by Elke Close

Having recently talked about starting a PhD to several interested parties, I have noticed that when embarking upon one’s doctoral journey many potential PhD’s struggle with deciding on their dissertation topic. For me, as I am sure is the case for many of you, finding the right research subject was one of those important first decisions I had to make. Therefore, I thought this was as good a time as any, to give you some tips that might help guide you towards the right research topic.

  1. Choose something that interests you

Okay, this one may be a little bit obvious, but it is still good to keep this in mind. It is easy, however, to get distracted by which university you want to go to, which one has the best reputation or the best funding opportunities or even which have the famous academics. While these things are crucial, you do not want to spend the next few years being bored to tears. As we all know, time can pass pretty slowly when you are doing something unpleasant.

  1. Don’t just churn out research that has already been done

Once you have found the subject that captures your imagination, you have to make sure that you can actually say something new about it. This might seem surprising for a field such as Classics or Ancient History, yet as with many other disciplines the value of your work is determined by the way in which it can contribute to the (sometimes) vast amount of research that has already been done. You have to be aware of past research and more importantly the latest developments in your field, so stay updated on any articles/books relating to the things you want to work on.

  1. Find an original angle

Even if it seems like everything has already been said, it might be worth having a look at your sources however, to see if there is another way they can be interpreted or if they can give you an original idea. Yet, it can be easy to feel like you will never be able to turn it into an entire dissertation. Don’t worry too much, you will soon find that one idea leads to another and before you know it, you will be able to write an entire thesis.

  1. Don’t choose a topic that’s too broad (or too narrow) 

When picking a subject for your proposal, you have to be realistic.  No matter how ambitious or passionate you might be, you will not be able to research the Graeco-Roman relations from 229 to 146 BC equally there is not enough material to spend three years on the last twenty of the politics of the Achaean Koinon. Make sure that you choose a topic that will both keep you busy for the duration of your PhD and is specific enough so you don’t end up researching enough material to fill an entire lifetime. There is enough time for that later, save something for your first book.

  1. Take a look at yourself and own background

Sometimes, your research ideas might be drawn from our own experiences or background. While there is no denying that our research is influenced by our personal interests and ideas, and for a lot of academics their works contribute to the way they look at certain things or identify with them, it is certainly not the only way of approaching your PhD.  Don’t be afraid, however, to turn inward for some inspiration.

  1. Be flexible

This might be the most important piece of advice I can give you. During your PhD, most of you will come to a point where you will realise that the subject you so rigidly lined out for yourself and your potential supervisors, is not working out for whatever reason: someone just wrote a book about it, too much/not enough material or you might have realised that your PhD topic has just changed during the research process.  At that moment, you are going to have to be flexible in order to find a solution and get on with your work. Even though you might have to cut a significant part of you dissertation, don’t be afraid to look through some of the work you have already written or examined, it might push your work towards a new direction. Talk to your supervisor, they could give some good ideas. Just know that with the ever changing nature of academic fields, you have to be as flexible as possible and most importantly be aware of the fact that your topic will have change over the course of your PhD to find its place within the academic world.

Hopefully, these tips have been helpful in one way or another, but in the end only you are the one who can decide which of the possible topics is like Cinderella’s glass slipper: a perfect fit.


Elke Close is a third year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh and is working on the influence of the Greek polis of Megalopolis on the ancient federal state known as the Achaean Koinon. She is also the Secretary of ISHA International and Pubs and Publication’s Publicity Editor. You can find her on her page or on twitter as @ElkeClose.


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