Are you a recent graduate of a BSc or BA in Psychology? A natural progression is to next embark on a professional doctorate in psychology that will allow you to become an accredited chartered psychologist. It is definitely exciting to decide which area of psychology you will do your doctorate in. Sport psychology or health psychology? Clinical psychology? Or would you like to become a counselling psychologist?
But as a graduate of a BSc in Psychology, I would suggest that while it’s of course a big decision to choose your specialty for your doctorate, the bigger decision by far can be what research topic you choose. Given that you will be spending three to four years on your thesis, and the ultimate goal is to even have it published, the pressure is on to pick a topic that not only motivates you to do your best but is one that you won’t lose interest in.
What’s the best way to approach this daunting decision, and how can you be sure you’ll produce a research project you can be proud of?
5 Ways to choose the best research topic for your doctorate in psychology
1. Know what interests you.
It might sound obvious to say start with your existing experience and areas of interest. But it’s not as simple as seeing your interests as exactly what your research should be about. I’d suggest using what you are already involved with as instead a sort of springboard.
For example, I worked as part of a Personality disorders service in a private hospital and delivered mindfulness groups for a Dialectical behaviour therapy programme. I was particularly interested in how mindfulness could assist people diagnosed with Borderline personality disorder, where it seemed to help with serious symptoms such as self-harm.
So I began to explore mindfulness first. I asked some of the patients what they thought of the mindfulness groups. Their response ranged from ‘it’s ok’ to ‘I like it’ to ‘people that think this stuff works need to re-evaluate their lives’. This made me think that perhaps mindfulness was too broad and experientialand perhaps the patients’ treatment itself would give more focus and structure to a research topic. So I began to look at Dialectical behaviour therapy as an intervention for Borderline personality disorder.
Of course you do not have to have direct experience in a topic. It’s not a prerequisite to go with what you know, and certainly a research subject that you have a strong natural motivation for is worth your attention as well.
2. Do your initial literature searches.
Many trainees become overwhelmed by the idea that their thesis for their psychology doctorate must be an ‘original’ piece of work. They think this translates into ‘something that has never been researched before’. But it’s not what it sounds. You aren’t being tasked with changing the face of psychology!
What is actually been asked for is not something entirely groundbreaking, but rather that you add to the literature already available. This means you either address a gap, or build on existing findings.
And instead of being totally original, it is actually wiser to find a topic for which a small body of literature already exists. Why? Because there is usually good reason that some things have never been researched. Perhaps they are topics that won’t generate solid research questions, or don’t pertain strongly enough to psychological thinking. For example, you might want to research how music influences behaviour and think looking at the ways a DJ chooses a playlist could work. But you would run out of psychology to attribute to the research. Instead, the influence of music therapy on hospital inpatients would be a richer psychological angle.
To go back to my personal journey of choosing a research topic for my doctorate in psychology, and remembering I first considered a thesis around mindfulness, my search first took me to mindfulness papers which I found using the online search at the University library. My next step was a training day at the Institute of Psychiatry. This helped me to understand more about the current positioning of the topic as well as gave me the most up-to-date research. I found out mindfulness research was gravitating more towards psychosis than BPD. So I moved to looking at mindfulness as a working part of the DBT programme, refocussing on DBT. I started my search into DBT through websites such as ScienceDirect or NIH (National Institutes of Health) as well as again at my university library.
3. Answer the most important question of all – quantitative, or qualitative?
This is really the most important thing to consider when deciding on your research topic – not just what research to do but what kind of researcher you are. Are you a quantitative researcher, concerned with cause and effect with a statistical outcome, or a qualitative researcher interested in people’s experiences and narratives of events?
You need to ask yourself questions such as:
are you interested in proving if something is effective and works or does not work? (quantitative)
or are you more interested in the experiences of as people/therapists/patients and how they/you make sense of their experiences? (qualitative)
In my situation, I have always been very interested in people’s lived experience of a particular event, and in helping them to develop their own understanding of their experiences. I fit more into the qualitative researcher column. This boded well for me in my field of interest, where there was already a large body of research into the efficacy of DBT, but less focus on the direct experiences of the patients. I was far more interested in understanding how patients understood their treatment, which could perhaps help to inform future delivery of DBT and enhance treatment intervention.
4. Know your methodology and epistemology.
Horrible long words to face as you embark on your doctorate, but both methodology and epistemology are essential to understand. Methodology is the system of procedures you’ll approach your research with, and epistemology is how you position it. Positioning your research means to think about where it fits in relation to other pieces of research on the same topic, and where it fits on the qualitative-quantitative spectrum.
The mistake many trainees make is choosing their methodology before having considered what they would like to find out. It’s crucial not to make this mistake so that your methodology is consistent to answering your research questions, not the other way around. You will get into trouble if you choose the methodology first, as you will be on shaky ground when trying to justify using a particular methodology in order to answer your research questions.Instead, once have found a topic of interest and are familiar with the current research on that topic, ask yourself, what am I trying to find out?
In my situation of looking at how DBT works for Borderline Personality disorder, a quantitative study might have used the methodology of measuring severity of symptoms at the start and then end of treatment, thus coming up with a statistic. But research had already ascertained that DBT is effective in reducing BPT symptoms, and I knew I was more of a qualitative researcher. I wanted to find out how patients experience their DBT treatment and how they made sense of the changes that resulted from the treatment. This led me to look at qualitative methodologies, such as Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), a method that is concerned with the lived experiences of people and how they make sense of what has happened to them.
Epistemology is a word with original roots in philosophy. Essentially, epistemology helps you to position your research. The one extreme is ‘social constructionist’ (essentially qualitative) and the other is ‘positivist’ (essentially quantitative). A good research proposal should be able to reflect on this term and say something with regards to the positioning of the project. For example, if you are undertaking a quantitative piece of research you will be positioning your project on the positivist end of the spectrum and will need to argue and justify your reasons for choosing a positivist approach to your research.
Methodologies to look up – Qualitative: Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis IPA); thematic analysis (TA); discourse analysis (DA); narrative analysis. Quantitative: Statistics such as ANOVAs, ANCOVAs, T-tests.
5. Consider Feasibility and Ethics.
The most important point for you to note as a trainee is that rather than wanting to change the world with an innovative and radical piece of research, your thesis should be methodologically and ethically sound.
This means enquiring at your university with regards to who could supervise you, and ensuring that you have adequate support and some input from an experienced academic in your field of interest.
And no matter how dear a topic is to your heart there is no point choosing a project for your doctorate in psychology that would be impossible to recruit subjects for. So think carefully about how you will access your sample (the people that will take part in the research). I was lucky in that I had contact with a private hospital that ran a day patient DBT programme, and would also have the backing of the therapies team there. NHS Trusts are a good avenue for recruiting, although keep in mind that as a trainee you need to apply for ethical clearance through the trust you will be recruiting with, once the proposal has been passed by your university.
You can explore any challenges with feasibility and ethics in your reflexive journal. This is essentially a diary of your progress on the project from start to finish – how you felt about your research, dilemmas you faced, how you overcame challenges. Keeping a reflexive journal will enable you to confidently talk about the process of your research when it comes to VIVA – the oral panel examination at the end of the course.
In summary, here is your quick list for choosing your area of research for your professional psychology doctorate.
CHOOSE something you are interested in
ASK clinicians or university tutors with regards to your ideas
THINK are you a qualitative or quantitative researcher? What are you trying to find out?
READ online journals and be familiar with the most up to date research
Really, counselling psychology is still in its infancy. It’s exciting because this means that there is an opportunity available for the thesis you choose to write to make a real impact. You might want to consider if you can come up with a project that challenges recent criticism that counselling psychologists like to ‘navel gaze’ and look at experiences of other therapists in the profession. Consider instead a project that may have something to offer the delivery of services by influencing clinical practice, outcomes and delivery. I believe as a counselling psychologist trainee, together with qualified psychologists, we all now have the opportunity to raise the profile of counselling psychology, move the field forwards, and perhaps even one day inform government policy.
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