‘Help! I have to choose a research topic!’ Students often email me with very open questions when they’re stressed and I am their last resort so I’m guessing this may be something along those lines. I feel for you. It really is tough when you don’t know what to write. This is my effort to be helpful.
The first thing to do is to narrow down the field. If your research topic needs to be literary then try looking at topics which come up frequently. In Shakespeare you would find things like politics, ideals of justice, gender roles, marriage, fate, money. If you know which book or writer you’re going to be looking at then the simplest thing is to take a few pages and underline every instance of key themes. Pretty soon you’ll find out which ideas crop up most often.
You then need to determine how much secondary material you can find (critical studies, course notes, lectures etc). If you’re lucky you’ll find you have a shortlist and can choose the subject that interests you most. If not pick the one you have most material for. It’s important that your research topic is achievable given the materials you have available.
My first idea for my Phd research was to study the darker side of Jane Austen. I was 22 and full of enthusiasm… I had an appointment with an Austen specialist. He was terrifying 🙂 . He listened to my ideas and agreed with me. “One problem. How are you going to prove it?” Cassandra (Ausen’s older sister) famously burned anything vaguely interesting about Austen… Bummer. Austen’s remaining letters and novels simply don’t provide enough evidence for a PhD on the darker side of Jane Austen – or even a decent essay – Cassandra was pretty thorough. I have never forgotten his wise (and very gracious) advice to go where the evidence leads. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore your gut completely but it means that you need to prioritise the evidence.
Students don’t like to hear this but you can write well on something you’re not interested in (you will probably find that you develop an interest as you go along) but you can’t write well on something if you have no supporting evidence – you won’t be able to construct a convincing argument. It is also not possible to write well on something you struggle to understand. If you really don’t understand metaphysics for example, choose something else.
The simple rule is to always let the literature determine your ideas, not vice versa. Don’t pick a topic and then try to find it in the literature – pick something that is already there. Not only will you write better, you’ll find it easier.
Good luck guys.