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Orginality of a research topic


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Hello,

I have a potential research topic for a PhD application next year, however, I am afraid that other applicants might choose the exact same topic since it is very much talked about in the media right now. (I haven't told anyone other than my supervisor and another professor in another departement about my idea). I think it might be a good research topic for me because when I'll apply to do a Ph.D, and suppose I'll be a few years into the program, data for my topic should be available... but I'm afraid my topic won't be original anymore because someone else will decide to work on it.

Any thoughts or experiences re: this? 

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I think it's harder to get completely "scooped" on a PhD dissertation in this manner than it sounds. PhD dissertation topics are often very very specific and although I don't know what your thinking about, I would generally think that things that are talked about in the media are going to not be specific enough to be a dissertation. Or, to put it another way, you almost always approach the problem in a different way in order to have a unique dissertation. Note also that PhD dissertations take awhile to complete, so what's hot in the media right now may not be on people's minds by the time you're done. And during that time period, there's lots of time to refine the topic.

It is fairly common for PhD students to get some results partially scooped during their PhD though. It happened to me and many other people I know. It's inevitable when you are trying to work at the frontiers of human knowledge! There's going to be some things that the are "obvious" or the easiest things to do ("low hanging fruit" is often the expression). Going after these things is risky but could have good rewards. Often, PhD students don't always go for it because other, more experienced researchers can do it first. At the same time, sometimes you can still spin it to be a significant result even if it's not first and still make it into your dissertation.

In any case, if you have an interesting idea it's definitely a good thing to discuss with your future PhD advisor. They will know if there's a way to spin it so that you don't get scooped. And even if it turns out not to be a feasible PhD topic, it might lead to another topic that's perfect! If I were to give advice to a new PhD student, I would say that your PhD topic should have some element to it that makes it only possible for you to complete. In my field, this is often because you are doing a specific type of analysis on a specific planet. Other people might do very similar things with different planet data, but your PhD thesis is on this other specific one. This lowers the chance that someone will do exactly what you are doing. However, if you are picking a very popular planet, then that might be an issue. In my field, your PhD advisor would know who else is doing what (all telescope proposals are generally publicly known). And if your data requires very very specific telescope resources that are very valuable (e.g. space telescopes), the committees that determine who gets time will rarely award telescope time to another group if the telescope already took similar data. Usually, if you win a telescope data competition, then you alone have access to the data for some short period and then it becomes publicly available. However, people are expected to not just jump into the archives and use other people's data without at least talking to the original proposers first. And it's a extra crappy move to do this to a PhD student.

The above is an example from my field, but I figure that most fields have some sort of system to ensure everyone can do interesting work without too much fear/paranoia (which often leads to people publishing low quality science quickly in the hopes of being first even though it might be wrong and hurt everyone in the subfield). In any case, discussions with your PhD advisor will help, it's their job to guide you through these challenges.

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3 hours ago, Adelaide9216 said:

Hello,

I have a potential research topic for a PhD application next year, however, I am afraid that other applicants might choose the exact same topic since it is very much talked about in the media right now. (I haven't told anyone other than my supervisor and another professor in another departement about my idea). I think it might be a good research topic for me because when I'll apply to do a Ph.D, and suppose I'll be a few years into the program, data for my topic should be available... but I'm afraid my topic won't be original anymore because someone else will decide to work on it.

Any thoughts or experiences re: this? 

  • Chances are that since your idea is "very much" in the public consciousness via the media that other academics have done some sort of research on it. 
    • It is not likely that the two professors you've shared the idea with are up to date with all the latest research on your proposed topic.
    • Use the skills you're developing to research the existing literature--you may be chasing information that's mention in passing or relegated to the references.
      • Which will suck if your field uses short citations.
      • (History is the greatest field of study there is in the humanities and the social sciences. Just reminding everyone.:D )
  • There's a big difference between creating new knowledge and being completely original. 
    • If one interpretation of the alphabet is A-Z, and another is A-X, Z, and Y, both are contributions to a field.
  • You will be better off if you can anchor your approach to the issue to an established scholarly debate.
    • If you're too far afield, the cutting edge becomes the bleeding edge. (Or so I've heard.)
  • If your topic is heavily reliant on data analysis, it might behoove you to start looking into the potential impact of AIs and ASIs on your field. 
    • Are you learning skills that will be less relevant a few years from now?
  • If you've not done so already, consider the benefits of keeping some sort of idea journal.
    • Jot down your thoughts over and again--you may notice that you either phrase or conceptualize it differently every time. 
    • Over time, as you think, read, think, and think about your idea, the concept may become ever clearer. Or foggier. Or both. Or so I've heard.

 

 

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