The Three C’s for picking your research topic

Graduate students making exciting discoveries in the library.

As scholars, how do we decide what to work on? If you have a job and a boss and they assign you to a project, setting your agenda is relatively straightforward. But if you are a graduate student or academic researcher, with control over your time and priorities, it’s on you to decide. It’s good to be purposeful about this rather than drift, because small choices made without careful consideration can snowball into multiyear commitments and, potentially, dead ends or other traps. Also, being willing and able to change your mind is very important.

In our sociology department, we assign students to write a second-year paper, to be completed by the end of their fourth semester of training. That usually mean identifying a topic sometime in the second semester and working on it for about a year. The reason I like this structure, rather than a thesis model with an open-ended timeline, is because it lets people exit a project after a year. Because choosing a project is hard, especially in your first year of grad school, it’s good to have an exit ramp if it doesn’t turn out to be a good long-term project.

The problem of identifying projects to work on is an underappreciated challenge at all career stages, but the stakes are higher when you have clocks running for funding, jobs, and promotion. Here is a way of categorizing the issues: The Three C’s.

Community (or caring, or concern)

What topic or research question matters to you and your human community? Community can be imagined here on a scale from a family to a town, a gender, an ethnic group, or the global community. If your findings won’t speak to something that moves you — in your social role — that helps you find a place of contribution to the larger society, then it is unlikely to be satisfying and motivating. It is a source of connection that humanizes your work, your career, and your life. This is more meaningful than the superficial “policy implications” sociologists often talk about in a perfunctory way. Of course things that matter socially often matter for policy, too, but if your research won’t speak to a specific policy question or debate right now, that’s fine. If it matters to your human community, that’s important.


You have to want to know the answer to your research question — and not know it already. Otherwise, it’s probably not that important and almost definitely will be boring. If your intention with research is to “show” something, that’s not a bad thing. Maybe the thing you are showing is true and important — but it’s limiting. Discovery is the lifeblood of the researching mind. There is lots of valuable intellectual work to do communicating important knowledge to people who need it, and that’s often an important part of our jobs. But that’s not research. Research is about finding answers.


Don’t jump straight here. I mean, you can, but it’s sad. You want your work to mean something to your academic discipline, to your peers, to your university overlords, to publishers and the media. Topic choice (and findings) drive a lot of attention from these sources, which can make all the difference for getting jobs, raising money, getting promotions, winning awards, achieving high status, and getting a self-driving car. And you might need to work on a topic someone else has chosen just to keep your funding in graduate school. But a career-enhancing topic also makes your work more rewarding in other ways, socially and intellectually, because it’s fun and interesting to talk about, and gives you a source of connection with other people in the field. So if the topic you care most about — that you are dying to understand, that only you can figure out — is just poison in the profession or the intellectual marketplace, you need to compromise and find a way to make it fit in better. Otherwise it may be your last research project before you have to find another line of work. And making the right choice can open a lot of doors.

Identifying the Three C’s is easier than weighting them in your decision making. But your personal formula needs to include some assessment of these elements.

2 thoughts on “The Three C’s for picking your research topic

  1. I think you are missing the fourth C – clock! how long will it take you to collect and analyze this data? Some projects are great but just too big for a dissertation. Maybe it can be scaled down. Maybe not. But try to be realistic about the time it takes to acquire datasets, do participant observation, code material (even with computer assistance). And analysis is not just an overnight recap of the most superficial results. Figuring out what it all means and what limits it has (despite all your investments of time and hard work already) is a challenge. Sometimes a diss skips through this last stage (saving it for the book or the rewritten articles), especially if the prior stages ended up being more time consuming than expected. But there is always a clock ticking, whether it is driven by funding or career perspective.

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