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Defining the research topic

Try concept mapping to visualize and organize links between ideas

Concept mapping is one of the practical strategies for students or other researchers starting a project. It provides focus and helps to identify areas of importance as well as possibilities for the exploration and analysis of such areas. In the beginning, researchers often need to set manageable limits on their work even as they identify areas for future research.


A good research topic should be something that one is deeply interested in, is scientifically original and significant, and is manageable within the graduate studies time frame (i.e. the time limitation defined by Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies). At McGill, PhD students are usually expected to have a sufficiently defined research topic by the time of the comprehensive exam.

A concept map showing the main components of a concept map, from Novak & Canas (2008). (Click on the map for larger view)

What is concept mapping?

Concept maps, as shown in the above image, have been found to be helpful as a means of focusing discussion on the topic or research question because they offer a visual approach to creating relationships among concepts. If the student makes a concept map, this can form the basis of different discussions between the student, supervisor and also other interested individuals.

More information about concept mapping can be found at the following links.

In addition to concept mapping, an early seminar presentation can help with topic definition and project planning

Many experienced supervisors and successful PhD students suggest that preparing a research proposal for presentation at a seminar within six months of commencement helps with focusing on the topic. Here are some suggested questions.

  • 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?

Critical reading is important during the topic definition process

Not to be overlooked in the topic definition process is critical reading: developing an understanding of the knowledge and gaps in the field and being able to critique different research methods, methodologies and epistemologies, as this supervisor from the UK 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 ... in science. (University of Oxford, 2016)

See the Reading and writing page for more information.

How important is motivation for topic selection?

Clearly defined research topics and expectations can provide motivation for many researchers. However, a highly defined topic can negatively affect not only the excitement that is one of the rewards of scholarship, but also the ability to adapt quickly if the topic definition changes as new knowledge is created. This is one of the many "balancing acts" that researchers should strive to accomplish over time.


Most graduate students, once admitted, are expected to have at least a general idea about what they would like to research. Depending on supervisors and disciplines, a student may be "given" a specific research topic or a list of topics to choose from, or be asked to generate a topic based on her or his prior knowledge and experience. In either situation, it is a good idea to talk with others – supervisors, students, colleagues, peers, even friends and family – about possible choices, since a research topic is something students will commit to for the next few years of their life; and for some, probably for their entire academic career.

According to this student, having a clear idea about one’s research topic helps to preserve motivation for doctoral study, which is crucial for success:

When I was beginning … I spent many days not being sure what I wanted to do … because my supervisor is pretty hands-off so I had a lot of freedom and after I was done with my courses … I kept not being sure what was the best direction to go in and … that led to some days when … I wasn’t very motivated about anything. … Now I am more motivated about what I am doing. … It is partly because I know exactly what I’m doing and I want to get it done because … I have a clear picture in my head what can come out of it. (STEM PhD student: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

For supervisors: Points to reflect on

  • How can you help supervisees 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 graduate degree?

  • 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 see the degree as a process (i.e., preparing an independent researcher) or as a product (i.e., producing a thesis)?

For supervisees: Points to reflect on

  • What questions, topics or methodologies are you passionate about? Why are you passionate about them (e.g., personal interest or curiosity, potential applications to help others or the environment)?

  • Is it possible to answer your desired question within the time frame of a graduate degree? If not, is it possible to choose a portion of this topic to investigate during your graduate studies?

  • Do you get motivation more from knowing exactly what you’re going to do, or from the excitement of unexpected discoveries or research trajectories? How can you select a topic and plan your project to better suit your sources of motivation?


See also the Purposes of the graduate degree and Staying motivated pages.

Clear formulation of the topic or question can increase focus and engagement

Supervisors should devote a lot of time early in a supervisee's research to helping define the research topic, regardless of whether a new project is being created or the student was given a project. A lack of definition or focus can unnecessarily increase the length of the degree. Supervisees should be cautious, however, about producing research that is so carefully defined in advance that there is little scope or challenge. Some risk can improve the outcomes (Department of Employment, Education and Training, 1994).


Comic courtesy of “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com


The selection of a topic and a project plan that sets appropriate boundaries on the program of study are important in order to ensure in advance that the time limitation policy is followed and the necessary resources will be forthcoming. It can also assist in ensuring that there is sufficient scope and challenge for the research education program. 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.

Suggested steps to conceptualise the research focus are listed below.

  1. Make a list of all possible topics.
  2. Discuss these topics with as many others- peers, colleagues, professors, mentors- as possible. This can provide opportunities for receiving advice based on past experiences, additional ideas, or opportunities for collaboration.
  3. Reduce the list to two topics: a first choice and a backup. Having a backup is useful in the event that the first choice is found to be inappropriate for the time restriction, require unattainable resources, or be otherwise not feasible.
  4. Brainstorm as many ideas, questions, possible problems, and any other thoughts relevant to the first choice. Consider using a concept map (see the practical advice tab).
  5. Narrow down these ideas into a more precise focus by considering feasibility (e.g., time, requires resources), interest, and significance. The resulting idea should complete the sentence “The purpose of this project is…”
  6. Refer back to the brainstorming, and remove anything not relevant to the purpose statement. Add any new relevant ideas. Use these ideas as well as the purpose statement to create a list of researchable questions. Be sure to define key terms and consider required resources, including the characteristics of the participants if applicable.
  7. Write a title and subtitle.
  8. Identify the boundaries of the research areas and the gaps in the field by asking these questions:
    1. Who are the main theorists in the field? Are their theories/ ideas/ hypotheses different? Why?
    2. Which theories/ theorists will be used to back the project, and why?
  9. Create a project outline. Consider what information or data will be needed and how it can be obtained.

Adapted from Wisker (2005, p. 83) and Bell & Waters (2014)



Australia. Department of Employment, Education and Training. (1994). Establishing effective PhD supervision. By D. Cullen, M. Pearson, L.J. Saha, & R.H. Spear.  Australian Government Publishing Service.

Bell, J., & Waters, S. (2014). Doing your research project: A guide for first-time researchers. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct and use them. Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. Retrieved from http://cmap.ihmc.us/docs/theory-of-concept-maps

University of Oxford, (2016). Research supervision: Defining the research topic. Retrieved from http://supervision.learning.ox.ac.uk/topic

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

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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