Sep 15, 2022

Love research, but haven’t found the research area that sparks joy?

Overview: A question landed in my inbox last week: “What are some options for a \ prospective graduate student who doesn't quite know what research area they want to pursue, but is sure research is the path for them?” Since then, this question has been crawling around my brain, trying to find an answer. So, I went ahead and drafted a response. Then I sprinkled in more insight gleaned from colleagues.


Post Contributor(s): Dr. Marian Kennedy


Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash
Congratulations! It is a terrific thing to discover you like research.


Not knowing what specific research area to pursue long term is a normal challenge that graduate students face – and even other early career researchers. You might hear that aligning your personal passions with your chosen research area is critical on all projects (‘do what you love’), but I think many faculty would attest that they conduct research on some projects that they are not passionate about but see the utility for the work (impact it can make for society, the scientific community or their institution).


I think it’s normal for your first project not to be one you fall in love with. During your first research project you are learning what research is, how to navigate the research process, etc. In conversation, I have heard other researchers light up when recalling an “ideal” project that both captured their technical interest and aligned with an area that really harnessed their personal passions. In most cases, it was not their first or second research project. This happened to me too. I worked on three projects as an undergraduate and one as a master’s student before I found that “ideal” research project. I recognized during this project that I would spontaneously start to think about it (the design, data, etc.) while working out or driving in the car to get groceries on the weekend. I would want to ‘look at one more thing’ related to the project before closing my laptop a lazy Saturday evening. While this fifth project was my “ideal”, I grew significantly as a researcher (and general scholar) through my participation on my first four research projects. My advisor patiently showed me how to cultivate new knowledge through focused thinking and actions. I learned invaluable skills and got to work with several researchers who I still look up to.


Here’s the thing. While the starting point for your research career begins with the project you pick to pursue during graduate school, it is most likely not the topical area you will be working on in five to ten years.


At the same time, the earlier you fall in love with your research topic during graduate school, the happier you will probably be and the easier it will be to overcome any challenges that arise during your program. So here are some tips for undergraduates trying to triangulate the right research area for them:

  • Make a list of the things that interest you in your discipline and personal life. For example, a materials engineering major might list “physical metallurgy” as topical area they enjoy and the identify “sustainability” as an area they have been committing free time to. Think about possible connection between items in this list. Great researchers are often known for bringing together disparate topics in ways others have not previously done. On this topic, one colleague contributed the following example.  A student who enjoys materials science and video games might pursue a new sensor materials that could enable a completely new gaming experience or how to integrate materials into the game to make it more realistic.  By bringing together different interests in their life, they will probably find a completely new set of ideas to explore.
  • Go to your department’s website (or a department where you think you might like to study) and look at each faculty member’s site. Read their research interests to get a bird’s eye view of the broad research landscape in your field. See if any of the listed topics spark your interest. If one or more do, ask the faculty member if you can meet with them to discuss their research.
  • Stop into office hours for any class in your discipline. Those instructors have set aside time to talk with you and are typically thrilled you walk through their door even if the topic is graduate school instead of the most recent course notes. Ask for their help in triangulating a research area.
  • Look at your lecture notes or flip through your old textbooks to see what sparks joy. Perhaps you really relished the days your class went over diffusion mechanisms in ceramics or the topic that enticed you to show up ten minutes early to claim a seat was a talk on identity intersectionality for design project participants. As you go through, write down your observations.
  • Talk to your friends, classmates, instructors, teaching assistants and anyone else you trust with expertise about research ideas and see if they can help you identify some potential research areas for you.
  • Reach out to graduate students in your program and ask if you can chat with them about how their research developed. See if they have suggestions of what research field might be a good match for you.
  • Read through conference programs.  For example, in my field I might look through the program for the TMS annual meeting.  


If you are not making progress on finding your research area, but you need to decide about accepting graduate school offers and are confident in your interest in conducting research, I would suggest you go to graduate school to pursue a thesis MS and try a research area that you like but are necessarily passionate about. Spend the time learning how to critically analyze the knowledge of your field, define research questions or hypothesis, etc. Working with a research team is typically a fun experience as you are all working shoulder to shoulder to find something new. A terminal MS program (rather than a project that embeds a MS on the way to the PhD) makes it easier to switch your research focus before you start your PhD work. Note that this switch may come with a minor time delay to your final graduation date, but that is relatively small compared to the length of your career.


Some programs are set up to accept students who do not quite know where their interests lay. In these programs, the graduate students rotate through research groups for the first one or two semesters in a set rotation. Go ahead and ask the graduate school coordinator how graduate students are matched with the mentors in each program.


On the other hand, consider working in industry until you find an area that you are passionate about. Through this pathway you will continue to evolve and learn while working with engineering or science practitioners. Some companies will even pay for you to pursue your graduate degree while working, which will mean you are more financially secure than a research assistant or teaching assistant.


Other articles related to this topic that you might want to read (I really appreciated the work by Emily Elia).


Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at