In my opinion, you are asking two questions here: how can I become more certain of what research topic I wish to pursue, and are there any general tips for choosing an institution where I can pursue my interests?
Right off the bat, it must be mentioned that in Western universities, the number of attending students is generally in decline, and so we are seeing an over-concentration of students in higher-ranked institutions. This means that most lower-ranked institutions are having a hard time attracting students, and are shrinking their departments. Even some higher-ranked institutions are shrinking/closing departments that are lacking in student enrolment numbers. As for a career, it's already hard enough to get a stable career in STEM fields, and it's even worse in history/philosophy/humanities. Even if you get a career, only 20-30% of your weekly job tasks will be related to pursuing the research you love: most of the time you will be grading papers and tests, preparing classes, doing boring administrative and service work, and attending boring meetings. Still, many would say that those 20% of research time make all the other chores worthwhile, or at least bearable (so long as you can find a positive work environment with welcoming/supporting colleagues, but that's a whole other issue).
We have to get these negative aspects clear first, because no matter how good you are at research, you will certainly find yourself in many periods of trouble, where your research hits a roadblock, or you will be struggling to find faculty positions, or dealing with rejection letters. In fact, many humanities graduates end up not getting academic positions and continue pursuing their passion as independent scholars. This is not intended to discourage you in any way; but you need to be fully aware that it's going to be a bumpy ride, and therefore you must seek to become as emotionally resilient as possible. The only thing that can help you pull through during these periods of turmoil is your deep passion for your research topic, your determination to find a solution in the face of adversity, and your ability to believe in your capabilities, regardless of what others say about you. Where there is a will, there is often a way.
Now let's address the questions. Here is a list of aspects which can help you to filter out unsuitable universities/topics of research.
- What is your financial situation? Choose a list of 5-10 universities
where you are able to afford tuition fees and living fees without
getting into crippling debt.
- Have these universities downsized their Humanities departments
recently? Conversely, are these departments hiring new faculty
during this year? It is well-reported, for example, that SOAS
University of London is experiencing financial difficulties. Check
newspapers, or websites such as Inside HigherED or the Chronicle of Higher
Education to investigate whether any department in your list is having
difficulties, and check job ads for the same departments to see if
they are expanding.
- For each department, check the list of faculty professors, and check
Google Scholar and other websites such as ResearchGate to try to
read their most recent paper. Alternatively, search Google/Youtube, to see
if they have done any academic presentation of their work. Is there
anything about their work that grips you, excites you, fascinates
you? If so, note it down immediately in your list. It is crucial
that you read different papers to get a sense of what topic appeals
to you or not, and to know what kind of research is taking place
- The four main trends of growth in Humanities at the moment right
now are: (A) Digital Humanities, namely using digital/computational
tools to solve humanities issues in ways that were not previously
possible or feasible; (B) Global History/Transnational History, that
is, comparing historical/philosophical perspectives between
different parts of the globe; (C) Looking at history/philosophy
through the lens of identity categories such as gender, race,
sexuality, etc.; (D) Analyzing historical/philosophical issues through an environmental lens, or with consideration to Earth's natural processes and their effect on humans (Environmental History, Environmental Anthropology, etc.); You might want to investigate your list of
departments to see what kind of work they are doing in these areas,
and whether they appeal to you in any way (NOTE: if you think there
are other important trends, let me know in the comments and I will
update my answer accordingly).
- The next layer for your triage is that of availability of primary
research materials: for your research topic, is it relatively easy
to access libraries and digital archives that contain manuscripts
for you to analyze? Most people end up choosing historical topics
from the 18th century onwards, because there are much more digitized
materials available, and the barrier to entry is lower. However,
this early modern/modern period is also the most crammed with
competitors, and it can be hard for you to stand out among the
crowd. The further back you go in history/philosophy, the more
challenging (or rewarding, depending on your perspective!) it
becomes: there are less materials, they have lower rates of
digitization/online access, you will often need to master other
languages, or depend on archaeological reports which are hard to
- Finally, does the university provide a learning environment
conducive to facilitating the free exchange of ideas between
students/faculty? In recent years, in some institutions there have
been significant tensions between students and faculty regarding
delicate/thorny political topics. It is no joke to conduct research
in the midst of a toxic environment. If you are in the US, you might
want to check if the academic institution supports the Chicago
Principles, or if it is well-ranked in FIRE's rankings.
Make a list of 5 potential universities/research advisors, and 3 potential research topics. See if you can contact the professors in your list to inquire about your preferred topic of research (in which they are specialists, of course!). Make sure that you can find a topic or a research problem that captivates you, because you will have to work on it for years on end, facing many difficulties. There is a real risk of burnout, and only your passion for the topic can make you devote more of your free time in order to push through the obstacles. Otherwise, your situation will quickly escalate into procrastination and potential depression. Also, if you already know someone who is in academia (either student or faculty), it might help to gauge their opinions to help you find the research topic most suitable for you.