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How did you discover your research interests?

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I'm about to finish my first year in a Psychology PhD program. Since starting the program, I've been doing some research on a topic that was related to my undergrad research, but it's time for me to start moving in a new direction, and I'm not sure how to figure out what I want to research. My advisor is very flexible and keeps encouraging me to explore something I'm interested in, but I'm so used to people just telling me what to research that I'm not even sure what I'm passionate about. I've also been a bit anxious and depressed dealing with the pressures of grad school so it's been particularly difficult to identify things that interest me. 

What can I do to help narrow my interests? There are a lot of things in my area of psychology that I find compelling, but I can't decide which ones I'm the most interested in. I know I don't have to figure out my whole career trajectory in this moment, but I'm having trouble just deciding on my next move. 

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I’ve always thought that becoming acquainted with the literature in your area is always the first step to develop your research interests and hopefully, by the end of graduate school, a research program.

 

Now that takes time, though. I have 11 folders with potential PhD dissertation topics that I left unfinished (maybe I’ll start working on them in the future, who knows) before I found “the one”. And I think “the one” usually comes with a question from you or some sort of realization that there’s this area that has gone vastly unexplored or maybe people are looking into it but you have a different idea of how to go about it. Like, you say there are many areas in your field that you find interesting. Pick maybe a few of those many and ask yourself a question that you’re interested in. See who has looked into this and how. Then try making it more specific and keep going until you find an area for you to start doing research and develop. If by the time you’ve got to that level of specificity you no longer find the area compelling or it’s become plain boring, then maybe move on to the next.

 

I honestly feel the majority of us go at this via trial-and-error so I wouldn’t be too worried about not having very defined research interests at this stage.

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I had a process of bashing different things together to see what stuck. For example, I might read a book and go 'oh, x theme is really cool', then read another book and think 'wow, y setting is really up my street', then I'll look at putting x theme and y setting together. Then I just kept going further down the rabbit hole, as it were, dissecting x theme and y setting and getting more specific until I found what I really enjoyed researching. So it started out for me by broadly mashing together literature and history, but then going forward and looking at specific kinds of literature, different periods of history etc, and repeating that same process of throwing interesting combinations together until I found something really cool. So yeah, there is definitely a lot of trial and error, and I agree that stumbling across that one thing that nobody has really studied before can really define your interests.

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I totally agree with what the other posters said about familiarizing yourself with the literature and connecting ideas that interest you to form your own unique research. I would also suggest considering how your previous research and work experience might inform what you choose to study. For me (in cultural anthropology) I knew my geographic area of interest, and I knew that I wanted to combine the experience I gained from working abroad with indigenous groups/non-profits and studying some aspect of material culture production from a modern perspective, something I became interested in through my thesis research. I found two or three specific places in which I could apply these research ideas, and then read as much existing literature as I could. I stumbled across a few articles on a place/people that completely aligned with my interests. The anthropologist who wrote those articles is a professor at the school I ultimately applied to and will be attending this fall, and she will be my main adviser. 

IMO, the great thing about the social sciences is that there are always more ideas to be explored and new directions to take with research. If you take the time to read through the existing literature, find the ideas that most interest you, and determine how you could expand on those ideas and explore them in new ways, you may be able to develop multiple multiple research questions to pursue. 

 

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For me, I did a lot of reading and research on my own, and I kept a little Word document "journal" in which I summarized the ideas that I liked very briefly. Re-reading and adding to that document caused me to put it all together into a haphazard kind of methodology I wanted to use to study my subject (early Christian history and material culture.) I never thought I would come to my research subject this way, but I actually have a sense of my methodology rather than a clear sense of the specific texts and artifacts I want to study. It was clear enough of a methodology that it got me accepted to grad school, and now I'm focused on applying my ideas to various texts and artifacts and seeing how they stand up so that I can refine them further.

I guess what I'm getting at is finding a research topic is kind of a process. Try writing out all the researchers, theories, and subjects you find interesting and see where it leads you. ;) You probably have more of a sense of the kind of research you want to do than you realize. 

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