The starting point of a research is the selection of a research topic and problem. Identifying a suitable topic for work is one of the most difficult parts of a research. Before choosing a research topic and a problem the young researchers should keep the following points in mind.
- Topic should be suitable for research.
- The researcher should have interest in it.
- Topic should not be chosen by compulsion from some one else.
Topic and problem can be fixed in consultation with the research supervisor. In our country often research supervisors suggest a topic and state a problem in broad view. The researcher has to narrow it and define it in operational form. One may ask: Is it necessary that the topic of a Ph.D. should be different from M.Sc. project and M.Phil dissertation? The answer is not necessary. If a student is able to get a supervisor working in his M.Sc.project or M.Phil dissertation topic then it would save about six months in the duration of his Ph.D. work.
Can a Researcher Choose a Topic by himself?
A youngster interested to start a research career wishes to know whether he/she has freedom to do research in the topic of his/her own interest. The style of research in our country and various other factors like the infrastructure facility available in a research institute, time limit, our commitment to family and social set up hardly allow a young researcher to choose a topic by himself for his PG project, M.Phil. dissertation and Ph.D. thesis. However, many research supervisors give complete freedom to choose a problem in the topic suggested by him for a Ph.D. research work. Because the normal time duration of M.Phil dissertation is about 6-8 months, it is better to work on the problem suggested by the supervisor.
If a student wishes to do research (for Ph.D. degree) with fellowship then he cannot have freedom to choose a topic since he has to work on a project the goal of which is already defined by the project investigator. On the other hand, after choosing a topic of his own interest he has to find a supervisor who is working in that topic or interested in guiding him. In this case one has severe limitation in our country for getting a fellowship and for registering for a research degree. If a student is not very much particular about the fellowship he has a chance to do research in the topic of his own interest. A researcher in India after two years of research experience with few (two or more) publications can apply for a senior research fellowship (SRF) to CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) (for details see its and other relevant web sites). He can prepare a project under the direction of his Ph.D. supervisor which can lead to a fellowship. For details see the book ‘How to get scholarships, Fellows and Stipends’ by K.D.Kalaskar (Sultan Chand and Sons, New Delhi))
Considering the above, a researcher should make-up his mind so as to work in a topic suggested by the supervisor. However, a research problem may be chosen by a researcher himself. This has several advantages. In this case
- the researcher can pursue his/her own interest to the farthest limits,
- there is an opportunity to spend a long time on something that is a continuous source of his pleasure and
- the results would prove better in terms of the growth of the investigator and the quality of the work.
If the researcher is not interested in the topic and problem assigned to him but is working on it because of supervisor’s compulsion, then he will not be able to face and overcome the obstacles which come at every stage in research.
Identification of a Research Topic and Problems
Some sources of identification of a research topic and problems are the following:
- Theory of one’s own interest
- Daily problems
- Technological changes
- Recent trends
- Unexplored areas
- Discussion with experts and research supervisor
Suppose one is interested in the theory of nonlinear differential equations or quasicrystals or fullerenes. Then he can find a research guide who is working in this field or interested to work in this field and then choose a problem for research.
Our daily experiences and day to affairs have rich openings on various aspects such as the daunting tasks of AIDS, air pollution, afforestation and deforestation, child labor, problems of aged citizens, etc.
Technology in various branches of science, business and marketing changes rapidly. For example, in the early years, computers were built in larger size with vacuum tubes. Then evolution in electronic technology replaced them by integrated circuits. Recently, scientists have developed quantum dots. Now the interest is in developing efficient, super-fast and miniaturized computing machine made up of material whose particle size of the order of nano (10-9) meter or even smaller. Similarly, another fascinating topic namely, thin film has multiple fields of applications. Recent research on fullerenes resulted in many practical applications.
Choosing a topic of current interest or recent trends provides bright and promising opportunities for young researchers to get post-doctoral fellowship, position in leading institutions in our nation and abroad.
In each subject there are several topics which are not explored in detail even though the topic was considered by scientists long time ago. For example, string theory, quantum computing, nano particles, quantum cloning and quantum cryptography and gene immunology are fascinating topics and are in preliminary stages.
The supervisors and experts are working on one or few fields over a long time and they are the specialists in the field considered and well versed with the development and current status of the field. Therefore, a young researcher can make use of their expertise in knowing various possible problems in the topic the solving of which provide better opportunities in all aspects.
Don’t choose a topic simply because it is fascinating. In choosing a topic one should take care of the possibility of data collection, quantity of gain, breadth of the topic and so on. The topic should not be too narrow. For example, the study of social status and sexual life of married couples of same sex (man-man marriage and woman-woman marriage) is interesting and of social relevance. But the intricate problem here is that we do not find enough number of such couples to study. This is a very narrow topic at the same time we will not get enough data to analyze. On the other hand, the changes in the social life of aravanis in recent times is a valuable social problem and one can collect enough data.
Further, one has to study advanced level text books and latest research articles to identify problems. Is it necessary to know all the methods, techniques, concepts in a research topic before identifying a problem for investigation? This is not necessary. After learning some fundamental concepts, recent developments and current trends of a topic, one can identify a problem for research. Then he can learn the tools necessary to solve it.
Definition and Formulation of a Problem
After identifying a problem, in order to solve it, it has to be defined and formulated properly. For this purpose, one can execute the following.
- State the problem in questionnaire form or in an equivalent form
- Specify the problem in detail and in precise terms
- List the assumptions made
- Remove the ambiguities, if any, in the statement of the problem
- Examine the feasibility of a particular solution
Defining the problem is more important than its solution. It is a crucial part of the research study and should not be defined in hurry.
How do you Assess Whether the Defined Problem as a Good Problem?
A problem in its first definition may not be appealing. It may require redefinition in order to make it a good problem. That is, by suitably rewording or reformulating the chosen problem, it can be made to meet the criteria of a good problem. This is also important to solve the problem successfully. To this end a researcher can ask a series of questions on the problem. Some are:
- Is the problem really interesting to him and to the scientific community?
- Is the problem significant to the present status of the topic?
- Is there sufficient supervision/guidance?
- Can the problem be solved in the required time frame?
- Are the necessary equipment, adequate library and computational facilities, etc. available?
If the answers to these questions are satisfactory, then the researcher can initiate work on the chosen problem. In addition, discuss the problem with the current doctoral students and obtain the scope of the problem and other related aspects.
How are these Questions Important and Relevant to a Researcher?
The researcher should be interested on the problem for the reasons mentioned earlier at the end of the Sec.(V A). The problem should also be interesting to the supervisor so that the researcher can get the necessary guidance from him. Otherwise sometimes the researcher may find it very difficult to convince the supervisor on the importance and significance of the results obtained. More importantly, the problem must be of interest to scientific community and society. If not then the researcher will find great difficulty to publish his findings in reputed journals and convince the funding agency.
Next, the status of the problem, particularly the importance of finding its solution should match with the current status of the field. But, if the problem investigated is of not much interest to science and society then publications will become useless to him in his research career. Specifically, they cannot help earn a post-doctoral fellowship, respectability and a permanent job in an institution.
A researcher needs proper guidance and encouragement from the supervisor regularly. This is important for keeping the research in right track, to overcome the difficulties which come at various states of research and also to have moral support. A researcher should avoid working under the guidance of a supervisor having serious health problems or family problems, committed his large time to administrative work and strong involvement in nonacademic matters.
Another important point is that before initiating research work on a problem, a rough estimate on costs and time required to complete the work must be made. A problem suitable for Ph.D. degree should not be taken for M.Phil. degree. A problem suitable for M.Phil. degree is not appropriate for Master’s degree. If the collection of data or resources or related information takes many years, then the topic is obviously inappropriate for Ph.D. degree. Controversial subjects should not be chosen. Problems that are too narrow or too vague should be avoided.
Finally, the researcher must make sure that the necessary experimental setup and materials to perform the actual research work are available in the department where research work is to be carried out. Without these, if the researcher initiated the work and has gone through certain stages of work or spent one or two years in the problem then in order to complete the task he would be forced to buy the materials and instruments from his personal savings.
Rajasekar, S., Philominathan, P., & Chinnathambi, V. (2006). Research methodology. arXiv preprint physics/0601009. Download the full PDF from this link