How to choose a research area

So I haven’t blogged in a while – I know! Though I haven’t been posting I have been thinking a lot about my future studies. In particular, that all-important decision of choosing an area to research. For someone like me, who likes to plan and think about my choices very carefully, deciding on a Masters or PhD course (let alone specific research area), is not going to be an easy or quick choice. Though the importance or relevance of some of these aspects may differ between disciplines, the following points are some factors I’ve been keeping in mind while thinking about my own potential research areas:

1. Enthusiasm/interest in the topic – This is probably one of my most important considerations. Given that a Masters or especially PhD course will involve in-depth and concentrated study on a particular topic for a few years, it is important to choose a topic that sustains your interest. I think there is little point in choosing a topic that you are not 100% interested in initially because over the course of your study, there will be times when you’re motivation will be pushed to the limits – if you already start your research not fully behind your topic, then I don’t think it’s likely that your enthusiasm will increase. (Of course, there are exceptions and you may very well grow to love your topic). However, years of exhaustive research and focus on an area could leave you sick of your topic and ready to move on – that’s not a feeling I want to finish with. Ideally, I should be studying a topic I am passionate and curious about, as I believe that this desire to explore and learn about the topic will be the motivation and inspiration I can always draw on over the course of my research.

2. Career prospects – Researching something you enjoy studying is all well and good but if your final research doesn’t lead anywhere it could very well just end up an expensive way to indulge in an interest. Now this is where things may differ across disciplines. The way I see it, the scientific and medical disciplines, for interest, are more concerned with what are essentially qualitative discoveries. In contrast, humanities fields are much broader and more about contributing quantitative knowledge to a subject – there is not so much as a right or wrong but interpretations and analysis. (I’m generalising of course). But my point is, that being in the humanities field, I have to find a need to research a  particular area – it needs to be relevant and useful if I am to build a career with it. Joining a medical research team in a cancer study has a well-defined goal and application in the industry, I would want to make sure I have the same direction and a career goal in place for whatever topic I choose in the humanities.

3. University strengths and research areas – So while interest is a personal matter, external factors such as career prospects and university strengths also have influence the topics that departments are willing to pursue (and can directly impact on your chance of acceptance in a course). Different universities have different courses, different supervisors and different research strengths and as a result, choosing the right course is quite an individual decision. Some universities may have a prestigious reputation but may not have the particular area of study you wish to undertake. In this case, would you compromise your ideal area of interest to fit within the university’s strengths? Or would you rather go to a lesser esteemed university but one which would cater to your research topic? And then, of course, there is the element of supervisors – probably one of the more significant aspects of your decision. After all, an established and notable professor serving as your supervisor can be the reason why you choose a particular university course over another similar one.

4. Financial considerations – Postgraduate study can be an expensive endeavour and this is why scholarships and financial aid can help determine your choice of degree and university. In Australia, many universities offer PhD scholarships for students studying within areas that further the university’s research strengths. This is a very enticing option for students, as keeping a job is not always compatible with full-time study or even part-time study. In addition, many organisations or foundations also provide financial awards and scholarships for study in particular areas, or even for study at overseas institutions. So when you take international study into account, you’ve got a whole other area to consider (which only makes my decision so much harder)!

Clearly, there are several aspects to consider when deciding on a postgraduate course and research area. Each person will have their own priorities and motivations for further study, so there is no hard and fast rule to arrive at your research area (unfortunately). Ultimately, I think it’s important to be clear about why and what you want to study, and do as much research prior to your decision to give you the best possible chance of a satisfying and rewarding journey into further study – at least that’s what I’m aiming for :)

Using the psychology of learning

So I’ve been helping my sister revise for her psychology class and I was intrigued by her current topic, which focuses on the psychology of learning by examining some of the most significant experiments in the field and how they have contributed to the development of theories of learning.*

The main ideas/theories explored are:

Classical conditioning

A process in which a stimulus is able to produce a particular response that was originally evoked by another stimulus.

For example: Ivan Pavlov’s dogs experiment, where Ivan Pavlov was able to condition dogs to salivate whenever they heard a bell (so even if there wasn’t any food), or John Watson’s ‘Little Albert’ experiment that caused a child to develop a phobia.

Operant conditioning

Similar to classic conditioning but is when (voluntary) behaviour is modified, as a result of being associated with a particular stimulus.

For example: B.F. Skinner’s experiment, where he was able to teach rats to press a lever in order to get a pellet of food.

Observational learning

As the name suggests, learning by observation.

For example: Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment, where children replicated violent behaviour shown by adults when playing with dolls.

One-trial learning

The idea that a combination of a particular stimuli and response would lead to the same response the second time.

For example: Edwin Guthrie’s experiment, which involved putting cats in puzzle boxes and concluding that after they found a way to escape a first time, they would remember the action and be able to escape that way a second time.

Trial and error learning

Where different responses are tried until a successful one is found.

For example: Edward Thorndike placed cats in boxes with a cord that would allow them to escape and found the cats tried different ways to escape until they eventually discovered that pulling the cord would set them free.

Insight learning

The idea that learning can occur through a sudden realisation (like an “aha!” moment).

For example: Wolfgang Kohler observed that when he placed a banana outside the cage of a chimp and gave the animal two sticks, the chimp suddenly realised it could combine the two sticks into a longer one that would reach the banana.

Latent learning

Knowledge that is not immediately expressed but useful later without the need for reinforcement.

For example: Tolman and Honzik’s experiment on rats, which were placed in a maze and showed the ability to make a cognitive map of the maze even if they weren’t being rewarded.


I’ve always been interested in the process of learning and just exploring these theories make me think about the way I approach learning and my study techniques.

For instance, some of the common threads I found in these theories:

  • The idea of consequences and rewards, or positive/negative reinforcements, for actions/behaviour. So obviously, being rewarded for studying is a good way to develop positive study habits.
  • It is possible to condition your body to respond in a certain way to particular stimuli. This could be used with external stimuli like the environment you study in – having a particular routine or setting you work in, or potentially even helping to overcome writer’s block by making writing a more natural, free-flowing activity.
  • In contrast, to break a habit, you need to create a new behaviour that will override and replace the old habit.
  • There are different ways of learning used in different situations. Sometimes, learning can be internal and spontaneous, like the ‘aha’ moment of a sudden realisation. At other times, it can involve trial and error and externally putting your ideas into action to test them.
  • That not all knowledge is put into use immediately. So something we learn might not be drawn upon until much later, so it’s like a library of knowledge that is accessed in the right environment.

* Note: I’m not studying psychology so the information here is not meant to be a comprehensive overview, just a summary of my understanding – feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!

Teaching a second language

Today I read this article about a teacher’s “new” way of teaching her students French, based on a technique called Accelerative Integrated Methodology (AIM), which involves using gestures, music, dance and theatre to teach second languages.

Now I don’t think there is anything original in this way of teaching – my teachers often used gestures and music during class. It’s a great way of helping students remember vocabulary or even grammatical rules. In fact, just the other day I was thinking about a rhyme my Japanese teacher taught me years ago in highschool, to help us remember how to change suffixes to put words into the present continuous form… or something like that ;) So I’ve heard about different learning styles (visual, kinetic, etc) from many of my teachers. It sounds like AIM just takes it one step further by having a mainly physical/rhythmical/theatrical approach.

Having studied a few languages myself (Polish, Japanese, French and studying more!), I’ve got a good idea of what sort of techniques and methods suit me best. For instance, I find colourful flashcards, as well as rhymes or jingles, to be the most effective way of retaining information.

Anyway, I think it’s great to have a wider approach to teaching. While some students will easily soak up words through writing notes and flashcards, for others, a more physical way of learning through movement better suits their learning styles. Regardless, I think it’s important to cater for a range of student learning styles. Learning a second language is an invaluable skill and if using this AIM technique – or any other technique for that matter – can make learning easier, more engaging and fun for students, than I’m all for it!

The best universities in the world

Researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University have released their annual Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), believed to be one of the most significant and influential global lists, which ranks 1200 higher education institutions worldwide according to six factors:

1. The number of alumni who have won Nobel Prizes and Field Medals
2. The number of staff who have won Nobel Prizes and Field Medals
3. The number of highly-cited researchers selected by Thomson Scientific
4. The number of articles published in journals of Nature and Science
5. The number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index – Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index
6. Per capita performance with respect to the size of an institution

The top 10 universities in the ARWU for 2011 are:
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Here to stay…

(UPDATE: Earlier, I had posted that I was moving my blog but I have in fact decided to stay put right here after all!)

I haven’t posted since I graduated but not surprisingly, just because I’ve officially finished my Honours course doesn’t mean I’ve finished studying.

The thoughts and discussions I had at university remain as relevant and interesting to me now as they did last year. It feels strange to be out of the education system, having been a student for the last 18 or so consecutive years! (Of course, I’m including primary, secondary and tertiary education here). However, even though I’m not formally studying, I’m still thinking about studying – I’m looking at possible PhD courses as we speak…

One of the most significant things I have learnt throughout my education is that studying and research will remain my interests for the rest of my life. As corny as it may sound, I have discovered I’m a life-long student keen to soak up knowledge in this world whether I’m in an academic institution or not.

So as a result, you can expect plenty more posts from me about studying, research and all things academia-related!