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Choosing a topic and supervisor

Getting your topic right

The process of choosing a topic requires a lot of research in itself. While you may have already developed a deep interest in an area, additional reading within and around that area of interest will usually be required before you arrive at the ‘right’ topic or project.

Useful online resources

The Thesis Whisperer:

Many research students have found this blog useful, especially for developing research questions:

You can follow this blog which links members to other research students around Australia and the world. The blog is dedicated to helping research students and is edited by Dr Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the ANU.

The Research Whisperer:

Another online resource, which includes a specific focus on research in professional academia and funding.

The University of Sydney’s Learning Centre:

The Learning Centre provides a publication called Writing a Thesis Proposal, which outlines how to develop a thesis proposal, as well as providing information regarding differences between disciplines in terms of issues such as:

  • Students’ range of topic choice
  • Students’ degree of freedom in choosing specific research questions
  • The overall timing of research projects

Be aware that your thesis topic may change over time as you get further in to your research. This is not uncommon.

Choosing a supervisor

Now that you have a research topic, you are ready to approach potential supervisors. If you do not have an immediate idea for a research supervisor the best way forward is to look at the University of Sydney’s Research Supervisor Connect webpage:

This lists all academics eligible for either Master’s or Doctorate research, or auxiliary supervision according to Faculty and areas of research interest.

When deciding who you want your supervisor to be, consider which is the relevant Faculty for your research area and whether your research area lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach. You will need to decide on your ‘home’ Faculty where your coordinating supervisor is located, while potentially having a co-supervisor or auxiliary supervisor guidance from an academic or expert from a different Faculty, or even from a different institution, industry or field.

It is best to contact an academic who has researched and written in the area you are interested in, to determine whether they have the interest, time and capacity to take on supervision of a research student. It is recommended that you write a concise summary of your research area/topic (utilising the Learning Centre’s resources), send it to the academic, and then meet to discuss your proposal.

If the academic is interested and gives a positive response, it’s a good idea to check with them how many research students they currently supervise. While having many HDR students suggests a popular and possibly successful supervisor, you deserve to have sufficient time and support. University policy specifies that the maximum number of research students each supervisor should have is five, unless special approval is given to take on more.

What qualities do you look for in a supervisor? Most students prioritise an academic who has good knowledge of their area of interest, and ideally also has good “people” skills. The role of supervisor requires a reasonable grasp of the academic and administrative policies and processes involved in supervising a research student. Ask other research students about their experiences with different supervisors in the Faculty. Knowing yourself and especially your limitations may also mean you require a supervisor who can provide the appropriate level of support for you. There will be situations where you are assigned a supervisor from commencement and you are spared the joys of looking for a supervisor. Often this works well.

If you develop doubts about the quality of your supervisory relationship, consider what is important to you and consider contacting your Faculty postgraduate research coordinator to talk through your issues. Sometimes a student and their supervisor become incompatible for reasons including but not limited to change in research area or direction, or personality clashes. Seek early advice from your Faculty postgraduate research coordinator and identify if you need to change supervisors.

Bear in mind a PhD student may opt for supervisory arrangements such as co-supervisors or a panel. Although University policy states you must have at least a research supervisor and an auxiliary supervisor, you will be expected to work intensively with your research supervisor and in many cases students do not receive active supervision by an auxiliary unless they are appointed as co-supervisor, or as an expert supervisor, and have a delegated supervision role.

See also: supervision, your rights and responsibilities

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