Formalized Curiosity: Narrowing Your PhD Research Focus

Featured Article | January 10, 2017 | By Mary Ann Meeker, DNS, RN, Assistant Dean, PhD Program; Associate Professor

Studying for a PhD is qualitatively different from any education you have undertaken before. You are being invited – and, indeed, required – to make an original contribution to knowledge. Your coursework will provide you with many tools to be used toward this goal. The heart of PhD education is learning how to do research. Nearly everything you do during your program will share that primary focus.

Choose a research area that you find deeply meaningful and engaging.

There is no need to know, on entering the program, how you will conduct your dissertation study. But it is hugely helpful to know what problem or phenomenon you want to study.

Given that nursing’s embrace is so broad – human response to health and illness – there are diverse sources from which your passion may arise. For many, it comes from clinical practice or from personal or family experience. For others, the choice may arise from awareness of profound social needs, such as the health needs of refugees or inequitable access to health-supportive resources for particular sub-groups of the population. Whatever your interests, you will need the energy of your enthusiasm for a problem area to sustain you through the inevitable challenges and times of tedium.

Depending on the breadth of the area that piques your interest, you will also want to identify the population in which you are interested.

For example, if the health problem that most interests you is addictive behaviors, what within that broad area do you want to study in depth? For example, you may want to study gambling addiction in older adults or prescription opioid abuse by teenagers.

Similarly, if your clinical passion has been caring for patients with prostate cancer, think about what group of patients or aspect of prostate cancer you want to focus on.

Is it newly diagnosed patients, or patients experiencing recurrent disease following a significant disease-free period, or prostate cancer screening and prevention, or the sources and consequences of health disparities in prostate cancer. You get the idea.

Getting clarity on these issues before you begin the program helps you make the most efficient use of your investment in PhD study.

Nearly every course you take will offer an opportunity to advance your knowledge in your focus area. You’ll be able to choose topics for papers and presentations that meet course requirements AND move you ever closer to expertise.

There is an expression that conveys that you are becoming an expert in your chosen area – you will need to “own” the literature. This means reading broadly and deeply, especially the empirical and theoretical literature. From this extensive reading and studying, you will learn what is already known about your topic. In addition, you will understand how it has become known, that is, what methods were used and what theoretical perspectives were employed. You will be able to identify the burning and important questions in the field. Of course, there will no doubt be multiple important questions. At that point, choose what most intrigues you (and that your advisor agrees is feasible!) and make your original contribution.

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