Develop a Research Interest Early in Your Doctoral Program

Develop a Research Interest Early in Your Doctoral Program

Doctoral students can read with purpose if they develop a research interest during early classes. The guided reading could develop the expertise that can guide a dissertation and a professional career.  In this blog, I would like to offer a few thoughts about how to develop a research interest. First, spend some time thinking about your interests, second, do some preliminary reading, and third, narrow the focus.

Define Your Research Interests

Begin by defining current or emerging issues in your field of study.  The UOP university library has an excellent resource for exploring current events by topic or professional field.  Go to the university library, click on multimedia, click on issues and controversies to find multiple topics of current interest.   Spend an hour exploring the many fascinating resources in the issues and controversies files as a first step in defining an interest.   I say explore because clicking on any topic might open up a galaxy of files and resources.  I clicked on Blogging under Media, Journalism, and Social Networking where I found wide-ranging questions and topics.  Many other categories are available to explore.  I followed my interests to direct my reading at the site.

Do Some Preliminary Reading

Once a general topic is defined, the next step is to do some preliminary reading.   Read more about a general article from a reputable source (textbook, encyclopedia, government source) to gain a sense of key issues and key words that can help to develop a reading list.  Use your emerging list of key words to search for research articles.  Ebscohost is a friendly and effective search engine.  Go to the university library, click on general resources, and click on Ebscohost.  Select Boolean/Phrase, Full text, a recent date range, and Academic journals.   A few words related to the general topic of interest will lead to many research articles from academic journals.  Select one or two that look most interesting to read. 

Narrow Your Focus

An astute reader will begin to gain a greater sense of the issues after reading a general article and one or two research articles.  Remember to ask questions as you read.  What conclusions are embedded in the documents you reviewed? What assumptions and values are indicated in your sources?  What does this issue mean in relation to professional practice? How can insights be used to narrow the focus?

A reader, who is thinking about research, might use categorical definitions to narrow the focus.  For example, the focus might be restricted to developing trends, changing behaviors, changing discussions, or one aspect of any specific aspect of the issue.   The steps that are outlined here are just the beginning of identifying a research interest.  Take your time.  Let your interest lead you through the initial inquiry.  Read and think, and then, read some more.  Narrow from the general to a more specific focus. The process of defining a research interest is interesting and confers many benefits. Being well informed about current events is part of becoming thoughtful citizen and SPL leader.


Pearl Richardson Smith's picture Pearl Richardson Smith | January 24, 2017 2:13 pm MST

Hello Elizabeth,

I enjoyed your post and agree students benefit from identifying their research interest early.  I entered my doctoral program knowing I wanted to study servant leadership within the federal government.  At the time servant leadership was gaining popularity.  I had read most  of Greenleaf's writings and was intrigued by the philosophy.  His notion that government leaders prefer more cohersive forms of leadership caught my attention.  I  had spent 27 years in the federal government. before pursuing my doctorate and had experienced poor leadership.  However, during my last year of government service I had the joy of serving under an agency leader who exemplified the characteristics of a servant leader.  Hence, I wanted to explore how servant leadership was practiced in that environment.

Knowing this, from the beginning of my studies kept abreat of the servant leadership literature as well as writings on leadership within the federal government.  By the time I started working on my dissertation I had sufficient data to build a case for my study.