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I'm a 2nd-year grad student in a US PhD program in one of the social sciences. Coursework has forced me throw out the initial ideas I had about research, which I proposed in my application nearly two years ago. Now I'm actively hunting for the "right" topic.

People ask me all the time, "what's your research on?" and I'm not sure how to answer.

This is not about "how to pick a research topic" as much as how to professionally present one's very tentative research idea(s) before one has a topic.

Should I: 1) Preface any response to the question with "I'm still early in my program and haven't written my dissertation prospectus yet, but I'll probably focus on ..." 2) Should I be honest about having multiple ideas or just pick one in order to better focus the conversation?

Any advice probably differs across contexts -- i.e. talking with peer, talking with senior scholar. All tips are appreciated!

I know this question is subjective, but I think about the situation every day, and I feel like I need some advice.

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    Talk with your supervisor/advisor about your tentative ideas. – Stephen Tierney Aug 18 '13 at 12:15
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Before you answer such a question, first decide whether you want to have an extended conversation or not.

Most of the time, you'll only want a brief conversation. The other person may only want a brief conversation, too. Many people ask as a matter of routine because one's research topic plays into our social categories, much like "Where are you from?" (born, raised, etc). The question can also be a limited sign of interest, i.e. equivalent to "Give me a brief summary of what you are working on". In cases like this, you can answer with any one or two line answer that is both true and comfortable, but you don't have to give the full story or answer unambiguously.

When you want to have extended conversation, giving a clear answer isn't the highest priority. Often the value of those conversations is in the feedback you get or in the opportunity to hear yourself explain your ideas. Rather than give an answer in terms of specific research topics, you might talk about your latest thinking about what interests you and why, and where you are in your decision-making process. You might then ask the other person for their point of view on the alternatives you are considering.

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You should be honest for sure. If you don't know something, do not pretend you do because you may face a person who really knows what you try to talk about and then, if you have only a superficial grasp of the subject, you are toast. Just say straight that you've heard that X is an interesting subject, that you have already read , that you want to learn more about it and, perhaps, try a research project in that particular area, and that you have this and that idea and wonder what can be made of them. That will get you the warmest response you can expect from the person you are talking to ("the warmest" doesn't mean "warm", by the way) and you may get some good advice or help this way from a "complete stranger".

I admit that many people fail to understand that knowing and openly delineating the limits of one's knowledge and powers is "a professional behavior". Nevertheless, those whose respect you should really earn during your academic career (whether they are your professors or your fellow students at the current moment) will judge you from this standpoint. The opinions of the rest may make a lot of difference on the short run but none on the long one.

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Should you be honest? Sure.

Should you talk about all ideas you have? Most likely not, but it depends on how much time you have. Many people have multiple projects (some simply ideas, some less so) at most times.

Try picking the most promising one. If you have no clue, just pick one, and observe the feedback you get. I believe you need a focused discussion to get useful feedback. If you have enough time with the same person for multiple focused discussions, great! But that's not the assumption.

Finally, you need to take both positive and negative feedback with a grain of salt. Listen to negative feedback! But if they tell you "this is a bad project, because X", listen to the X but think on your own whether it can be fixed by improving the idea or you should actually change completely (or something in between). The same logic applies even when papers are rejected (see for instance Does some degree of stubbornness help for a researcher?, or discussions of "learning from criticism" skills).

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