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 :)