Cross-Eyed PhD: Tip 4- The Research Topic

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“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,


The challenge of the research topic…

Quite a few of us will be buffeted by different interests in our process of defining the research topic.

Actually, the trick to getting the right answers is to ask the right question. Easy? Surprisingly- a lot of us will not find it easy to ask the right question -at least not intuitively!  I have been observing a number of PhD aspirants struggle with this. I guess there are the following type in each batch:

a. I will manage my research with a strong literature review/ qualitative thesis.

b. I will study the market for a widget!

c. I am a specialist in xyz – I will start my research and I will find my topic…

The issue which each of these aspirants face is this:

a. Today most Universities acknowledge that a good quality PhD research must be having an epistemological foundation that is empirically positive and objective (refer the first two paras of tip 2). This means that you need to rise beyond theory and give a conclusive evidence of your research answer – and yes, therefore, you do need to have an appropriate set of research questions.

b. Knowing of a market, or a market sizing is still not research.  What do you mean by’ study a market’? Is it the end-consumer behavior? Or is it a channel study? My University guide gently asked me to define my target audience more clearly. This also helped in helping identify a potential research gap – there was really no prior work in the Indian context – in fact ,no prior work in many key solar markets.  You need to build on the academic rigor driving your research. (For reference, my research topic was “Study of factors of purchase intent of the Indian residential roof-top solar (prospective) buyers”).

c. Actually, my University expected me to submit a proposed research synopsis at the end of the foundation phase. Actually, there is no such thing as ‘start my research and find my research topic …”

How do you really hit on the right research topic?

  1. Frankly, my guides were very open to my selection of the research topic.  Let me also qualify by saying that I did select my external guide in the field of energy studies which was the common interest area for us!
  2. And you do the initial spade work of a literature review to understand what is the prior research work in the selected area. It will start enabling you on potential research gaps, the way the prior researchers framed their questions. potential options for creating your research model – and shaping your research topic.
  3. You will also get a good insight by discussions with industry and academic leaders on potential queries and knowledge gaps.

By and large, be clear that you must ideally visualize a clear dependable variable and some of the possible independent variables that could shape the outcomes. Of course, as you deep dive into a subsequent literature review you are likely to uncover a lot more variables…but the objective is to start with a problem statement that clearly shapes out empirically!

Of course, this does not mean that all research is only quantitative. You do have qualitative research – in fact, you will likely do some research papers leveraging your literature review which will primarily be a qualitative analysis of prior work that identifies potential research gaps.

However, it is strongly advised that you consult your university guide’s perspective on what is the accepted standard for a research paper in your University. If research is creating new knowledge, then you must be aligned on what is ‘knowledge’!

Fact is – there is no short-cut. You just have to research your ideas! A well defined research topic is half your PhD battle won!

Here are some thoughts to shape your journey!

…and so you must understand what is prior knowledge & what is an acceptable ‘new knowledge’ (vs a hunch/educated guess)…