Eight Things Effective Students Always Do When Choosing a Research Topic

Sept. 20, 2020, 6:30 a.m.

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When required to do a student research project or a thesis it is very common for student's to face an immediate road block. In some cases, the student quickly creates a multitude or research topics, and it can be very difficult to select the best. In other cases, there is an instant "writer's block" and the student is unable to come up with any ideas. Faced with the scholastic pressures and deadlines it is very common for the student to feel completely overwhelmed.

It is certainly true that selecting the right topic is likely the most important decision in developing a research project or thesis. In addition, choosing the wrong topic can have disastrous consequences later on: often leading to wasted time and an unpublishable product. Luckily, there are some tried-and-true ways to choose a research topic that can give you a huge head start on your thesis.

What do the most effective students do when choosing a research topic? Follow these eight steps to choose a great research topic.

1. Chase a Problem

Chasing a problem is the best way to keep your research focused and relevant. It also gives the best chance of producing meaningful (and publishable) findings.

Unfortunately, many students start too early to study a solution without thinking about the problem. Even when these studies lead to significant findings, if they are not addressing a problem, very few people will be interested. As a very famous inventor once said: "There are plenty of good ideas out there, almost too many. What is really hard to find is a good problem."(From: The Idea Factory, Bell Labs and the great age of American Innovation).

How do you ensure you are chasing a good problem? When I am working with a student and helping them develop a project, I often ask: "What are you trying to prove?" Asking yourself "What am I trying to prove?" is the first step to ensuring you are chasing a problem. Next, try looking around at recent publications in the field. Look at some conference abstracts. See what experts in the field are talking about on Twitter. Ask your advisor to help you narrow the problem to a very specific focus. Spending some extra time here can save hours of work down the road.

Successful Students Chase a Problem
Successful Students Chase a Problem

2. Think About the Audience

Effective students think early on about whom the audience will be for their findings. Knowing the audience will often frame the required methodology and the format of the results.

Designing a study without knowing the audience is a very ineffective way to do research. For instance, the level of evidence required to convince clinicians to try a new cancer chemotherapy will be very different from the level of evidence needed to convince a teacher to try a new teaching technique. Failing to prepare for that difference can lead to either over or under-investigation of the problem.

How do you decide on the target audience? Consider the problem you are addressing. Who has this problem? What information would they want to know about the problem or your solution? How can you reach that audience? Once you have answered these questions, the audience is usually obvious.

3. Do a Background Check

Cautious students do a careful background check of their topic before diving in. Often they will ask experts in the field and get professional help to do a library search.

Failing to do a background check can result in several bad outcomes for the researcher. It is common for beginning researchers to see a great idea and dive in head first only to find that the problem has already been solved. Even if the research is significant, nobody is interested in another idea about the same problem. Conversely, when there is no background literature to support your idea, it is very hard to convince anyone that it could be true.

How do you do a good background check? Start by asking experts in the field. Do a literature search on the topic. If you can, get help from your librarian to perform a high-quality search.

4. Leverage Their Other Abilities

When you are student diving into a research field, you often feel like you are starting at the bottom. Your research paper will often be judged against the standards set by experts in the field who may have spent year and years researching the topic. How can you make yourself stand out? Leverage your other talents.

When I serve on a thesis advisory panel it pains me to see student researchers dive into a new topic and field without considering what special skills they bring to the table. I often ask the student about their background and skills, and try to guide them to a topic that uses that skill-set.

What special skills do you bring that are unique in the field? Are you a nurse who is also a computer programmer? An engineer who has a background in history? Looking for areas where your interests intersect is a great way to differentiate yourself from other researchers.

5. Think With Their Career in Mind

Successful students keep their research career in mind when choosing a topic. Frequently, the question they want to solve becomes more complex and requires continuing research. Students who carefully considered their research topic often develop their topic into a lifelong research pursuit and became experts in the field. These students see their research topic or thesis as a stepping stone to a future career rather than simply a hoop to jump through.

When I was a medical student I noticed that the most effective students chose research projects that involved key faculty in the department they wanted to target for residency. Rather than simply doing the research project "because I had to" they saw this as an opportunity to network with staff in the correct department and get exposure to other researchers in the field.

How do you think with your career in mind? Think about why you are taking the program. What drew you to this program, and where do you see your career going? If you are targeting a specific job or a specific site, look for a research topic that will make you a top job candidate.

Career Researcher
Thinking With Career in Mind

6. Start Early

Smart students start their projects early. They realize that initial delays in the project are very common, and they plan accordingly.

As a research advisor I have seen innumerable great projects that were abandoned by their researchers due to time constraints. Several areas seem to be common hangups for student projects. Ethical approval for projects usually takes far more time than expected. Ethics boards can be slow, on holidays, or demand multiple revisions of the study protocol. Researchers also often fail to account for the fact that just being able to see the data does not mean you have permission to use it for research. I have seen several student research projects that simply could not be performed in a timely manner as the logistics to obtain permission to view the data was just too slow. Failure to start early often meant rethinking the entire project - sometimes choosing an entirely new topic or study plan. Often this was done with a deadline looming - putting unwanted pressure on the student.

How do you plan for the worst-case scenario? Get in touch with your advisor early. Decide on a topic early. Start the ethics review process and requests to obtain the data as soon as you can. Ask your advisor: "what do I need to do right away to ensure the project can be completed?"

7. Ask For Help

Effective students ask for help. Early and often.

As a statistician, I commonly see this failure to ask for help during the data analysis phase. Too often the advisor thinks the student "has it all under control" and the student thinks the same. I have seen many students plow ahead with their statistical analysis following YouTube advice on how to do a t-test using Excel, only to find out at the final thesis review that the t-test was not the correct statistical test. Needing to redo an analysis and rewrite a thesis is never fun, especially when it could have been avoided simply by asking for help.

Remember that your thesis advisor or research supervisor is there to guide you. Ask questions. Before making any important decisions about your project: the topic, the survey tool, the statistical analysis, or the target journal, touch base with your advisor. Remember that small mistakes can lead to huge problems so don't be afraid to reach out to other experts in the field if you need additional advice.

8. Chase a Passion

Effective students know that they will be dedicating hours and hours of their time to the project and choose a topic for which they are passionate.

I have seen friends, colleagues, and students fail to obtain their degrees simply because they could not finish a thesis. Most student researchers are very busy with other tasks: other courses, jobs, or family. Often these students find it hard to keep a commitment to their research, particularly if they see their research simply as another step in their academic plan. Conversely, those who chase a passion seem to fare much better, often becoming experts, advocates, and social media influencers.

Ask yourself: "Can I really see myself dedicating hundreds of hours of my time to this topic?" Do I have the passion to make this topic a focus of my career? If the answer is no, try to focus more on something you are passionate about. Talk to your supervisor if you find yourself in this situation: most supervisors are passionate about their work, and most will understand that you too are looking for the same passion.

Becoming an Effective Student

What does it take to become an effective student? When I asked Joost Bierens, thesis coordinator for the European Master in Disaster Medicine this question he stated very succinctly: "The bottom line is that the student is curious, interested, and intelligent enough to find the answer raised and has a willingness to focus and prioritize research for the time of the study." Are you ready to become an effective student and ace your research project or thesis? Check out our effective student infographic.

By Jeffrey Franc

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