Defining the research topic

Conceptualizing your research topic

Conceptualizing a research topic entails formulating a “defensible and researchable” research question. Conducting a literature search as one of the first steps in a graduate degree is often quite helpful as published peer-reviewed research articles are key to identify knowledge gaps in current literature. Thus, students can design and phrase their research projects to aim to address these research gaps.




Elements of a good research topic

  • Interesting: topic represents an area of deep interest for the researcher
  • Original: for PhD students, the topic can produce an original contribution to knowledge
  • Manageable: research question could be answered within the degree’s recommended time frame (see time limitation).

At McGill, PhD students are usually expected to have a sufficiently defined research topic by the time of the comprehensive exam.


Seminar presentations 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 want to find answers for?
  • Why is it important that this be researched?
  • What impact will this research have?
  • How will you go about researching this?

Read critically to identify gaps in the field and understand different research methods

Critical reading involves developing an understanding of the knowledge and gaps in the field and being able to critique different research methods, methodologies and epistemologies.

Try concept mapping to visualize and organize links between ideas

Concept mapping: a practical strategy for students and researchers starting a project. It helps to identify areas of importance as well as possibilities for the exploration and analysis of such areas.

Concept maps are helpful as a means of focusing discussion on the topic or research question because they offer a visual approach to creating relationships among concepts. More information about concept mapping can be found at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition's page on Constructing your first concept map.

If the student makes a concept map, this can form the basis of different discussions between the student and supervisor.

How important is motivation for topic selection?

Most graduate students have 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 most students will commit to for the rest of their degree.


Point 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 more motivated 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 Staying motivated for additional resources


Steps to refine the research focus

  1. Identify the boundaries of the research areas and the gaps in the field.
  2. Make a list of possible research ideas within a topic.
  3. Discuss these ideas with others (e.g., peers, colleagues, professors, mentors). This can provide opportunities for receiving advice based on past experiences, additional ideas, or opportunities for collaboration.
  4. Reduce the list to two ideas: 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.
  5. Brainstorm as many ideas, questions, possible problems, and any other thoughts relevant to the first choice.
  6. 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…”
  7. 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.
  8. 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)



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

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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