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I have some time now to think about what I want to write for my dissertation, but I just don’t know how to find an appropriate topic. I like what I do and I could do a lot.

Some people seem to have really interesting and specialized interests and topics for their dissertations. And although I am really into what I study, I just always feel like I haven’t got this amazing topic that hasn't been researched yet or that I could contribute something to. And I feel like I don't want to specialize just yet. I want to know more. But I already have a Masters. What went wrong there?

I basically feel like I have to make something up as it were, or even choose something at random (from within my general interests, of course). This being said, I will probably like it and do well. But is this just me? Does anyone ever feel like this? What would you do if you had all the time in the world (I do at the moment) to find a good research topic?

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  • I think it's time to talk to the professors in your department to find out if there is something you are interested but you don't know yet.
    – scaaahu
    Dec 10 '15 at 3:59
  • thanks for the reply! I am very interested in many things and would love to do all of them (in an ideal world). I also 'dislike' many things, so I know what I don't want. But it still feels there's too much that I like for serious specialisation! Dec 10 '15 at 4:04
  • This sentiment basically dictated my life arc in not getting a PhD. Dec 10 '15 at 6:52
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Professors usually love to find PhD students in search of topics, since they tend to have ideas that they hope someone will work on. Even students who come with a defined idea often find advisors nudging them in a different direction than what they really wanted to do.

Talk to some professors that you think would be good people to work with as your PhD advisor, and see what thoughts they have on this.

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  • +1 -- This. I've been in grad school for only one year, and I came in with a fairly concrete idea of what I was interested in. A year later, my advisor has dropped 4 or 5 different ideas on my plate that are in a moderately different direction but are still intriguing enough to capture my attention.
    – tonysdg
    Jun 16 '16 at 21:02
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Writers keep a special notebook where they jot down ideas for future projects. You can do this too. Not only will this help you get your PhD research into focus, it will also be helpful in the future. You'll be able to pull out your notebook for inspiration later on.

If you don't yet have an advisor to work closely with on sifting through the things on your list, then finding an advisor will be your Step 1.

A primary role of the advisor is to help the student define a research topic.

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I think this will vary considerably by field, which you haven't specified. In some subjects it is expected that you start with a specific question already settled. In maths, my subject, most people have very little idea when they start about what the final question will be. You start learning about an area, and your supervisor suggests a question, and after thinking about it for a year or so you find out exactly what it is you're going to write your thesis on (and change the title to something super-specific accordingly).

So in general I would say not wanting to specialise at the start of your PhD is probably fine. What you do need to keep in mind is that you should not be in the same position when you get closer to finishing. A PhD thesis does need to be specialised. It's probably the point in your career when your question is most specialised. Once you've got the job of writing your thesis done, and start a post-doc position, you then broaden back out to the questions you would have liked to explore more during your PhD but didn't have time for.

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Some people just pick a topic that sounds really good (but then probably get a bit bored with it). (25%)

Some people pick a topic that sounds important and then say they are really excited about their topic, and that everyone else is really excited about their topic, so that people think they are amazing, and this kind of has a snowball effect. (10%)

Some get quite obsessive about their topic to the exclusion of a lot else in their life. (10%)

And yet another bunch of people actually are quite brilliant, and pick amazing topics. (5%)

And then there are a whole bunch of other people who have pretty ordinary topics. (50%)

The choice of topic is crucial however. Don't pick something for no reason, and don't be afraid to change. Look for something that connects with lots of other areas - think of a network diagram - you want to be working on something that is on or connected to a hub node, not ending up as some kind of add-on to an add-on (this is the problem with being too specific). Do (and this is the tradeoff) make your topic tractable - you have to have a good plan about how to get the job finished in the time you have - remember you just need one good paper, where you really nail a single study, to show (and learn) you are capable of really high-quality research. Pick something you find fascinating, or highly important to the world, or that you think is worth the pain, and it will make it easier to finish when you have to go through the pain.

In contrast to the other answer - I'm not sure professors will help you too much. They will mainly try and recruit you to work on a topic they find interesting, but then you will want to refocus your efforts, and your professor will disengage from the project. There's a bit of a power struggle which can be a problem. Instead - present a really clear plan of what areas you want to work in - with all the uncertainties laid out.

Feel free to ignore any and or all of the above as well.

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    present a really clear plan of what areas you want to work in The OP's problem is he does not know what areas he wants to work in.
    – scaaahu
    Dec 10 '15 at 8:46
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    I'm not sure - the way I read it they have said they wish not to over specialise - not that they don't know what they want to do - note that I said to include all the uncertainties. My feeling is that the awareness of the uncertainties in a project area is a highly developed skill in a prospective graduate student.
    – smfrgsn
    Dec 10 '15 at 8:52
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    The percents mentioned are arbitrary. Also, there are disciplines like mine (CS) that the "you just need one good paper" is not true and you need a handful of good papers to get a PhD.
    – Alexandros
    Dec 10 '15 at 10:23

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