Grad School 101: Discover your research interests!

By Emily Elia: You can develop your research interests as you navigate grad school.

Student in lab working with purple gloves

Most people apply to graduate school with at least a vague idea of what they would like to research, but how developed those interests are at the start can vary greatly. While some grad students have specific interests early-on, others only begin with a general concept of where to focus their research. Other students may come in with research interests that change drastically over time. Every senior-level grad student will have a unique story of how their research agenda developed. This article offers some insight on the process of developing your research interests as you navigate grad school.

It’s okay to begin with only general ideas!

You don’t have to enter graduate school with an outline of what your future dissertation will look like, and people won’t expect that of you at the beginning! It’s totally normal to only have some general ideas of what you would like to study. You may also find yourself torn between multiple ideas, needing more time to explore in order to determine what you most want to study. If you are uncertain about how to deepen your interests, try to connect with other graduate students and scholars who are studying things that you think you would like to study. Reach out to senior graduate students in your program who study similar things and ask if you can chat with them about how their research developed. Read the work of scholars who publish studies related to your interests in order to get a better sense of the recent work out there. This will help you become more knowledgeable about the field, and you will gain a better understanding of how you will contribute to this research as a developing scholar.

You are not necessarily bound by your personal statement.

Grad school, especially the first few years, can be a constant flood of new information. You will inevitably take a deeper dive into what you think your interests may be, but you will also be exposed to new areas of research that may excite you! As you learn more, you may take a new direction. Every graduate program will have its own department policies and norms regarding the flexibility of students’ intended track of study, so it’s important to understand these thoroughly before making any big changes in your research agenda, but many graduate programs do not expect you to strictly follow the research interests you described in your personal statement.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that seamlessly changing your research interests can be limited by the focuses of the faculty in your department. If you realize that you want to study something that no faculty in your program specialize in, you may run into problems. You may find that there are no longer any faculty matches with your new agenda and nobody to serve as your advisor. If your interests develop into something that is absent in your department, it may be helpful to talk with faculty members you trust about what your next steps should be. Faculty members may see the change as less drastic than you think, and they may have ideas on how you can re-establish your dissertation committee and mentors to better fit your new agenda.

It's better to make big changes earlier on.

Graduate programs will each have their own timelines regarding when students must formally declare their advisor, their dissertation committee, their intended research agenda, etc. Generally, changing your research agenda drastically will be easier to navigate while you are still in the early stages of your program. For example, if you know by the second semester of your first year that the research interests you outlined in your personal statement no longer appeal to you, then you likely still have considerable amount of time to reassess your interests and explore which faculty members you can work with. The further along you get in your program, the trickier it will be to change your research agenda without disrupting the timeline of your degree. Furthermore, it will give you much more time to think about your dissertation topic. Though your dissertation topic is often not needed until you are a few years into your program, you will eventually need to declare something, and it may take a few months of workshopping and exploring to solidify your focus. If you have a feeling that you may not be interested in the research areas you first thought to pursue, explore this change as soon as possible.

Be smart about the projects you decide to pursue.

It is great to take time to explore potential avenues of research, especially during the beginning of grad school. However, as you continue through your program and begin to shape your research agenda, you do want to think about creating a cohesive body of work that represents who you are as a researcher. What kind of scholar do you want to be? This does not mean that you can’t have varied interests, but the projects you pursue should be able to showcase just what it is that you study. If you have five projects that are all completely unrelated to one another, it will be difficult for other scholars to determine what exactly it is that you do. Many scholars can fit their work under some kind of thematic “umbrella.” For example, a person pursuing a Ph.D. in History may decide to focus their academic career on naval history, and so the majority of their projects will arise from this cornerstone of naval history.

The research projects you pursue can be varied, but remember that your time and resources are finite! When deciding which projects to invest in, think about how the projects would fit in your overall portfolio as a scholar. There are so many cool topics of study out there; unfortunately, we must pick only a handful to focus on ourselves, at least at the start of our career. If a project comes along that is entirely unrelated to your research agenda, it is important to take the time to consider if it is really worth pursuing. Your research agenda does not have to focus on only one thing, but you do want people to be able to look at your projects and develop a general understanding of what you focus on and where your research fits in your field.

Recognize where you can cut your groove as a scholar.

You are likely in graduate school because there is something out there—a big question, a theory, a phenomenon—that deeply interests you. It is important to pursue research that you care about and genuinely like. Motivating yourself to power through difficult work that you hate will certainly not make graduate school any easier! That being said, it is also important to recognize that you are in graduate school to pursue original, innovative research. You are not in graduate school to study something that somebody else has already dedicated their life’s work to but rather to become an expert in an area of study that needs to be developed. Thus, your research interests cannot be carbon copies of other scholars’ work. When developing your research agenda, you want to think about where you can make a contribution to your field of study. What will you be the expert in?

At the same time, it is important to realize that, as you develop as a scholar, people will not always describe your research in nitty-gritty detail. Rather, your work will find its place in broader “camps” of research in your field. For example, in the field of political science, people will initially describe what they study in very general terms: I study representation in democracies, or I study international organizations. These scholars would study specific facets of these areas, but their peers know which camps they belong to. As you develop your own research agenda, you will find your groove of expertise and your broader camp.

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.