How do you pick a subject area or research topic to focus on?

Picking a subject area and research topic is an oftentimes monumental decision for graduate students. While some likely find it easy from the start, others might find narrowing down a huge diversity of interests into one to be quite difficult, and those who originally found it easy will likely hit some bumps in the roads. Below, our team has detailed advice and personal anecdotes about how to approach this important decision.

Stephen DeCasien:

Typically, people who choose to go to graduate school possess an overwhelming love of learning for many subjects. As such, it is difficult for some students to pick a specialization to study in graduate school. In my case, I took a year off in between my undergraduate and graduate education to contemplate what I wanted to study specifically and what I considered a viable career path. I knew that I wanted to study the ancient world but was uncertain of what to focus on within that field.

I devoted much of my time during that year off to research and contact graduate programs. I devised a comprehensive list of universities that I found promising and read the works of the faculty members I potentially wanted to work with from each institution’s history department. The work that resonated with me the most was Dr. William M. Murray’s book, The Age of Titans, which extensively describes the topic of Hellenistic naval warfare. Based on our similar viewpoints on the subject, I instinctively knew that I wanted to work with Dr. Murray. I applied to the University of South Florida where he works and was accepted into the history graduate program. From there, I actively sought Dr. Murray out to ensure that he knew of my study interests and eagerness to work with him. Fortunately, he took me on as his student.

Those two years of Dr. Murray’s tutelage and guidance inspired my passion for studying ancient Mediterranean maritime history and archaeology, which led me to my current Ph.D. program in Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. Overall, when deciding what to study in graduate school, it is worthwhile to consider which subject you have an inherent desire to study each day and would love to dedicate most of your time to. 

Clayton Richards: 

Picking an area of study for a Masters program is not as simple as it may seem when you first enter a program. When you enter most programs, the professors want you to have a preferred area of interest or focus coming into the program so you can know what classes to take and which professors to work with. However, at least for me entering my program, this was just a general idea on what I wished to study. I knew I wanted to study American history, and I had a general idea on which era I wanted to study, but anything beyond that I was uncertain about. The core ideas that I would go on to heavily focus on, including culture, race, and imperialism, would all come over the course of graduate school.

While graduate school is very useful in helping you narrow down your subject areas, it can also be a double edged sword. Through taking classes and discussions with peers and professors, you can figure what subjects and themes fit your interests and ideas. However, being around so many different ideas and topics can also make it harder to narrow down your ideas. While this can be more fun than difficult, it can still make you hesitate when committing to a single topic or idea. You need to find the subject that makes you excited to be in this field, and the grad school process helps you pinpoint where you want to be.

Chelsi Arellano: 

When I started grad school, I already knew exactly what I wanted to do. In my undergrad with Dr. Boterbloem, I had already begun exploring the politics surrounding the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and had no plans to ever change that. One of the first things I learned was that I knew nothing about what I was getting into. Knowing a bit about what you want to do is good heading into grad school, but something I learned later was that it also required a lot of flexibility.

I was disappointed that I couldn’t just take British history courses only dealing with politics. My professors pushed me to consider the imperial spaces of Britain, women and gender during the early modern period. I took classes on the Spanish Empire and the Mediterranean. Even now in my PhD, I’ve taken classes on US gender and the Ottoman Empire. My focus remains the same, but not because I stubbornly held on to the same beliefs I had when I first started. I read and learned about different facets of historical study outside of my area and grew as a scholar. Some of my professors tried to convince me to switch subject areas, but I found a balance between knowing what I wanted and being open to other perspectives.

Frank Amico:

Narrowing down a topic to focus on in graduate school can be easy for some and incredibly difficult for others. Starting out, it is usually a good idea to go in with a lot of flexibility, because ultimately, you know a lot less than you think–even the people who say they know nothing. It’s also smart to have a real idea or research proposal in mind because it’s hard to go forward if you don’t have a place to start. Relying on your advisors and professors is also an important strategy because, as established scholars of their fields, they can help direct you towards fruitful avenues of research and away from wasting your limited time pursuing dead ends.

Self-reflection on why you are in graduate school on both a personal and professional level can ultimately be the most important factor when choosing a research focus. What personal goals did you want to fulfill by going to graduate school? What kind of career options are you looking at after you finish? The job market for humanities scholars is unfortunately quite dim so spending your time in graduate school studying a topic and learning skills that are meaningful and useful to you is most important. 

Dragana Zivkovic: 

When choosing an area or topic of focus, you can feel a bit pressured to choose one that is feasible and interesting to you. If you are coming into grad school, like me, without a concrete idea of exactly what you want to focus on then it can be a bit nerve-wracking. Although I don’t have an exact idea of what I would like to focus my research on, I do have a general one. I think the first step to finding your focus is to see what you have already done research on. Have you explored one central topic from multiple angles? Do you generally stick to one time period? Have you met with your advisor and discussed how feasible your possible topic is? These are the first steps you can take to picking a topic of focus. If you already know what you would like to focus on, consider doing some preliminary searches to see if your topic has already been done. If it has, can you contribute anything new? It is possible that as you go on, your topic will evolve and maybe even completely change. Don’t feel like you have to fit your research in a box, rather let it guide you. In any case, your topic should be something that interests you, but also something that has enough scholarship for you to work with.

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