I've majored in computer science (BSc: close to MIS, MSc: advanced software engineering), I've worked on dissertations on totally different topics in every stage at college, now I'm planning to do a PhD and I've been looking at different topics from various sub-fields but I frankly can't pin one to use as a starting point. I would say that I like X topic or Y and when I look closer at the papers being published in the field they seem too obscure to me and I can barely comprehend their abstracts. For example, I was searching for starting point in solving concurrency problems in software or even advance such technique since I felt it's what I want to do and what I know that would keep me motivated but I frankly couldn't find anything, I've looked at publications that reference famous papers/book (things I've researched very briefly) like communicating sequential processes and cooperating sequential processes but there was nothing that could give me a good start.

My questions here, am I looking in the wrong sub-field? I know I'm highly motivated by the previously mentioned area but do I understand enough to enter such area? I've seen people jump from psychology to computer science at PhD level and I wonder how someone could do such thing. Also am I even a PhD material if I can't pass this stage?

Note: the topics of my past dissertations were on AI and online social communities

  • 4
    Although reading the classics is important, that's not the way to find research topics. You need to look in the most recent conferences in the relevant field. That will give you an impression of what is at the cutting edge. May 11, 2014 at 7:04
  • If you don't already have funding, you can narrow your choices by restricting yourself only to projects that are funded.
    – Moriarty
    May 11, 2014 at 10:37
  • @Moriarty oh funding is not an issue for me, I already have a sponsor for any program that is willing to sponsor any program I join, the issue is that I cannot find a decent starting point and since graduation I've lost contact with my supervisors (I emailed couple of times but haven't got any responses).
    – ymg
    May 11, 2014 at 15:01
  • @DaveClarke oh I think I communicated the wrong idea, what I wanted to say is that I have looked at papers that referenced famous papers like the ones above but couldnt spot a decent starting point, some either look like hieroglyphics to me and some just feel vague or unclear in terms what could the future work be.
    – ymg
    May 11, 2014 at 15:03
  • 6
    Short answer: Research is hard.
    – JeffE
    May 12, 2014 at 12:25

3 Answers 3

  1. You have to ask yourself, what do you want? This is the question you should answer by yourself and which is crucial in all the following steps. So you want to do a Ph.D. Where do you want to do your Ph.D? What country? You want applied research or theoretical? After a few questions I assume the filed of research would become narrower and narrower.
  2. If you have a vague imagination about what you want, just do a simple search about the areas. If you don't know what is this sub-field about, don't start reading scientific articles but rather start from the scratch, basic information. Don't get depressed if you don't understand the article stuff. It is a very narrow research and you have to work diligently in that narrow filed to start understanding it. Read the recent scientific news. For instance, I always read MIT news. Quite interesting researches.
  3. If you already know the country and the subject (not exact), you start searching the university groups which are engages in a similar research. You check the articles and pay attention to the impact factors and number of articles. You check that your future supervisor has good recent articles. It means that he is working actively now.
  4. You may contact the group supervisors to arrange a meeting or just to have a correspondence. It is always better to go and meet the team members and then they will provide some rudimentary information about all the studies they carry out.
  5. When you narrowed down the number of choices to let's say to 5 groups, then start reading their articles. Always try to stay in touch with the groups. Ask questions, show your interest, because although you have funding, you still have to be accepted.
  6. Of course, if you have some background in the field, it is always a bonus, but, if you don't, it is not detrimental. Everything depends on your diligence and intentions. If you are motivated, if you don't give up, after a few months of your Ph.D you would feel much progress.

Your supervisor or potential supervisors should be able to help - and I don't necessarily mean by talking to them. First of all identify potential supervisors whose (recent) work you like and (mostly) understand. In the first instance look at their recent papers, and particularly concentrate on any points they raise in discussion or future work. In particular do a SWOT analysis and note what are the best and worst features of the approaches, and whether you can see opportunities for different, even interdisciplinary, work to be brought to bear.

To the extent you don't understand anything, don't keep reading and rereading and struggling with it, go back to the earlier work and the citations. Try go be back to the originators of the concepts you are lacking or find difficult, and the commentators who clarify the insights behind the formalisms. Look for conference and workshop papers for these early developmental versions of work, rather than the erudite and impenetrable journal versions.


Any time you have difficulty understanding something written, you must consider that it is you or that it is the writer who cannot communicate clearly.

I skimmed the second paper you listed and it is certainly understandable (and I teach business but have a background in software development). However, I'm a native English speaker so my vocabulary is quite large.

The writer seems to be Dutch and from my experience, the Dutch have an excellent command of English. The English this author is using is a bit advanced so if your English is not as strong, you might not understand simply due to less vocabulary. Those who write with simpler English will be much easier for you to understand.

The first article you listed is written in simpler English.

I would say if you feel you cannot clearly understand the first article then you might want to consider another field of study or you should spend more time to develop your English reading skills (from your question, your English writing skills seem fine).

If you are considering a PhD, you might want to see if you could meet with an adviser for a few minutes and discuss this issue with them. They could more easily evaluate what would be reasonable for you.

  • Thank you for your response, I'm sorry I didn't explain this well but like I said to @DaveClack, I was looking at papers that referenced the ones in my original post and they were cited by many papers (11k to 2.4k citations) I've many of them and couldn't find what I can use to build my own path. I dont have problems understanding the linked publications and I already did couple of reports and a presentation on them. Sadly after graduation I've left the UK and lost contact with my supervisors, I've tried to get in touch with them through email but with no luck.
    – ymg
    May 11, 2014 at 15:08

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