Choosing a Topic for Doctoral Research

December 2017Victoria Flores

I have a curious mind. The many questions regularly floating in my brain as I earned my master’s degree cued me that pursuing a PhD was the right choice for me. A PhD degree program prepares students to answer the “how” and “why” research questions that shape the future of our profession.

Year one of the program taught me how to analyze, critique and, yes, question. I researched potential topics and took every assignment as an opportunity to write a paper on some different aspect of occupational and environmental health, my chosen field. I developed different research questions within my potential topics and explored how to define various components and how those components might interact.

But now I’m struggling with how to pick among the many fascinating options. How do I choose just one question – one specific topic that is meaningful, that I love and in which I can completely immerse myself? This challenge is made even more difficult by an ever-changing political climate, new occupational health topics and the question of feasibility sneaking into my decision-making process.

Every day new headlines indicate what is rising to the top of the political agenda. In the United States health care system, we recognize that how we provide care and how our patients access care are subject to change. Additionally, funding for entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can also change in an instant. I feel passionate about my research, but I have to ask: Will anybody else? Will my work get funded?

Occupational health is also changing, and one exciting research direction is an aspect of the Total Worker Health model that addresses one’s work as a social determinant of health, and encompasses a holistic approach to health in the workplace. Total Worker Health brings together workplace safety with wellness programs, compensation and benefits, organizational culture and other important contributors to health. In my role as an occupational health nurse, I regularly consider how our programming impacts the overall health of our employees, and there is an opportunity for my research to contribute a small piece to the overall Total Worker Health puzzle; but this is an extensive topic area, with countless potential questions.

On feasIbility, the advice is to start broad, then focus. I spent the first year with a very wide lens: the effect of sedentary work, physical activity and upper-extremity injuries on worker health. With such a wide net, the temptation is to take on a career-size topic like how Total Worker Health might affect these concerns. However, a topic that large isn’t necessarily feasible within a PhD education timeline.

The good news is that with each assignment, I gain a better understanding of my topic and I get a little closer to my question. The best advice I’ve received is that your dissertation is not meant to solve the problems of the entire topic area. It’s only a starting point. There is time after graduation to do a 15-year longitudinal study across multiple countries to address the big “why” and “how” questions.

Thankfully, finalizing a question is a guided process, and my advisor plays a key role in keeping me focused and organized. She is helping me use each paper to zoom in on three specific goals: determining the worker population I’m most interested in, finding the best physical activity metrics and figuring out how to include injury impacts on workers. Each course and lecture give me new insight into my topic area, and the interaction with my advisor is essential to determining the next step in my journey.

That’s the beauty of being a student.