How to choose your PhD topic?

I received a request for advice from a student who got a chance to pursue her PhD in one of the top universities in the world. Her project is related to ethics. She asked me about which topic to choose and what to do about the research proposal she has to send. I gave her the following advice that may be relevant to others who are planning to start their PhD journey. [some edits were necessary to de-identify the student and to make it as generic as possible]

Thank you for sharing another good update from your side. As for the research proposal and the topic, here are some general tips then we can move to the selection of the topic. Ideally, following these tips, you will be able to choose them yourself.  

To write a proposal you need a topic/research question and a template. It is useful and more efficient to start with a template of the research centre or the funding agency. If you do not have one, search for it or use a generic template that you can simply ‘copy-n-paste’ to the template.

As for the topic, I will say what I said before. Start with your supervisor, not yourself. In other words, go to her uni. profile and her LinkedIn profile where she clearly states her areas of interest and work. Read through the websites and her recent publications and start from there. Highlight the main topics/themes/areas she is currently interested in and working on. From that list of themes, areas, topics, etc. choose 2 topics that are closest to the list of your interest or that you can work on comfortably. For each of these two topics, write the main research question for each.

Ideally, you should have two questions. A normative question (to simplify, this means a philosophical or theoretical question) and an empirical question. Make sure that your questions are relevant and applicable to both your local and the UK contexts. This will not be as hard as you might think. Most of the ethical questions are very relevant to a global context when they address a local context/question. As for the methods, you need to observe the methods commonly used by your potential supervisor. What are her ‘favourite’ methods? Eventually, you will need to integrate a qualitative project into your overall project or make it all qualitative, i.e. observation, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. The final call in the methods chosen is what your supervisor uses more often.  

If all relate to my supervisor, where am I, you might think?

Well, PhD is mostly a compromise between what you want and what you can do. The latter is mostly decided and guided by the supervisor. Almost anything else can be learnt by reading and attending the relevant courses.   Moreover, I believe that you can cope and live with the topics of her interest. You don’t have to impress her. Enough to make her feel that you can work together smoothly and produce something that makes you both proud.

This is a short video. Please remember to click CC for English subtitles.

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