Friday, August 27, 2010

The quest for a 'useful' PhD topic

One of the first challenges a PhD student faces, is coming up with a PhD topic. This may not sound particularly challenging, but keep in mind that you will largely be dedicating the next three years of your life to this topic. When first setting out on my quest to find a PhD topic, I went well packed with my supervisors' support, a healthy dose of enthusiasm, as well as a list of requirements that my potential topic would have to meet. In short, the list I had created looked something like:

The first four points, from the beginning, provided some guidance in my search for a topic. However, the fifth point initially seemed to hinder my progress more than that it helped. I should have foreseen this, of course, when changing it from is useful for society to is 'useful' for society. Assuming that I am not citing somebody else's work, quotation marks in my writing usually indicate that it is unclear, even to myself, what I am trying to say.

Even though I didn't know what I meant exactly with the fifth point, I did know what I didn't mean. I didn't start my quest looking for a PhD topic that would revolutionise society [I'd probably never have finished in that case]. Neither was I looking for a topic that would make the world knock on my door in awe to find out about my research [idem ditto].

Though, had I known then what I know now, I clearly would have chosen chocolate as my topic.

Instead of exhausting myself trying to find a PhD topic, I saved a small amount of energy to ponder on the mysterious meaning of 'useful' for society. For many psychologists 'useful' may mean contributing to improving treatments for people suffering from debilitating mental disorders. But did it mean that to me too? No, I was quit sure that wasn’t the 'useful' I was looking for. Instead I expected that mystery would be more likely to be unraveled if I focused on everyday behaviour in everyday people.

After a couple of days largely applying Unconscious Thought Theory I agreed with myself that what useful means to me is that my research should have some value outside the lab. No matter how small. To keep myself motivated over the next few years, my research has to centre around a topic that could potentially be interesting for everyday people and their everyday behaviours.

In the end, the fifth point on my list proved a critical factor in deciding on my PhD topic. While I started out looking at how a specific type of emotional stimuli influences attention, the first, fourth, and fifth points on my list have lead me to wonder how attention is influenced by emotions themselves.

Though I cannot rule out that one day I may fall victim to media temptation, abandon the above topic and dedicate my life to finding out how attention is influenced by white chocolate.

- Joyce

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