Acing Postgraduate Research

What does it take to make a killer research?

A postgraduate is defining. It is a pivotal stepping stone that is supposed to further your professional standing. While students can afford to experiment and explore at undergraduate levels, there is no room for ambivalence at the postgraduate level – and even more so if you are doing a degree by research.

Of the many things you need to consider as you approach your postgraduate by research, two will make the biggest impact on your quality of life and study – your choice of a research topic and your relationship with your research supervisor. Acing postgraduate research Even before embarking on their research, would-be postgraduates need to think carefully about two success determinants – research topic and working with a research supervisor. EMILY LOH offers some advice.

Bearing in mind that the end goal is to, “…do the right research as well as to do the research right. You need to do ‘wow’ research, research that is compelling, not just interesting,” as George Springer, chairman of the aeronautics and astronautics department at Stanford University, puts it. Here are some key questions you need to consider when deciding on these two crucial matters.


The most critical decision you make in your postgraduate studies relates to the research topic you choose. The implications are far-reaching and affect your career, future research work as well as time and resources. Quite simply, it’s a decision you want to get right at the start rather than back tracking and restarting the whole process.

John Komlos, co-author of The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars from Graduate School through Tenure, succinctly explains it in his book, “Never lose sight of the fact that the dissertation should be the crowning achievement of your graduate education and will influence the direction of your career for many years to come. It will take years to write and might well require a couple more years of polishing to make it publishable. Inasmuch as you are locking yourself into a project that will occupy a big chunk of your life, this decision should not be made lightly.”

Does the university support it?
This is the first question you need to answer before you can dig deeper into other pertinent questions. If your university does not have the facilities, staff and/or expertise to support your chosen topic then you have to either rethink the topic or the institution. In fact, this is a question you need to answer even before you start filling in application forms!

What are your areas of interest?
In the months, maybe even years, ahead, much of your life will revolve around your research project. It makes good sense that you choose an area/theme/subject you find interesting. Not only will the time spent on the research be more enjoyable, the quality of your work will also reflect your passion.

According to, a portal for students looking for information on postgraduate-related courses in the United Kingdom, here are some questions you should consider:

• What themes particularly interested you in your undergraduate programme?

• If you are a master’s student or have completed a master’s degree, what themes interested you in your master’s degree?

• What are the current “hot” topics in the field? In other words, what topics is there most discussion about either in the research papers or in the popular journals?

• If your field is a professional field (such as medicine, teaching, business, law), what are the current “hot” professional issues that there is most discussion about?

• Are there any issues in the field that are particularly important to your own national setting?

• Are there any themes or topics that have interested you since you were young?

What are the interesting topics within your interest areas?
Once you have identified your interest it’s time to go deep into each area, listing down topics within those areas. Then you need to consider the key questions within each topic and which one is the most viable, that is, “it is a question that needs answering and…that can be answered in your size of project,” explains “The most successful research topics are narrowly focused and carefully defined, but are important parts of a broad-ranging, complex problem,” says Cliff Davidson and Susan Ambrose of Carnegie Mellon University.

Will it enhance your career?
You will reap an even plumper reward at the end of your postgraduate journey if you give careful thought about how your research choice today will impact your future marketability. Academicians-to-be should pick topics that can be easily translated into journal articles or published works while those who plan to go into industry should choose areas that will increase your market value.

According to Your PhD Companion: The Insider Guide to Mastering the Practical Realities (Stephen Marshall and Nick Green), “Your supervisor is likely to be the single most significant individual in influencing the success of your PhD. Choosing your supervisor, understanding their roles – including those that are nothing to do with supervising you – and understanding their advice will be crucial to a smooth, successful PhD experience.”

As with all relationships, it will take open communications, mutual respect and clear expectations to make it work between you and your research supervisor.

What is your supervisor’s working style?
Your supervisor’s “job” is to, well, supervise. That means he or she will largely leave you to do your own thing until you ask for help. At a master’s or doctoral level, it is assumed that students have the maturity and necessary skills to manage their work without too much hand holding. Some supervisors though may be more involved and are happy to offer more guidance.

For a more pleasant experience both ways, establish from the start how your supervisor works and thinks. In its website, the University of Reading writes, “Knowing this will help you better understand the direction and purpose behind their advice.” Identifying your supervisors learning preferences will also help you establish a more effective working relationship and how you can compromise to suit your individual styles.

But expect that a lot of the finer details of how you will work together will need to be negotiated so it is wise to set out, at the start, the terms of engagement (so to speak) that will suit both parties. Anything from how often you want to meet and what are your targeted deadlines to your supervisor’s preference for contact and progress reports is up for discussion.

What can you expect from your supervisor?
Certain terms of your relationship with your supervisor are crystal clear though. The University of Reading lists the following as the things you can expect your supervisor to fulfil on his/her part:

• Regular supervision meetings

• Timely feedback on work

• Some direction in planning your research in its early stages

• Some advice on manageable goals and deadlines

• Some guidance on standard of work expected

• Help in getting appropriate training

• Some advice on suitable books, sources, material

• Support in becoming a more independent researcher

That said it would help if you are clear about your specific expectations. For example, if you want him/her to revert with comments by a specific date, let him/her know in advance.

What will your supervisor expect from you?
This being a two-way street, your supervisor will also have some expectations from you. The following are suggested by the University of Reading and

• Be punctual for meetings

• Take initiative in raising any problems/asking questions

• Agree on manageable deadlines with supervisor

• Produce work according to agreed schedule

• Keep in contact with supervisor and department

• Be prepared for discussions

• Read widely and keep up to date with developments in your field

• Become more independent in directing your research

• Get appropriate training

• Become more able to assess the quality of own work

• Be enthusiastic and interested in your research

• Be open to advice though this does not mean that you will have to blindly follow everything that your supervisor suggests.

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