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Strategies for Selecting a Research Topic

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Abstract

Selection of a research topic is a challenge for students and professionals alike. This paper addresses those challenges by presenting some strategies based on existing body of knowledge and the author’s own experience. It identifies the attributes necessary to effectively generate ideas and to convert those ideas into research topics. The study proposes a ‘FRIENDS’ framework comprising seven best practices for selecting a research topic for Ph.D. dissertations or research projects. An example of using the suggested framework is presented.
Mining Engineers’ Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1 August 202027
Technical Article n
1. INTRODUCTION
A topic is different from a subject, although these terms are
sometimes used interchangeably. To avoid any confusion, let
us recall that in high schools, we studied different subjects.
Physics was a subject and ‘Newton’s laws of motion’ was
a topic. A subject of a research study refers to broad and
general contents whereas a topic of research is a specific
issue being investigated.
Selecting the right topic is the first step in the research journey
towards Ph.D. or any other research project. In the case
of Ph.D., the following scenarios are prevalent in practice:
a) If the scholarship for a Ph. D. program is funded from a
research project, then the candidate is supposed to work with
the already identified topic and objectives. If the research
is sponsored by a company, the researcher has to conduct
studies on the problem identified by the management. In this
scenario, the researcher has limited flexibility in modifying
the topics and objectives, b) The supervisor may suggest
some research topics which may be an extension of his prior
research. In this case, the supervisor may have knowledge
in the topic and the researcher may get support from him,
and c) Other research scholars have to select their own
topics. It is important to adopt proper strategies so that they
do not struggle for this purpose.
This paper examines the available literature (Kumar, 2011;
Saunders et al, 2009; Hulley et al, 2013; Kothari, 1985;
Young, 2019; Parija and Kate, 2018; Jensen, 2013; Tayie,
2005; Donaghey, 2020; France, 2019; Lindawati, 2017)
from a fresh perspective based on the author’s experience.
It suggests strategies on how to generate ideas and how
to transform those ideas into research topics for a Ph. D.
programme or any other research project.
2. GENERATE IDEAS FOR POTENTIAL RESEARCH
TOPICS
Creative thinking is needed to generate new, original and
unique ideas. Some of the sources of research topics are
(Wang and Park, 2016; Roberts 2010):
stratEgiEs for sElECtiNg a rEsEarCh toPiC
Dr. G. R. Adhikari
Formerly Prof., Mining Engineering, Goa College of Engineering, Email: gradhikari07@gmail.com
Abstract
Selection of a research topic is a challenge for students and professionals alike. is paper addresses those challenges by presenting
some strategies based on existing body of knowledge and the author’s own experience. It identifies the attributes necessary to
effectively generate ideas and to convert those ideas into research topics. e study proposes a ‘FRIENDS’ framework comprising
seven best practices for selecting a research topic for Ph.D. dissertations or research projects. An example of using the suggested
framework is presented.
• Conductliteraturereviewtodeterminewhatisknown
and what is not known and the areas that need additional
research. Carefully look through “Recommendations
for future research” and ‘Limitations’ sections of
dissertations and review articles published in scholarly
journals.
• Search on the internet but be careful
that not every website is trustworthy and secure. Try to
avoid non-trustworthy websites.
• Attendpresentations,discussionandrecommendations
of conferences/seminars in the field to get ideas about
the current and future research needs. The participant
can approach the authors for their suggestions for
further research.
• Build an academic network within and outside the
university. Topic selection does not have to be an
individual effort. The researcher can interact with fellow
students, seniors and teachers who can stimulate
innovative ideas. If possible, visit nearby research and
academic institutes to know what others are doing.
• Attend as many viva voce as possible because the
discussions that occur during a dissertation’s oral
defense may open up the eyes for potential topics.
• Checkthethrustareasforresearchonthewebsitesof
Universities of interest, related ministries/departments
and international funding agencies. A good proposal
from the areas that are of interest to the sponsor has a
better chance of winning a fully funded scholarship or
projects.
• Findouttheproblemsoftheindustriesofinterestand
ideas to find solutions to the problems can win fully
Industry funded research.
• Organisesome brainstormingsessions in agroup of
4-6 knowledgeable people and ponder on the ideas
generated.
• Agoodresearchideamayarisefromcertainconditions
or situations in the world. The present situation due
to COVID-19 has created opportunities for research
Mining Engineers’ Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1 August 202028
n Technical Article
in microbiological, immunological, pathological,
clinical, preventive and socio-economic aspects of the
pandemic.
A mind map may be used to visually organise ideas. The
central idea can be placed in the center of the diagram while
related ideas are added to it in a radial fashion.
3. CONVERTING IDEAS INTO RESEARCH TOPICS
Once researchers have ideas, they need to evaluate those
ideas critically to come up with potential research topics.
This process involves the following, not necessarily linear
steps:
3.1 Topics of Interest
Choose potential topics of interest so that the researcher
continues being motivated to successfully overcome
problems that are generally encountered in the course
of the study. The topic should also be interesting to the
supervisor and other members of the committee, and meet
the specifications and the standards of the university.
3.2 Topics Appropriate to the Discipline
Researchers’ interest should be either in the core discipline
or in closely related disciplines. Interdisciplinary research is
now encouraged within the specifications and the standards
set by the institute. Try to identify three potential topics and
write a clear statement of the problem and describe research
methodology in each case. Also think about the alternatives
for discussion with the supervisor.
3.3 Identify a Supervisor
In most higher education systems, an application for Ph.
D. registration is accompanied with a proposal. At that time
the candidate has to identify a supervisor whose main role
is to guide through the dissertation process. Every Ph. D.
student has a supervisor from the same department. In
case of interdisciplinary work, the student may have a co-
supervisor from the other department. Part-time candidates
can have co-supervisors usually from the research institute/
company where they are employed. In the case of projects
taken up by scientists of a research institute, the role of
supervisor is usually replaced by a coordinator/advisor.
However, every academic or research institute may have its
own regulations.
Figure 1 shows a matrix for choosing a topic and a supervisor
considering the candidate’s involvement in the topic and the
involvement of a supervisor (Single, 2010). The quadrant I
(Mentoring) represents the best option as the involvement
of both the supervisor and the scholar in the topic is high.
Quadrant II (Coaching) is the next best option if the researcher
is capable of working independently with minimum support
of the supervisor. Quadrant III (apprenticeship) is not a good
option. The PhD scholar, who depends on the supervisor’s
expertise, may not try to work independently. Quadrant IV is
not advisable because the scholar has limited interest in the
topic and the supervisor has little involvement.
Figure 1 Choosing a topic and an adviser matrix [14]
Although most supervisors are honest, there are examples of
exploitation of PhD students by their supervisors. Therefore,
try to investigate the track record of the faculty member
before choosing someone as the supervisor (Martin, 2013).
3.4 Narrow Down the Broad Topic to a Specific Topic
When the scope of a topic is too broad or too narrow, it will
be difficult to conduct research. If the topic is too broad, the
researcher will end up writing only in general and is unlikely
to go deeper into the problem due to the limitations of time
and resources. If the topic is too narrow, it becomes difficult
to find adequate literature which is necessary to describe
the background of the study and to identify a research gap.
It is necessary to narrow down the broad topic to a specific
topic that is suitable for research.
Let us take a research topic “Unemployment problem in
India”. It is too broad or too general for a focused study, and
it may not be possible for a researcher to cover all sectors
within a given time frame and budget constraints. The topic
can be limited to the mining sector, which can be further
restricted to the iron ore mining sector. It can be further
restricted to a specific category of graduates such as mining
graduates. Figure 2 illustrates how the topic can be gradually
narrowed down to a specific topic “Unemployment problem
for mining graduates in the iron ore mining sector in India.
By narrowing down the scope, we have not downplayed its
importance but made it suitable for a focused study which is
relevant to a specific audience.
Mining Engineers’ Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1 August 202029
Technical Article n
Figure 2 Converting a broad topic to a narrow topic by restricting certain
parameters
3.5 Scientific, Practical, Social or Personal Relevance
It is important that the topic has scientific, social or practical
relevance or is useful to other researchers, practitioners and
policy makers. It should be useful to a researcher’s career
goals.
The research on the topic should ideally make an original
contribution to the field. As evidence for original and novel
research work conducted by the candidate, most universities
make it mandatory for the candidate to publish 2/3 papers
in reputed journals before submission of Ph.D. dissertation.
Research can be conducted to solve practical problems
of the industries or organisations. The industry will have
interest and support if anticipated research will be beneficial
to them. Research should be relevant to the communities or
society in which it is conducted.
Select a research topic that may help to get a job or a
promotion. If a final year M.Sc. (Mining Geologist) student
is keen to work in the cement sector, a dissertation topic
related to detailed exploration of limestone deposits would
be appropriate.
3.6 Feasibility of the Study
It is necessary to assess the feasibility of potential topics
whether the project can be undertaken with available
resources in terms of manpower, time frame, financial,
equipment and other facilities..
Research studies are time-bound. Sometimes, researchers
have to deal with uncertainties that affect the project
schedule. In one of our projects, the principal equipment
did not work, and we lost one year in procuring/repairing
equipment. As a result, the project was completed in four
years instead of three years.
It is necessary to assess the financial aspect of a research
study. The budget framework should indicate the total cost
and its break up towards the purchase of equipment, travel,
contingency etc.
Researchers can also plan whether to use primary or
secondary data. Primary data is collected by the researchers
themselves for the purpose of specific study through
interviews, surveys, and laboratory or field experiments. The
possibility of collecting the data is also to be explored. One of
the Ph. D. scholars did not get permission to collect gold mill
tailings samples from a mining company, and this problem
was not anticipated at the time of registration. He had to
abandon his Ph. D. program after two years of registration.
Secondary data which has already been collected in the past
can save time and money. However, the researcher needs to
check whether or not the data are accessible, reliable and
complete.
The researcher may conduct his/her own SWOT (Strength,
Weakness, Opportunity and Threat) analysis. If the topic
does not match the strength in terms of qualification and
experience, the researcher may have to stretch beyond
comfort zones in acquiring new skills.
3.7 Ethics in Research
Research ethics is an essential part of a research project,
and it needs to be considered, particularly when the study
involves humans and animals. The researcher needs to be
aware of the applicable codes of ethics related to the project
and should keep the following in mind (Saunders, 2009,
Hulley et al, 2013, Wang and Park, 2016):
• Necessaryapprovalforallstudiesthatinvolvehumans
from the competent authority.
• Necessaryapprovalforclinicaltrialsofdrugsfromthe
competent authority.
• Any risk of harming people, the environment, or
property.
• Privacyandcondentiality.
• Society’scultural,moral,religiousandlegalvalues.
• Honestyandintegrityinconductingresearch.
4. FRIENDS: THE ESSENCE OF TOPIC SELECTION
An acronym FRIENDS, which is formed by using the first
letter of the word (Figure 3), captures the essence of topic
selection criteria. Additional words or phrases on the right
side corresponding to these words (Figure 3) act as the
pointers to the details of each word.
5. TOPIC SELECTION: AN EXAMPLE
Let me first explain the background of the study which is in
the area of ground vibration due to blasting. Blasting is the
principal method of rock breakage in mines but may create
adverse effects in the surrounding in the form of ground
vibration, noise and flyrock. Seismographs are used to
monitor and control blast vibrations. A typical seismograph
consists of a recording unit and a transducer. Proper mounting
(placement) of transducers is important while monitoring
blast vibration. Several mounting methods were suggested,
but there was no consensus among international bodies,
Mining Engineers’ Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1 August 202030
n Technical Article
blasting experts and equipment manufacturers regarding
methods of transducer mounting. Some used to bury the
transducer in soil, some used spikes or sandbags while
others placed it freely on the ground surface. Most experts
agreed that the best coupling can be achieved if transducer
is buried in the ground. The transducer mounting methods
were inconsistent and contradictory, which clearly indicated
a gap in understanding. Therefore, a topic for research
“influence of different transducer mounting methods on
ground vibration measurements” was identified.
Figure 3 Suggested framework for topic selection
The identified research topic was evaluated with reference
to the FRIENDS framework. We had interest and curiosity,
and it was within the area of our specialisation. Identification
of supervisor was not applicable as work was not for an
academic degree. In this research project, the Institute’s
Director was an advisor. The scope of the work was
already focused and specific; hence, there was no need to
narrow down the scope. This topic had scientific relevance
because there was no clear understanding about methods
of transducer mountings. This understanding was essential
to assess and control ground vibrations for the welfare of
the people residing nearby the mines. Hence, the study was
also important for mining professionals and policy makers
as its outcome had potential applications in ground vibration
monitoring.
The idea for the study was conceived in 2001, but it was
not feasible to conduct the study at that time due to non-
availability of necessary equipment. We needed four to
five seismographs of the same model from a reputed
manufacturer of seismographs. Necessary seismographs
were procured in 2002 under a major research project which
was funded by the Ministry of Coal, Government of India. In
conducting this study at a surface coal mine in 2002-03, four
seismographs were mounted at one location side by side
using four different methods to simultaneously record ground
vibrations from the same blasts. The measurement surfaces
in all these experiments consisted of soil. Only difference
was in the placement of transducers. The first transducer
was placed freely on a horizontal surface, the second one
was ‘sandbagged’, the third one was ‘spiked’ and the fourth
one was buried in soil. The field work was completed in two
weeks and 14 blasts were monitored. In this example, it
took a few years from idea to field experimentation. Unless
the researcher has a sustained interest, such ideas are
forgotten or become absolute if someone publishes results
of similar studies.
Taking the buried transducer as the standard, performance
of transducers was evaluated in terms of peak particle
velocity, peak vector sum and frequency. The analysis of
the data showed that transducers should never be placed
freely on the surface irrespective of anticipated vibration
levels. Sandbagging and spiking methods also did not give
accurate results in some cases. Therefore, burial should be
the preferred method of mounting transducers in soil.
Regarding the ethical aspect, no human or animal was
involved in this study. The mines had permission for storage
of explosives and for conducting blasting operations. The
mines’ team followed the stipulated safe procedures for
blasting. The details of the studies are available in our
published paper (Adhikari et al, 2005).
6. CONCLUSIONS
The choice of a research topic is governed primarily by the
interest and passion of the researcher. The research interest
is normally limited to the core or related disciplines to be
acceptable to the supervisor and the university. Narrow and
focused topics that might advance scientific knowledge or
solve practical problems or might benefit society are further
examined from the feasibility and ethical aspects. The
‘FRIENDS’ framework for topic selection, which incorporates
different aspects, might be useful for research scholars in
general and Ph. D. scholars in particular.
Mining Engineers’ Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1 August 202031
Technical Article n
REFERENCES
Kumar, R.; 2011, Research Methodology: A Step-by-Step Guide for
Beginners, Sage Publication, 3rd edition, New Delhi.
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Business Students, 5th edition, Prentice Hall, New York.
Hulley, S. B., Cummings, S. R., Browner, W.S., Grady, D. G., Newman, T.
B., 2013, Designing Clinical Research, Philadelphia, Lippincott, Williams, &
Wilkins, Philadelphia.
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edition, New Age International (P) Ltd., New Delhi.
Young, S. N., Vanwye, W. R., Schafer, M. A., Robertson, T. A. and Poore,
A.V., 2019, “Factors Affecting Ph. D. Student Success,” Int J Exercise
Science 12(1), pp. 34-45.
Parija, S. C. and Kate V., 2018, Thesis Writing for Master's and Ph. D.
Program, Springer, Singapore.
Jensen, P. H., 2013, “Choosing Your Ph.D. Topic (and Why it is Important),”
The Australian Economic Review, 46 (4), pp. 499-507.
Tayie, S., 2005, Research Methods and Writing Research Proposals, Cairo
University.
Donaghey, J., 2020, “Choosing Your Topic: A Supervisor’s Perspective,How
to Keep Your Doctorate on Track: Insights from Students’ and Supervisors’
Experiences, Townsend, K., Saunders, M.N.K., Loudoun, R., Morrison, E.
A.; eds., Edward Elgar Publishing Limited., UK.
France, A., 2019, “Sources of Research Topic Generation: Lessons
from Proficient Researchers of Business Management Disciplines.The
Electronic J Business Research Methods, 17(2), pp. 74-85.
Lindawati, 2017, Cracking a Ph D.: Revelation of 5 Stages in Doctoral
Journey, Springer, Singapore.
Wang, G. T. and Park, K., 2016, Student Research and Report Writing:
From Topic Selection to the Complete Paper, First edition, John Wiley &
Sons Ltd., West Sussex, UK.
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obituary
Shri Kolli Umamaheswara Rao
(02.01.1945 - 20.07.2020)
Shri Kolli Umamaheswara Rao (K.U.Rao), Joint
Secretary cum Treasurer and National Council Member
breathed his last on 20th July 2020 at Hyderabad after a
brief illness. The MEAI family lost a great personality who
rendered commendable service to the MEAI for several
decades.
The MEAI family is deeply saddened on his untimely
demise and pray the almighty to grant the Noble soul
rest in peace. We also express our deep sense of grief
to the family and pray God to grant them strength and
fortitude to bear this great personal loss.
Shri K.U. Rao has been the Joint Secretary cum Treasurer
of MEAI since 2017 and life member from Hyderabad
Chapter. He was active participant in every program
conducted by MEAI headquarters, Hyderabad. He was
one of pillars of the MEAI and has notable contribution
in shifting MEAI HQ to Hyderabad and in expanding and
modernizing our HQ office and many more significant
contributions to his credit.
Upon completion of his education, Shri K.U. Rao worked
in Coal, Limestone, Bauxite, Granite, Clay Mines in the
state of Andhra Pradesh and other states for over 12
years. He worked in IDL Industries, now known as Gulf
Oil Corporation Ltd, a multinational company, for over 25
years in various capacities in marketing of explosives
and associated products. He retired in the year 2003
as Business Manager in charge of South India & Goa.
He was also a Certificate holder in handling explosives
and “Advanced Rock Blasting Technique” issued by Nitro
Nobel A. B Sweden.
Shri K.U. Rao led a successful family life and survived by
his wife, daughter (settled in USA), son and grandchildren.
The members of MEAI pray for his rest in peace and
express heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family.
obituary
Shri Jahir Ali J Makarani, aged
52 years, an MEAI Life Mem-
ber (LM No. 1353/Ahmedabad
chapter) and a Mechanical En-
gineer for 33 years with GMDC,
succumbed to Covid-19 on 2nd
July 2020 at Bhuj Hospital,
Gujarat. Late Shri Makarani
did Diploma in Mechanical En-
gineering from Govt. Polytech-
nic Dahod (Gujarat) and joined
GMDC in the year 1987. Since
then he worked with GMDC at its various mines/projects.
He is survived by his wife and three daughters.
The members of MEAI express their heartfelt condolenc-
es to his family and pray for his soul rest in peace.
Shri Jahir Ali J Makarani
(5.5.1968 – 2.7.2020)
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Some academic supervisors take undue credit for the work of their research students, causing damage to their careers and morale. Students should consider whether to acquiesce, leave, complain, or resist. Students should be prepared for supervisor tactics of cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels, and intimidation. Options for addressing exploitation include prevention, negotiation, building support, and exposure.
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In this article, I outline the reasons why the choice of PhD research topic has important and persistent effects on an economist's career. Although the issues raised in this article are most acute for those wishing to pursue a career in academia, there are also implications for those working outside academia. While there are many factors that determine whether an economist has a successful career, I argue that the choice of PhD topic is an issue, which deserves more attention. Although primarily targeted at PhD students, the issues raised here resonate throughout an economist's career.
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Various methods of transducer mounting provide varying degrees of coupling between the transducer and the measurement surface. The influence of four of these methods on vibration measurements was studied. For this purpose, the first transducer was placed freely on a horizontal surface, the second one was ‘sandbagged’, the third one was ‘spiked’ and the fourth one was completely buried in soil. These transducers were mounted side by side and ground vibrations were monitored for 14 blasts at an opencast coal mine.Ground vibrations in terms of peak particle velocity, peak vector sum and frequency with different mounting methods were analysed. Assuming the data of the buried transducer as the most acceptable one, relative values of other transducers were determined and plotted. For the given tolerance for instrumental and human errors, anomalous readings were found in some cases. The waveforms of the buried transducer were then compared with those of others. Clear distortion in the waveforms or a very low correlation coefficient between two waveforms was suspected poor coupling.The results indicate that decoupling is most likely with the surface transducer. However, the sandbagged and spiked transducers are also prone to decoupling. Decoupling can result in higher or lower ground vibration. Therefore, burial should be the preferred method for mounting of transducers in soil.
  • S B Hulley
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Kothari, C. R., 1985, Research Methodology: Methods and Techniques, 2 nd edition, New Age International (P) Ltd., New Delhi.
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Parija, S. C. and Kate V., 2018, Thesis Writing for Master's and Ph. D. Program, Springer, Singapore.
Choosing Your Topic: A Supervisor's Perspective
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Donaghey, J., 2020, "Choosing Your Topic: A Supervisor's Perspective," How to Keep Your Doctorate on Track: Insights from Students' and Supervisors' Experiences, Townsend, K., Saunders, M.N.K., Loudoun, R., Morrison, E. A.; eds., Edward Elgar Publishing Limited., UK.