I get this question a lot in your messages through Facebook, so I compiled some advice on how to select your research topic.
First, choose a topic that is interesting to you. It may seem obvious, but this will make the research process more fun and engaging for you, especially if you are undertaking a Doctoral degree which means that you will spend not between 3 and 12 months researching and writing about it (as would be the case if you were working on your master’s dissertation), but 3 to 5 years! I have said it many times before and will say it again – considering the amount of workload, stress and frustration that I experienced throughout the 3 years of working on my doctoral thesis, there is no way on earth that I would have completed it if I hadn’t been genuinely interested in what I was researching! I treated this whole process as a personal quest for answers to the questions I asked in my thesis, and this enabled me to move forward whenever I had any sort of doubts.
“OK”, I can hear you asking, “but how do I know what topic is interesting to me?”. Well, there are most likely some general topics within your field that attract your attention more than the others. So, within the field of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), for example, you may enjoy learning about Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories more than about Language Testing, or prefer reading about teaching speaking skills more than about teaching reading skills, and so on. To have this, no matter how vague or distant, idea about what you find more engaging to read/learn about within your field is, in fact, a very good starting point to continue researching the topic in order to narrow down the specific issues that you may want to research.
The next step is to read, and read, and read… Read academic articles on the topic that interests you. Use your university’s online library resources, or Google search engines if you are not a university student, to access all kinds of articles that relate to your area of interest. Start with broad searches – if you are looking for articles on “teaching speaking skills in English”, you can initially use this very phrase in your searches. In the process of reading, you are likely to become interested in more and more specific aspects of this topic. You may find, for example, that you find the methodology of task-based teaching interesting, particularly because in your own educational contexts you have never come across it. Therefore, you decide to read on “the use of task-based methodology for teaching speaking skills to [Chinese, Spanish, Russian, etc.] learners”, as you wonder whether it has ever been attempted and with what results. You can now both narrow down your searches by typing this kind of phrase next time you look for more articles to read, and use the reference list at the end of each article to find other relevant published work.
You can read books too, but I think that at this stage it is more time-efficient to focus on articles, as not only are they shorter and you can, therefore, read about more different issues within the topic, which are discussed by more authors who adopt different perspectives on it, but also academic articles usually tend to cite more sources, be more critical and more explicit about the existing gaps in knowledge.
To determine these gaps in research/knowledge, is an important step in developing a research topic that will not only be interesting to you, but also, potentially, to the wider audience. This does not mean that you absolutely have to find a topic that has never been researched before. Instead, this could be something that needs further research, the claims that need more evidence, etc. You will know about this not only by just reading these various articles that are now becoming increasingly focused on the issue of your interest and noticing certain patterns in them, but also by the authors’ explicitly stating that a given issue calls for further investigation. The sections of academic articles to be closely analysed in this regard are the Literature Review and Implications/Further Research/Conclusions sections. The Literature Review section will not only give you plenty of ideas about the existing discussions within the field and send you directly to the sources that may be of interest to you, but it will also outline the topics that are controversial and/or under-researched. The concluding sections, in turn, are almost certain to be very explicit about further research that needs to be carried out – and this is precisely what you were looking for, isn’t it?
How did you manage to select your research topic? Share your story in the comments!