How To Develop A Good PhD Topic

Ask most PhD students whether their PhDs have gone to plan and they’ll say, “nope”.

In fact, many probably won’t even remember what their PhDs were initially about…they have changed so much since then.

While changing topic is good when it is necessary (for example, there’s no point continuing down a deadend), it would be very nice, both resource-wise and morale-wise, if we could just pick a good PhD topic to begin with.

How do you do that?

Interestingly, what we’re about to cover is also applicable to people who are part-way through their PhDs already because, as I mentioned, it’s very common for PhDs to meander and change continuously.

Picking a good PhD topic really boils down to four things.

1. What should be researched next

2. What resources and time do you have available

3. What expertise do you have access to

4. What are you interested in

Except for the first one, these are not in any particular order.

First, how do you determine what should be researched next?

That’s where your literature review comes in.

The literature review is done to determine what has been done in your field already, and then what should be done next. We’ve written about how to do a great literature review at length in our book “How To Write An Academic Paper 101”, and far more in-depth than possible in a blog post, but let’s cover it briefly here.

To do a good literature review, you first need to find as much of the relevant literature as possible (ideally, all of it, but in reality, you probably won’t be able to do that simply because there’s just so much usually). Then, you need to read this literature and assess what has been done and what weaknesses there are in these works.

Once you’ve done that, you can then decide what should be researched next – the literature often gives clues about what would be useful to research next, and the weaknesses you’ve spotted in previous works also give you clues. This step is vital because if you make the focus too wide, then you’ll run out of resources, time, expertise, and desire. If you don’t identify accurate future directions, then you may hit a problem in a few years.

Once you’ve identified these future avenues, you then look at what resources you have for your PhD. Only those future avenues that you have enough resources for can be pursued, for obvious reasons. What’s more, only those future directions that can be completed in the time allotted can be pursued. This aspect is often what trips people up. When you first start your PhD, you often don’t know much about research, so trying to gage what can be done in a given timeframe is difficult. You can use your supervisors’ expertise to determine what’s feasible, but also a good rule-of-thumb is to err on the side of caution; if you think a direction is too small, then it probably won’t be. Research has a funny way of being rabbit holes in disguise. You don’t realize just how deep a hole goes until you’re in it.

Then, after you’ve narrowed down these future directions, you look at what expertise you have access to. You ideally only want to pick a future direction that you have adequate expertise on or that you can access. This expertise comes from yourself, from your supervisors, from others in your department, and even from colleagues/colleagues of your supervisor at different institutes.

Now, you’ve whittled down the future directions to those that you have the resources, time, and expertise for. Finally, you look at what you’re interested in. This is the fun part because by saving this criterion for last, anything you pick will be feasible. There’s no disappointment from wanting to do something but not having the resources, time, or expertise – you’ve already made sure any of the remaining avenues are feasible. Now choose whatever you like!

This is now your PhD topic.

If you follow this process, all of the foreseeable obstacles in your PhD will be removed. Only obstacles that aren’t foreseeable, like a serious sickness, can really slow you down. The good news is that these events are unlikely.

Let’s circle back to what I said earlier – this approach can also be used for people who are part-way through their PhDs already. How?

You follow the exact same method, but you also look at what you’ve already done. You see what from your current results and research can be used and repurposed for whatever the new direction is. This is just one more criterion to fulfil, along with the other four. It may seem daunting, and definitely demoralizing, but it is doable. And this time you have experience to guide you – that’s a HUGE plus. You didn’t have that before, so you’re better off now than you were at the start.


Once you’ve started your research, writing papers on it becomes important. To learn how to write a good academic paper that will get published, read our book, “How To Write An Academic Paper 101“. It has been used by 1,000’s of PhD students and researchers from over 100 top universities worldwide.