Picking an area of research for your dissertation or doc project does not need to be overwhelming if you answer three questions and complete a simple exercise.
Want to follow along with the worksheet? Get it here: https://www.expandyourhappy.com/Research-Area-Worksheet
Exercise for clarity (do this for each general research area you listed in #3 above)
Listen to episode #29: Leverage Your Librarian (https://www.buzzsprout.com/1547113/8431136) and then get into your university library. Locate and read at least 7 articles (you will likely need to scan 2-4 times that amount to land on a solid 7 articles).
After reading 7 articles, you should have a pretty good idea as to whether or not you are onto something in terms of a GENERAL research area (or areas).
Your next step is to listen to episode #14: The Best Dissertation is a DONE Dissertation (link below) and then meet with a faculty member to discuss your thoughts.
The Doctoral Process: Things You Need to Know (that they probably won't tell you): https://www.expandyourhappy.com/HDSP121
The Best Dissertation is a DONE Dissertation:
Applied vs. PhD Degrees (what is the difference?):
Reality Check: Is a Doc Program for You?
Leverage Your Librarian:
Free Reference Software:
Pick up your Happy Doc Student Swag here:
Order merchandise here:
Use code: HAPPYDOC15
You're just coming up with a general area to get you going and moving you towards your doctoral project or your dissertation. You're listening to the Happy Doc Student Podcast, a podcast dedicated to providing clarity to the often mysterious doctoral process. Do you feel like you're losing your mind? Let me and my guests show you how to put more joy in your journey and graduate with your sanity, health and relationships intact. I'm your host, Dr. Heather and this is episode 44. In this episode, I'm going to walk you through three questions and an exercise that will help you pick a general research topic area. Now, this episode is directed toward doctoral students who are looking to develop something for their capstone project, either their dissertation or doctoral project, but certainly the questions and the exercise would work for things like a master's thesis, a senior thesis, or even research paper in a course. The catalyst for this episode was the fact that student after student would come to me when I was teaching residencies saying "I'm feeling really overwhelmed when it comes to picking a topic area". Now, before we get started, if you're early in your program and you are convinced, "Oh, that's not me. I know exactly what I want to study." I invite you to listen to this with an open mind. Especially if you haven't spent at least a few months or roughly the equivalent of say 50 to 100 hours in the library, researching your topic. Now a lot of guests that come on the show, talk about picking something that you're going to research that is something that you're really passionate about. And if you've heard those episodes, you know that I don't disagree, but that is never my leading question. Because sometimes your answer to that question, isn't the best choice. And sometimes picking your passion can. Actually be your downfall. And I talk more about this in the article, The Doctoral Journey: Things You Need to Know that they probably won't tell you). And I'll link to that in the show notes. Now, what I would love for you to do is follow along with a worksheet I created that's available on my website, ExpandYourHappy.Com. Again, I'll link this in the show notes, or just look in the show notes and you'll see the questions and the exercise, and you can play along with me. So we're going to start out super basic with the first question.And that question is:
What type of doctoral degree are you pursuing? Now, this is an important question. It may seem really remedial, but there is actually often a disconnect between your answer to that question, and the answer to the question I'm going to ask you next. So pause for a moment here and write down whether you are in a PhD or an applied program. So for example, are you in a PhD in psychology program or a PsyD? And then if it's relevant, write down your specialization. Many programs don't have specializations, but if you have one write that down. Okay, so now you've written down your program.The next question is:
Where do you see yourself five years after your degree? So now you're Dr. So-and-so. What do you see yourself doing? Now your answer can be a bit vague. That's totally fine. Or you can have a few different answers. But you will need an answer of some sort to pick the best topic area for you. Now, if you don't have an answer to this question, then it's time for you to start thinking about one. And I am frequently surprised that it seems somewhat common for people to not have a clear vision of where their degree is taking them. To me, this is almost like buying a Tesla to go on this really long journey, but you have no address to put into the GPS. Now I attribute this mostly to the expansion of online learning. Way back when, right back in my day, when everyone completing a doctorate was in residential programs, when you applied your application had to include a clear reason for wanting that specific program offered by that specific university. And that's just not true anymore. And while I'm a huge fan of the power of online education to deliver opportunities in ways we never imagined before, I'm disheartened when I run across people who seem to find themselves in a program due to good marketing and not in that program, because it's actually the one that they need to be in to fulfill their goals. Now, I'm going to have another episode on that one coming soon, so stay tuned. So if you have an answer for this on the worksheet, jot down some ideas of where you see yourself five years, post your degree and as you're doing that, perform a quick crosscheck and make sure that what you're writing about aligns with your degree and your specialization. So let me give you an example. If you're a principal and you're enrolled in a PhD in education program, but in five years you see yourself providing therapy to incarcerated individuals, there's a really big disconnect there. And interestingly, I do often see this disconnect . And that is why I have a number of episodes on how to decide if a doctoral program is right for you and how to pick that program. I'll link those below. Now at this point, if you are questioning whether your degree program is going to get you where you ultimately want to be, I'm going to say, go ahead and finish listening to this episode because I think it will be useful, but then your next step is going to be to reach out to a faculty member in your program and ask for a meeting to discuss this. And I am going to recommend that you go beyond a non doctoral level advisor, which may be the first line of defense that the university gives you. They want you to usually ask your questions at that level. Go ahead and ask the question there, but don't stop there. Ask to speak to a faculty member; this could be someone teaching a course that you're in, someone who is in your program to confirm that what they're telling you is consistent with the faculty member's, belief about the degree program you're in and where you want to go. All right. So now we're going to move on to really the key question, question number three.And that question is:
What do you genuinely want to be an expert in that will help you manifest this vision you just wrote about in answer number two? This really is the critical question, because think about it. You are going to be reading hundreds and hundreds of articles in your topic area. You will be spending thousands of hours learning about, getting curious about, researching this topic. And in order for your dissertation or doc project to receive approval and for you to pass your oral defense at the end, you are going to need to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt, you are an expert in this area.So my question for you is:
What area would be a logical step on the path that you want to travel, that's going to get you to that end goal? And this, this area that you just came up with, is what you should be researching for your dissertation or doc project. And I just want to say real quickly, if you have a couple of different ideas, write those down because the exercise I give you in a little bit here will help you decide which one is probably the better choice for you. So I want to give you an example of a student that I worked with who had an aligned purpose and did a lot of research before he decided on his program. And he picked his program and then his research topic appropriately. This individual was a former Navy Seal and current yoga instructor. And his long-term goal was to create programs that focused on the treatment of PTSD for Veterans. So he chose to pursue his PsyD, his doctorate of psychology, and his general research area was mindfulness interventions and PTSD in Veterans. So that gives you an idea of how things look when they all fit together. So if you're stuck on question number three, going: "What is it that I really want to be an expert in?" And you're still kind of scratching your head, sometimes just to get the juices flowing I ask this bonus question. Let's pretend that you love public speaking and you are told you're going to have an opportunity to give a Ted talk that will eventually go viral and it will be the only Tedd talk you ever give. What would you see yourself speaking about? What would be the legacy that you want to leave behind? Now at this point, if you're totally lost, don't lose heart. You're not alone. I am going to encourage you to listen to the rest of this episode and then check out the show notes for some other links that will help you answer these questions in a way that lights you up and resonates with your life purpose. But for everyone else, let's say you have this general idea. Your next step is to get into the literature. And this is so important. This is, non-negotiable, your research must fit logically in with the research that has been and is currently being done. So for all of you out there that want to write a dissertation that you think could be the Nobel prize or get super creative and think outside of the box, I'm going to caution you here and remind you that this project, your dissertation or doctoral project is a demonstration project to the university that you have a specific set of skills that are commiserate with the degree program that you're in. Okay. So I'm always encouraging people along with most of the guests I bring on this show, figure out what you can do that will help you get to your ultimate end goal, realizing your dissertation or your doc project is just a demonstration. It is not your end all be all life work, alright? So you're going to get into the library. You're going to put in your keywords and you are going to spend many, many hours reading, abstracts, discussion sections, and entire articles with the goal of eventually piecing together a picture of what we know and what we don't know in this area. And that is going to lead you to a more narrow focus. And actually your research questions that you could potentially explore for your project. That goes beyond this episode, getting narrow and focused, that's something we talk about in episode #14, with Dr. Shaw, The Best Dissertation is a Done Dissertation. I'll be sure to link to that below again, for the point of this episode, we're just talking about settling in a general research area. So as an example, that student that I gave you earlier, The Navy seal, who was a yoga instructor, his general area was PTSD and Veterans and mindfulness interventions. Do you see, that's not a research question. There's no indication of the gap that he wants to fill. You're just coming up with a general area to get you going and moving you towards your doctoral project or your dissertation. Now, let me give you some tips for your library research and these are on the worksheet. Limit your search to the last three years. If you need to expand it, expand it, but start there. And then start by looking for articles that are either systematic literature reviews or meta analyses. Why? Because these types of articles are like finding Willy Wonka's golden ticket. They're going to sum up many other articles and they are so powerful in terms of understanding the state of affairs in any given area. If you have a difficult time finding these systematic literature reviews or meta analyses, reach out to your librarian.And then my third tip is:
decide what kind of organizational system you're going to adopt; I have links for free resources on my website, if you don't already have a program that you're using. And then you're going to highlight and/or keep notes of possible research ideas. In the worksheet, I recommend coming up with at least seven solid articles that you're going to read in order to determine your general research areaand make sure you have this:
"I think is something that is resonating with me and will be a logical next step to my ultimate end goal", whatever that is. But in order to come up with those seven articles, you're going to have to go through many, many more. It's not going to be just the first seven articles that pop up. And so I want to give you some insight into a very efficient way to moving through research articles and picking ones that are probably a good fit for you. The first thing that you'll do is obviously read the abstract. A lot of times when you've read the abstract, you're like this had nothing to do, I don't even know why this came up in my search. You let it go. But let's say you read the abstract and it's at least remotely related to what it is that you want to study, what you're interested in. Scroll all the way down to the discussion. Read the discussion thoroughly. The discussion is where you're going to find some really key pieces of information. That is where the researchers who conducted this study are summing up for you in a very concise, but also comprehensive way, what it is they found, but also sharing with you as their peer, but we still need to research to really fully understand what's going on here. And that is often where you are going to find the idea that you will continue to explore for your capstone project . So if you read the discussion that sounds really interesting". You're going to download that entire article. Get at least seven articles. Read them, read them very, very carefully. Don't skim them. And as you're reading, do it with this idea that how these people are writing, this is the type of writing I'm going to need to emulate for my manuscript. And as you read, be curious. Again, note those possible research ideas about where the field needs to go. Remember, you might have a really great idea for research out there. But your dissertation, your doc project, is a demonstration that you know how to read a massive amount of research in an area, analyze and synthesize those findings, discover a gap, something that we don't know that we need to know, and then design and implement a research project to answer that question or those questions. This is in general, there are some very creative programs out there that allow for some nuances, but in general, you need to fit in with your field. Your project needs to be based in the current literature. Now, again, unless you've spent time in the library, it's probably too soon to even talk about refining your area. This podcast is really for those early in their programs, because the sooner you get started on becoming an expert, the better. And once you've identified your general topic area, as you move through your content courses, every time there's an opportunity to write a post or a paper, answer questions for assignments. Every time there's an opportunity where you can bring in your research area, you're going to want to do that. Now, remember and this is worth stating again: It's not until you pay your dues in the library that you're going to be able to articulate a more narrow area of research. Don't get too attached to a general area until you've done your research. And if you're thinking about working with protected populations, like children, meet with a faculty member early, who can help you understand any potential IRB challenges, and maybe even help you pivot your idea to reduce these challenges. For example, let's say you're really interested in studying adverse childhood events. Instead of studying the children. You might pivot and study the counselors or the therapists who work with these children. Now, once you have an area listen to: The Best Dissertation is a Done Dissertation with Dr. Shaw, that's episode #14. And after that, I'm going to recommend that you meet with a faculty member to discuss your thoughts. I hope you found this episode useful in helping you discover your general research area. Please be sure to check out the show notes for resources to other relevant episodes, as well as the worksheet that will help you walk through this process. Thanks so much for listening and until next time. Here's to more joy in your journey.