why?
    • Which theories/ theorists will students use to back their project, and why?

Concept mapping has been found to be a useful tool for refining research projects as it offers a visual approach to creating relationships among concepts; if you wish to know more about the origins of this approach, see Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How To Construct Them by Joseph D. Novak, Cornell University.

Also, ensuring that the student has many opportunities to talk with peers and to present their thinking informally in the early stages helps many to clarify their topic.

The above text is based on:

Amundsen, C., Weston , C., & McAlpine, L. (2008) Concept Mapping to Support Professors' Analysis of Course Content.Studies in Higher Education, 33, 5, 633-652.

Wisker, G. (2005). The good supervisor: Supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.