I'm approaching the end of the first year of my PhD and I really am struggling to find what my research question is. I'm slightly panicing that I don't know what I'm doing yet and I get very little support from my supervisor. I've spent time exploring the literature and I have a few broad ideas of potential areas. The problem is, when I discuss the topics with my supervisor, he gives me no advice or guidance about how to develop these ideas into research questions or whether these ideas are even valuable/ could make a PhD. We meet fairly regularly (maybe once a month). But in most of our meetings it's just me bringing him up to speed on the research I've done and some ideas, and I really don't get any feedback that is constructive to me narrowing down a topic and really developing it. I've tried to be more direct, and specifically asked 'what topic do you think has the most value?' to which he'll reply 'what topic do YOU think has the most value?'. He doesn't do a lot of independent research either as he spends a lot of time teaching, so it's difficult for me to just attach myself to something he has worked on.

I'm really not sure how I can get some feedback on my work and find a topic. Any advice?

Edit: Thanks so much to everyone who has responded to this question. Your advice has been really helpful and constructive.

  • in which area you are doing your research ?
    – Krebto
    May 2, 2017 at 9:29
  • design research
    – jane
    May 2, 2017 at 9:46
  • 3
    Does anyone else see the irony in this :D? You're having trouble designing research in design research :D? Sorry, just an aside. May 2, 2017 at 12:00
  • 6
    We meet fairly regularly (maybe once a month). -- Quadruple that.
    – JeffE
    May 3, 2017 at 3:18
  • 2
    Have you taken a look to see who else might be advisor material? // You could try an I-message, if you haven't tried that yet, for example, "I need clearer guidance about what to work on." The key with something like this is, say it once clearly, with a calm, neutral tone, and then WAIT. (That's the hard part.) // Do set up a weekly meeting. May 3, 2017 at 4:47

3 Answers 3


Several things come to mind:

First, know that this is frustrating for many PhD students and it is normal for people to feel anxious if they aren't on a set course for their dissertation at the end of year 1.

Second, is it possible that your advisor is not a great match for you? My dissertation chair was not an expert at all in my dissertation topic (no one in my program was), but he was an accomplished scholar who could help me develop skills in identifying appropriate literature and narrowing down a topic. You may want to consider if someone else in your program is a better fit and switch advisors. This happens sometimes. It's normal.

Third, this is why PhD programs have students assemble dissertation committees, rather than just work with one person. If switching advisors is not an option, find someone else in the area you want to research and meet with him or her. Invite him or her to coffee or lunch. If they are at a distance, ask them to talk on the phone. Many researchers would be flattered that you are interested in their area and want to pick their brain. This may help.

Finally, does the literature indicate that there are specific topics in this larger area that need to be explored? Maybe you are not consulting with the right literature or there is a lot more out there to consult with.

Hope this helps! Good luck!

  • 2
    Your third point assumes that the OP is in a country where this is how things works, which might not be the case (some places the dissertation committee is not assembled until just before the defense and serves no other puspose than evaluation of the thesis and defense). May 2, 2017 at 14:55
  • 1
    @TobiasKildetoft, that is true. My response makes the assumption of a U.S. model for a PhD program of study. However, even if pursing a PhD under a different model where a committee isn't assembled ahead of time, the student could still talk to other researchers in the same field as the dissertation topic for feedback and/or ideas. May 2, 2017 at 15:53
  • @TobiasKildetoft In some places the dissertation committee isn't formally assembled until just before the defense. This does not prevent the student from informally assembling a group of mentors that eventually becomes their dissertation committee.
    – JeffE
    May 7, 2017 at 13:36
  • @JeffE Sure, the student can assemble some people. Turning them into the committee may not be possible unless the selection is done carefully (and given the potential requirement that they need to be from other institutions or even abroad can make it harder to find suitable people, especially if the advisor is also not being of help with this). May 7, 2017 at 13:54

There are several advising 'styles' if you can call them that. The spectrum probably runs from 'do this project now' to 'let's meet repeatedly for 6 months until something materializes'

Professors are not usually trained in project management, so you might need to step up here and take control of your destiny. He or she is probably not going to give you the direction you want. Rest assured, if you pick the project that interests you the most and you work hard, you'll turn it into something tangible.

So, change your tone from 'should I do x or y?' to 'I'm doing x starting Monday unless you disagree'. Perhaps your advisor will be very helpful once you have more targeted questions, which you'll get once you start the project.

However, I am worried about your 'regular monthly meetings'. You should be meeting weekly or more. If your advisor just isn't engaged in what you're doing, move on.


As HEITZ has written, there are many styles and his seems to be firmly in the 'you must reach the answer within yourself' category.

Yes, it's very true that students can be influenced into doing something they weren't 100% in love with and therefore end up being disillusioned, but they are there to guide you and the ideology of 'no interference' quickly can end up being 'no helping'.

I had what I thought was a 'pursue your own path with my guidance' supervisor who just ended up being aloof, useless and completely uninterested in my research. Worst of all, when I tackled them about it, they berated me for wanting to have my hand held etc. I'd therefore suggest you tackle the problem head on in case yours is similar.

What to do:

As others have recommended - state what you need in concrete terms and set up a weekly meeting till you get over this hump. Lay out the options and go through each of them in detail - have a list of actual questions about each topic, and don't settle for vagueness.

If you're looking for topic worth, you need to state it more directly; which of these topics was recently a big issue at x, why does topic y matter now? Point blank say 'I'd like your opinion really' if asked the question back.

If they aren't able to deliver that then you need to look else where, even if you feel it might be disruptive.

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