PhD Topic – How To Choose The Perfect PhD Research Topic
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” – W.B Yeats
Education has been the core of human existence, evolution, and survival. The process of transferring information, skills and receiving it is basic education, a teaching and learning process. From ancient times humans have been teaching its descendants the knowledge it gained, the skills and many more for survival. Presently, the system has changed the form with some focusing on learning through reading writing- theoretical, some with practical and hands-on and others spiritual. Lately, people are moving away from conventional education and looking for other ways of learning like observing nature, traveling, etc.
The conventional education system started with basic reading and writing, learning mathematics, sciences, etc. It gradually developed into several levels starting from pre-school to DS. Each of them has a specific curriculum to be followed to impart a specific amount of knowledge to the individual. These set patterns, subject areas and detailing, etc. varies depending on the country, society and economic status. At the lower stages education is fixed curriculum-based, but as one goes for higher education like PhD it becomes curriculum independent, where the study is based on research, observation, and analysis. This independent style of education is not taken up everyone, very few opt for. On serious contemplation the reason behind it can be attributed to the risks, the uncertainty involved and lack of any fixed direction or path. So, research-based education could be difficult but proper approach and planning can help one to overcome the adversities and gain pleasure in this learning process.
Literally, Ph.D. is an acronym for Doctor of Philosophy. In terms of academics, it is considered the highest level of educational degree after masters in a subject area. Worldwide, it is recognized as a Postgraduate degree awarded by universities, government agencies or certain educational institutes and at times in collaborations with industries. Award of the degree requires purely dedicated, exhaustive and original research in the chosen subject area unraveling some unique knowledge, discovery, inventions or outcome in the chosen subject area, acceptance of the same in the form of research articles, patents or technology transfers and further submission of a detailed thesis or dissertation based on it.
So, PhD as such has no fixed curriculum or set pattern of studies. Here one has to design the entire curriculum by oneself, right from choosing the lab, subject area, the topic for PhD, setting objectives, designing experiments, validating them, acquiring, organizing and analyzing the results, designing and writing reports, articles to present the findings to the scientific fraternity, and defend it. All these steps one can expect some guidance from the Principal Investigator, but major work and thinking must be independently done.
Being a research-based degree, PhD requires years of dedicated research. Typically for full-time study it can take a minimum of 3-6 years and for part-time study it may extend for more duration. Students interested in this field of study should be prepared to spend the majority of their time in the lab and research, handling multiple projects at a time, writing papers, posters, attending conferences and even teaching and guiding bachelor/masters project students. These all activities are part of PhD curricula envisioned as training for future either in research or academics.
PhD Subject Areas and Institutes
One can pursue PhD in almost any and diverse subject areas viz. Biological Sciences, Biotechnology, Bioinformatics, Chemistry, Chemical engineering, Food Science, Forensic science, Intellectual Property Rights, Biomedical Engineering, Medicine and Medicinal Technology, Pharmacology, and Pharmacy, etc. There many more such subject areas, some are common, and some are rare.
Ph.D scholars are one of the work forces of any research or academic institute. So, many institutes both national and international offer Ph.D degree in their academics. Ph.D course are offered by various central and state level universities. Even one can also look for private and Deemed to be universities. Apart from these the ingenious candidates can also apply in institutes of national importance – Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), National Institutes of Technology (NIT), Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMs), National Institutes of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPERs), and CISR/ICMR/ICAR institutes. Those interested to go abroad can look for foreign universities and research centers.
The minimum eligibility for PhD in most institutes is having a Master level degree or honors degree that also first class. Apart from this, applicants with an individual fellowship like CSIR/UGC NET fellowship are preferred. There are several categories within the PhD program in the Institute, like with institute assistantship or individual fellowship (CSIR/UGC NET) or through sponsored research projects. Additional requirements include the Valid GATE Score or Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) of CSIR/UGC/NBHM/DBT/ICAR/ICMR/ICPR or DST INSPIRE Fellowship.
Along with these basic requirements, candidates need to fulfill many other criteria, specifically for foreign universities and institutes. One must give proof of language proficiency in the intended language of research in the form of GRE scores, IELTS score or TOEFL score. Academic and employment references are equally required. Institutes offering PhD may ask for 2 to 3 referees who knew the candidate during their earlier academic degree like Professors/teachers or maybe the former employer. Most of the institutes both national and international also ask for a personal statement giving details about the applicant- the reason for doing PhD, why only passionate about a subject area, etc. – and research proposal. Based on all the above aspects and the candidate’s performance in written tests and interviews conducted by the institute selection is done by the concerned authority.
The curriculum starts with registration according to the institute norms and for self-sponsored candidates with fellowship requires activation of fellowship by the funding agency. This is followed by allotment of Supervisor and most of the cases complete information about the available supervisors and there are of expertise is shared with the candidates and based on that they can choose. But, this may not be mandatory, it might differ among individual institutes.
Often after this, a Doctoral Scrutiny Committee is created to monitor the academic progress of the candidate. Completing a course work of a specific credit score is the next step. Followed by this or might be simultaneous with the course-work candidate is required to select a research topic and start working on it with time to time review in form of presentations and report submission before the Doctoral Scrutiny Committee and the funding agency. PhD degree is awarded on the basis of satisfactory performance of a registered candidate as per the institute rules like submission of a thesis, having a specific number of publications and clearing PhD Viva-voce.
PhD Topic Selection
The most crucial part of PhD is topic selection. A research topic can be in the field of fundamental studies or in the application. It entirely depends on the interest and temperament of a candidate. Only interest with no groundwork could be fatal for PhD career, hence it is important to develop a strategy and work on it diligently while choosing a Ph.D topic.
The following steps might help a candidate to identify the appropriate topic.
1. Take time to decide:
First, a candidate should devote an ample amount of time in contemplating the decision of pursuing PhD. The usual duration for PhD completion is a minimum of 3-6 years. So, it is important to fully understand the process, the amount of time and effort to be invested in it, also think of other possible career alternatives and getting advice from people experienced in the field before committing to Ph.D. It advisable to never rush into a Ph.D. One can talk to professionals in the research field, prospective guides and even candidates pursuing PhD and do some amount of researching on the current and future trends.
2. Strike a balance between passion and practicality:
Choosing a topic in the area of interest is essential specifically when one is supposed to work on it for the long term not only during PhD often it may become a part of the future career. So, better than blindly following someone or allowing others to make a choice for you, one must be proactive in this matter. A topic should not only be of one’s interest even should be practical. Already much of research might have been done the area of interest, so coming up with something new might be challenging. One can search for a project with clear objectives that can generate unique outcomes and could be completed in the stipulated time assigned for Ph.D.
3. Background Research:
After identifying the area of interest, the next step is to look for an existing knowledge or technological gap in the area, or an existing problem which hasn’t been addressed so far. This step is known as defining PhD problem. This requires a lot of background research in the area of interest. One needs to follow the past and present research going on in the field, read a lot of dissertations, reviews, research articles and attend conferences to understand the scopes and risks.
At the initial stages it is better to be flexible and try to consider several ideas, focusing on a key central research problem. Fixing one topic may not be very wise as most of the cases as research progresses the is bound to have deviations in the research problem. A good researcher expects to have unexpected outcomes, hence important to be flexible, open to new ideas and accordingly adapt. Maybe one can start with a key central topic but keep considering variations in it as research progresses with the goal of solving the research problem.
Checking the feasibility of the selected topic is again essential. Taking up a big, impractical and over-ambitious topic may end up badly. It is important to check the feasibility by taking stock of available resources and facilities in the concerned lab and institute, where one plans to do research. Whether one will get all that is needed to carry out the research in the same place or needs to travel or visit other institutes. If one must often spend time in travelling or visiting other labs to get some of the research work done, then it will unnecessarily take up a lot of time and energy. Here the prospective Guide can help. So, talking to Guide/PI and understanding the research trend in the lab and the available facilities could ease up the topic selection process.
Pursuing a regular PhD is full-time, long term commitment and requires planning, determination, creativity, flexibility, diligence, practicality, and positive spirit. An ideal amalgamation of passion and pragmatism makes the research encouraging and useful. Fostering ill-planned, over-ambitious and unrealistic research could be disastrous. Choosing the research topic is the most essential step which needs a lot of groundwork and planning. Equally, it is essential to have some idea about recent research, the research gaps and defined problems in the respective fields. A topic needs to be original and of practical importance with the potential to solve a knowledge gap or generate a solution to impending problems. And the utmost importance should be given to the feasibility of the research topic.