Choosing the Right Research Topic

Choosing a research topic is a crucial decision, especially for those planning an academic career,” says Prof. Miriam Faust, Bar-Ilan University Rector. “It’s an enormous investment of about five years, which is a considerable chunk of time in terms of academic productivity. During this period you often become the leading expert in your field. If you opt for experimental research, it’s usually a full-time job.”

Prof. Faust believes in the academic ideal of “Curiosity-Driven Research” – the scientist’s prerogative to study that which he finds interesting, regardless of application, finances, or any other factor.

She feels that any solid research providing new knowledge advances society and by extension, humanity. “Additionally,” she says, “research motivated by interest and passion will always succeed and will always produce discoveries and valuable insights!”

The Most Important Thing is to Not Stop Questioning

This approach’s most notable champion was Albert Einstein. In an interview published in LIFE magazine under the title “Old Man’s Advice to Youth,” Einstein posited that –“curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” And so it is that Einstein’s work was perceived at the time as holding no relevance to human existence. Today, we owe laser technology, space studies and the atom bomb to this “esoteric” research, and even 100 years later, there are still gems of potential knowledge enshrined in his body of work that we have yet to decipher. We learn from Einstein that “pure research” is not necessarily rooted in the here and now – but does it really work like that in real life?

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the people,” says Prof. Faust. “The doctoral candidate must find an advisor who believes in him and in his topic, and who is an expert in the field. It’s an essential, absolute correlation. If your chosen topic is outside the scope of the expertsinterests, you might not be able to find a suitable advisor.

Another imperative component is the zeitgeist, the trends of the time. Every so often new topics rise to the forefront of research. These trends enable the candidate to find an advisor, grants and other resources more easily. Academia is not entirely dissociated from the market forces.”

Scientific Research – A Highly Creative Vocation

Prof. Faust, whose research focuses on the psychological and neural processes involved in creative thinking, notes that scientific research is a highly creative vocation. This is especially true when writing the doctoral dissertation, which must include novel ideas or insights: “creativity is not solely about creating a new connection between never-before correlated elements, or reorganizing existing data. It also requires gumption and risk-taking, even at the cost of finding yourself back at square one, empty-handed.

Scientific inquiry requires doubting and keeping an open mind, and one of the conditions for that is making mistakes and missing your target. We all know the story of Nobel Laureate Prof. Dan Shechtman, who for years was scorned, ridiculed and even ignored by the entire scientific community. To quote anthropologist Claude Levy Strauss: ‘The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.’ If your question is interesting and your methodology solid, you will produce valuable results, even if they are not those you had anticipated.

“The best word to describe it is serendipity, a happy discovery made accidentally. For example, in my own doctoral dissertation, which studied language processing in both brain hemispheres, I realized mid-way that my original research hypotheses needed to change. This required the dissertation committee to be exceedingly open- minded, but eventually, they were convinced by my findings.”

The Importance of a Competitive Research Grant

The PhD track sometimes begins as early as the undergraduate studies, and is definitely set during the graduate studies phase. In many cases, the topic of a research paper will be extended to the doctoral dissertation, and the student will use the same advisor throughout his studies. The dissertation committee comprises the advisor and two examiners – one external and one from the university faculty. They are the ones who must be convinced of the validity of the hypothesis and methods, and of the likelihood of the work’s success.

At this point, the establishment and practical consideration take charge: “when it’s a trendy topic, it’s easier to receive research grants, scholarships and funds. Exact sciences research is very costly and we need to prove its necessity and potential. However humanities research, which does not require expensive lab equipment, also needs funding. A competitive research grant is one of the strongest validations that the topic is deserving and vital, and naturally, that contributes to the university in many ways,” says Prof.Faust.

Consequently, says the BIU Rector, “choosing a dissertation topic is a series of concentric circles, at the center of which is the student, with his hopes, aspirations, and skills. The next circle includes the student and his advisor. This personal and professional relationship is vital to the project’s success. The third circle adds the dissertation committee determining whether the topic is deserving and of interest. Surrounding these is the university, whose support and resources are necessary for the funding and physical implementation of the research. And all those circles are encircled by interests that are at the forefront of scientific enquiry and local and universal trends that directly or indirectly influence our choices.