Doctoral Research Tips: Narrowing the Topic By Dr. Ron Jones

Doctoral Research: Narrowing the Topic

By: Dr. Ronald Jones

Conducting doctoral research typically involves a narrow and keenly focused topic and problem. Oftentimes doctoral students are well-intentioned in choosing an area of study, yet the topic is too broad for the research to make a significant contribution to the existing body of knowledge. Narrowing the exploration or examination to one specific problem requires a diligent search to locate a gap in literature and in knowledge.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, I brought of the concept of narrowing the focus of study. Although my colleague’s topic appeared worthy of doctoral research, the proposal lacked a common and focused thread. The problem, stated in multifaceted, compound sentences lacked definition and clarity, and encompassed several specific problems. To better explain my thoughts, I shared the following true story that exemplifies the concept of identifying a narrow gap in existing knowledge.

A professional associate of mine and scientist holds a PhD in marine biology. His dissertation focused on breeding coral in a controlled, artificial environment. I asked him how he decided on such a topic. He shared his narrowing experience. He wanted to study the ocean. His chair required the topic to be narrowed because the oceans of the world were too broad. He narrowed his focus to the Atlantic Ocean. He was told to narrow further. He narrowed to the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico contained an array of aquatic life, depths and temperature of water, and a host of existing studies; more narrowing needed. He chose the waters off a Caribbean island. He was told those waters had plenty of prior studies; narrow further. He honed in on studying coral and narrowed the research to a coral reef off the island. The Chair required additional narrowing to be able to create new knowledge. After numerous attempts, the finalized topic emerged: the lack of knowledge regarding breeding coral in a laboratory. Several years of research, testing, and trial and error resulted in my associate being the first scientist to successfully breed coral in a controlled, laboratory environment. Did the scientist change the oceanic world through his research? No, yet he did make a significant contribution to the existing body of knowledge.

Regardless of your topic, recognize the importance of focusing on the narrow gap in literature. As one holding a doctorate in business, I can easily relate my coral- researching associate’s story to research within the realm of business. If you are pursuing a doctorate in business, the oceans of the business world are too broad to study. One ocean (one large business sector) is too broad. One well-researched gulf will not suffice. Will the waters off a small island in the business world be appropriate? Maybe, maybe not.

Identifying the specific problem lacking sufficient research can be an arduous task, yet represents the foundation for your study. The entirety of your study should stay keenly focused on addressing the stated problem. Are you likely to change the world within the all-encompassing realm of your topic? Probably not. Can you make a significant and worthwhile contribution to the existing body of knowledge? Absolutely!

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January 3rd, 2014 by admin

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