The theme for this week’s Ask-A-Grad post is choosing a research focus. Identifying a research focus is similar to selecting your major as an undergraduate. You’ll choose your future classes, sources for research papers and project ideas all based on your focus. In most graduate programs, like the MCOM program at the University of Charleston, S.C., at the College of Charleston, you are encouraged to identify a research focus before the end of your first semester.
I know it sounds intimidating and overwhelming, but I promise it really isn’t. Your research focus (also called “agenda” in academia) should be closely aligned to your professional and/or personal goals. Therefore, choosing your focus should make your graduate career more rewarding as well as help you accomplish life goals post-graduation. Below is a general approach that I found helpful when choosing a focus.
Discover Your Interests – Because your focus is going to guide the rest of your graduate career, you need to make sure it is something that interests or intrigues you. Some of the best advice I received was to carry a notebook and write down any and all things that I found interesting. My notebook stayed by my side for about two weeks while I wrote down musings, questions, thoughts…really anything that came to mind. Eventually, I started to notice a theme emerging among the musings; this theme would become the basis for my research focus.
Talk to Faculty Members– Graduate faculty members are wonderful sounding boards for any ideas you have regarding your research focus. By virtue of them also being a scholar in the field, they will be able to guide you and help you form an actual focus from your interest area. They will also be able to tell you what studies already exist, if you are thinking too broadly/narrowly about your topic and the process associated with designing a study.
Talk to Fellow Graduate Students – Make the most of the relationships you’ve been forming over the past few months. Most likely, your classmates are figuring out their focus too, and bouncing ideas off them will give you a different perspective. Don’t be afraid to talk to second-year students in your program either. They have already chosen their focus — they have been where you are and may have different perspectives that can inform your ideas.
Start Conducting Secondary Research– One of the best ways to figure out if your interests would work for a research focus is to start conducting research within your interest area. Start with an academic search engine, like Google Scholar, and find out everything you can about your topic. Reading case studies and journal articles can give you a better idea of how over/underdone your idea is in the field, what case studies already exist, etc. You may find a study that you would even like to replicate. You may also discover a new idea about your research focus that you had not considered before. The secondary research available may also reveal a completely different interest area, which is good to discover at this stage in the research process.
Even though it is a very important part of your graduate career, it is also your guide for what lies beyond graduate school. Above all, just remember not to stress out about choosing your research topic. You already know what you want to do, so just do it!