Cartoon image of a lecturer introducing a topic Time to spend on this section: 0.5 hours

This core theme aims to enable postgraduate students to develop the essential personal, organisational, management, theoretical and research skills needed to select an appropriate topic for a Masters/PhD research project. It will help you to develop your understanding of research philosophies, processes, design and terminology as well as personal transferable skills. 

You will be encouraged to think and act for yourselves, to develop further your existing research and writing skills and to become independent researchers. Remember - you are not just receivers of information, but questioning, critical thinkers.

A useful open access resource for this theme is Bryman and Bell's online Research Project Guide.

We have assumed that you can utilise Microsoft Office applications. If you need to brush up in this area, you may find the Impetus Self Study Courseware helpful. You will need your University of Southampton username and password to access Impetus.

IDevice Icon Activity 1: Reflection on researchers' reasons for choosing their research topic


This activity makes use of the log book for the first time in this theme. Open it now and save it to your own computer, if you have not already done so. Remember to back it up regularly.

Task 1:

Watch the automated online slide show, illustrating how real researchers have chosen their topics.

Task 2:

Write a reflection on their comments in your log book.

Research Projects

A research project is intended to develop your ability in independent advanced investigation. Projects can take myriad forms: they can be practical or, theoretical; they can be based in the laboratory, in the field, in a studio, in a workplace, or at home; they can make use of experiments, field or laboratory observations, case studies, artistic creativity, or data from secondary sources; they can be broad or narrow; they can involve the researcher as an objective individual or as a participant; the choice really is endless! With a wide variety of students with different interests, a large variety of dissertation topics can be expected. However, every student has to select an appropriate topic for study, and this is not always straightforward. It is a crucial decision and you should spend time getting it right.

It is generally accepted that postgraduate research projects must adhere to certain criteria: dissertations must include a degree of analysis and a degree of originality. The analysis can be based on experimental or observational data, field- or creative work, database(s), from archives, surveys, or even, information in the literature. Data analysis essentially means finding relationships between different items of information and may be quantitative or qualitative.

When selecting your research topic, you should not be interested in performing routine tasks, where you are repeating something that has been done many times before. In order to be able to defend the requirement for originality in postgraduate research studies, you should ask yourself: "What is new about this?" Of course, this does not mean that everything about the project must be new. As an extreme example, an extended literature survey can be considered original if the subject has not been reviewed before - such examples are rare. In this example, the reviewer would put the published papers in some sort of order, correlate them, criticise them and end up with a definitive document that can be used as a reference source. This is clearly an academic activity, BUT it does not necessarily produce original work.

Before we discuss the processes involved in choosing a research topic, we will define some key terms and concepts.