How to Choose a PhD Research Topic in English Literature

How to Choose a PhD Research Topic in English Literature

To pick a right topic for research in English Literature during PhD is something a huge task. There are many topics out there for a good research. Here are my tips on how to rightly choose a PhD research topic in English Literature

  • Choose the right poet or author that interests your topic.
  • Ask PhD. supervisor the relevance of the poet to research.
  • Search for some areas of research taken in the past.
  • Choose a new topic that was not researched in the past.
  • Check if sufficient Primary Sources are available or not.
  • Try to take help from professors around you.
  • Buy some books that are relevant to English Literature.
  • Read for some days about the research topic.
  • Read more literary theories and apply them to your PhD topic.

The proven way to choose a research topic in English Literature is to ask your professor on what they have researched upon while they had been doing their Ph.D. After this, you have to search for new trending topics at the present time. If someone has got an award or Nobel prize, Take that person and it is always best. Every year there are awards given to the authors who contributed well to English Literature. Choose a topic from them.

First, choose the right author to research

You’re about to choose an author to research for your Ph.D. in English literature.  This is important and so you should take your time doing.  You want to ensure the author is someone who is interesting and intriguing for everyone in the literary academic world.  The words of the author need to be words that will make you think, question and analyze.

Start off broadly, looking at a number of authors.  Slowly narrow down your search. You need to connect to the author – how is his or her work significant, why does it appeal to you, will it appeal to academics, is there enough to write on, and is he or she relevant.  Look at how much work he or she has written and made quite sure you can get your hands on the books.

Relevance is important. We live in a time where gender is a top priority, as is history, politics, art, feminism, sexism, the way stories are told and who tells them.  Your Ph.D. is going to be based on this author.  His or her words need to be relevant, perhaps controversial and significant.  This author needs to be engaging and someone whose work you can engage with.

Learn more about the books of the author

As an academic, reading and research are the two most important thing you are going to do.  You need to read as much as you possibly can, not just on the author of your choice, but all the books written by the author of your choice.  Reading is something that you learn from but also something that stimulates you and gives you your own writing style.

The more you can learn about the author, the better you can come up with a research topic in English literature.  Read as many of his or books as possible, but also, read books or articles that have been written about the author.  After a while, you will start to feel like you know and understand the author.  This is what you want.  The more you read, the more knowledgeable you become, in every aspect.

If you cannot find the books – some may be obscure – spend time in libraries.  Libraries are in fact very conducive to writing a Ph.D. – something about the bookshelves, space, the solitude and of course, the history.    Remember, you want to find angles or information on the author that is new.  Look online, look in libraries and don’t feel shy to ask your lecturers if they have books for you to borrow.

Learn more about the author’s personal life

You may already know that what an author writes about does not have to reflect his or her personal life.   Which means when you are researching an author, you do not only want to learn about his or her written words?  These words are important.  But so are their personal words.  Personal lives give you a good insight into the author too.  If he or she had children, did they work alone, how did they die?

When we say personal words, we also mean personal life.  Because the written word is different to the ‘living word’, an author can have many personas.  Perhaps they write about sexuality in a very open way yet in real life, are deeply conservative.  This makes for an interesting Ph.D.  Knowing how the author lived out her personal life is very important.

You are going to have to delve into realms of information to learn about an author’s personal life.  This is going to be interesting for you, and for your reader.  In today’s world of fake news, you also need to be very careful.  Double check your sources, always, to ensure you are getting and then choosing out the correct information.  Read, and then read some more.

Read thoroughly all the novels for ten days

This may seem extreme to you, but we have already said that a successful Ph.D in English Literature is about reading and research.  You’ve chosen your author and you’ve written out a list of his or her books.  Now, you are going to curl up in a corner somewhere, or at your desk, and read.  We’ve already said it but the more you read, the more you learn.

Spend the next ten days reading. This way you are immersing yourself in the author’s words, subjects, feelings, emotions, history, religion, characters, sexuality, gender and more.  The more you read, the more you will start to understand your chosen author and to feel and think the way the author did or does. Remember, reading not only educates you, but it also inspires you.

Make notes as you read.  Choose a pen or highlighter and highlight those passages that make you really think.  Cross-reference paragraphs, characters, emotions or metaphors.  Take note of anything you find important or astonishing or unusual or surprising.  Go back to your notes.  Your very Ph.D. may relate to your first few notes.  Keep all your reading material too; one day you are going to need it.  All Ph.D. students seem to buy new bookshelves!

Write down the summaries on your own

The best way to understand something, and to remember something, is to write.  The more you write, the easier things will stick in your head.  Read a book, or a few chapters, and then write your own summaries.  Chances are your time is limited, which is why summaries are good.  Also, when you write a summary, things start becoming clearer and you may have an epiphany.

If the book you are reading has 15 chapters, perhaps summarize after every chapter.  This is a personal choice – and of course, it depends on the books – but more summaries are better than less.  Summarize in your own words and you will find that through summaries, you find your own style too.  Cross-reference your summaries to the books you are reading.

When we say write, you may enjoy writing and you may enjoy typing.  This is personal.  Academics can generally be seen in front of their computers, hammering away at their keyboards.  Type if you like, but sometimes writing with a pen and paper can actually get your creative juices flowing in a different way.  Writing makes you think and gives you the ability to see things in a fresh way too.  Always write, as much as you can.

Take a course on literary theories

There are many online literary theory courses that you can choose and we would suggest you sign up for one.  The literary theory may seem academic and overwhelming but once you understand it, you’re on your way to writing a successful and highly revered Ph.D.  Take a look and see how many prestigious universities offer courses on literary theory.  That way you will see how important it is to do one.

A literary theory course will change the way you think about language, literature, society, and identity.  A course will help you hone your critical reading skills and to understand theoretical terms such as postcolonialism, deconstruction, and Marxist criticism.  A literary theory course will arm you with all the skills that you will need to dissect, criticize, analyze and understand your author, subject or topic you are researching.

There are many literary theory courses and you need to find one that will help you with your subject.  A literary theory course will help you understand how you should approach literature, criticism verse theory, structure, analysis, and psycho-analysis of the subject and the author.  You can choose to do one literary theory course and do it in your own time.  There are many online courses; do one for a successful Ph.D.

Learn to relate those theories to each other

You’re writing a Ph.D. which is a huge step.  You are going to bring in various literary theories which means not only do you need to understand the various literary theories, but you need to know how they all relate to one another.  For a Ph.D. to be successful, you need to discuss, analyze, criticize and be open for debate.  You also need to be open to criticism.

Take a look at the various literary theories.  There are traditional literary theories and also formalism and new criticism. There are Marxism and critical theory and then there’s structuralism and post-structuralism.  You are likely comfortable with some theories, and others not so much.  Remember, fellow academics are going to question your theories and criticize you.  Criticism is not always bad.  It is academic criticism and it is there for a reason.  Your research needs to be complete.

Again, a literary theory course can help you.  Depending on your subject and author of choice, depends on which theories you will need to bring in.  There are others – including new historicity and cultural materialism, ethnic studies and post-colonialism criticism.  You need to relate them to one another.  A course may help you to pick a good topic for PhD English literature.

Now think about how the author followed theories in novels

It’s important to note that in the academic world there are often many complex perspectives regarding literary theories.  You need to read about your chosen author and have a look at how he or she followed literary theories in their books.  Was there consistency?  Was there a specific literary theory that was followed?

Sometimes the theories are simple and easy to follow.  Sometimes there is a single theory or theme in a book.  Sometimes theories are mixed, or many sides are given.  You need to be able to read, review, analyze and understand the theories your author chose to follow.  And your research needs to be so good, that fellow academics can analyze too and have brainwave moments from your writing.

Reading needs to be engaging, no matter the kind of reading.  It also needs to make you think. Reading should stimulate.  Sometimes, more than one theory is applied so that there are conflicting views, ideas, debate, and discussion.    Take a look carefully at the author you are researching, their books, and the ideas that are put forward.  Do they follow the theories you have been learning about?  If so, which one or which ones.  Do you have any theories of your own?

Choose one theory that pins your interest

You may find some literary theories more exciting than others.  Perhaps post-colonialism is your thing, or Marxist criticism excites you. The trick is not to get too tied down to one theory, too soon.  Read, read again, make notes, summarize and review.  And look at various literary theories.  You are going to find that some theories absolutely fascinate you and others you find irrelevant.  Make notes and slowly you will be lead towards the theories that are right for you.

The more you read and make notes, the more one particular theory is going to leap out at you.  It may be a slow process and in fact, the slower the better. This means your thinking is going to be clearer, and more critical.  Once you find yourself honing in on a certain theory, you will find your direction.

Let’s say poststructuralism has caught your interest.  You will now start thinking in a different light.  You will find yourself coming up with your own theories, perhaps relating theories together, perhaps finding clarity in just the one.  Make notes – you may not use them all, but you will find them useful when you start tying everything together.   And always, always, theorize.

Jot down what others are researching

If you have not yet decided on your topic, make sure you know what other students are researching, or thinking of researching.  You do not want to suddenly find out you are doing the same thing.  And you do not want to waste your time.   Jot down other people’s topics.  Jot down any ideas you have and at some point, you will find it all comes together.  Wake up and make notes.  Sit with fellow researchers and make notes.

The thing about choosing a PhD research topic in English literature is that you constantly need to listen, read, listen to some more, research and keep reading.  You also need to open yourself up to the conversation, with other researchers, Ph.D. students, and lecturers.  Talk to others, even if your literary topics are different.  Or even to make sure that they are different.

The academic world is constantly bouncing ideas off one another. It’s important to talk about your ideas, to get feedback on your ideas, and to listen to other people’s ideas.  Keep a notebook with you at all times and jot down what and how other people are doing their research.  You are not going to copy anyone, but you are going to find inspiration and you are going to inspire others.

Don’t take already beaten topics

You need to put effort into finding the right PhD topic. This can take time and be agonizing.  It may seem like each topic you are choosing has already been taken.  Take your time and find a topic that appeals to you, will challenge you and will exit you.  Find a topic where you can give new and exciting information too.

Choosing a topic for your PhD in English literature may depend on the literature available, how much time it is going to take you, and also, it the topic worthy of research and investigation.  You are going to have to immerse yourself totally in all the literature available on the topic – choose wisely.

Only choose a topic already done if you are going to look at new angles and find different analyses to the ones out there already. Only choose a topic that you are pretty sure will become clear to you, as you research, and therefore clear to others too.  You can choose a topic that is interesting to you, and been done before, as long as you have a new and exciting way from which to write.

Be creative and choose at least 5 topics randomly

Most students will look at up to 5 topics before making a decision.  It’s quite normal to pick a topic, change your mind, pick another one, do some research, put it away, look at a third topic, and so on.  This is a good process.  You need to be proactive in your decision which means you need to spend time thinking of what you are going to write, and how you are going to write it.

The reason you choose at least 5 research topics in English literature is that you can really find that topic that excites and challenges you.  Look at why you would study the topic and what your research would mean to you, and to others.  Take your topics to fellow researchers or academics.  Ask them for advice.  Listen to what people have to say about your topic choices.

You may choose the first topic and have your heart set on it.  Perhaps you find little information on it, or even worse, you find too much.  The topic may have been over-researched.  It is time to move on to your next topic until you settle on the one that is right for you.  Don’t be hasty in making a choice.

Sit with a literature expert for review of topics

Once you have your list of possible topics for your Ph.D., ask a literature expert to spend some time with you.  This could be a professor, lecturer, fellow researcher, or author. Put forward your ideas and ensure you have the correct information on your ideas.  Ask for feedback.  When you ask for feedback, listen without getting defensive.  You have asked for a review of your topics.  Listen to the feedback.

A literature expert can be someone you know but it doesn’t have to be.  If you know about a specialist in your area of interest, ask for a meeting.  And remember, you can also approach a professional organization and ask to chat.  Fellow academics are generally happy to help.  You can find fellow academics at your university but you are also free to chat with academics at other learning institutions.

Finally, use the Internet. You can find a variety of sources online that will answer any questions you may have regarding your proposed topic.  You will be able to get ideas online about your proposed topics, and if they can work, if they have been done, if you are on the right path, and if there is interest.

Consult 5 English teachers and show the topics

You are choosing a PhD research topic in English literature and so it makes sense for you to discuss your various topics with an English teacher.  You are taking to the very people who are going to have an interest in your ideas and you will find good English teachers are eager to talk to you.  You will find teachers at your own place of learning, but you can also ask for meetings with teachers you don’t know but are expert in their field.

Tell them about your ideas.  Ask them for feedback, what they think and if they would advise you to do the proposed topic.  Ask if they think your topic has good potential and if it could become a dissertation.  Ask them what they know about the topic and if they feel it would be significant.  Listen carefully to the advice you are given.

You want your topic to uncover new information.  You might think you have new information, but experienced English teachers may know differently.  Chat with them, listen to them more important, and ask for their honest opinions.  The academic world is an inclusive one and experts are going, to be honest with you. Listen to them.

Get the topic automatically suggested by your teachers

Choosing a Ph.D. topic in English literature is no easy task.  Your research needs to be significant and helpful to future researchers.  It has to be groundbreaking.  It has to shed light on topics, or at least offer controversial opinions.  It can be really hard to choose a topic, for these reasons.  You may find that some of your teachers actually give out topics and this is an easy way to make a choice.

You can go for the topic that is automatically suggested by your teachers.  This way you know that the topic is one that is significant and has not been over-researched or over analyzed.  Chat with your teacher and ask why they are suggesting the topic.  Get their advice.

When you choose a topic for your research, you want to get feedback from people who are ‘in the know.’  Don’t go with the first topic that comes along.  Go with a topic that excites you and that you know will be hard work but interesting, creative and challenging too.  Go with a topic that is going to have the academic world thinking and questioning, in a good way!

Do not reveal your topic to your friends before joining your PhD

You may think this is not something that should be up for debate but the truth is the academic world is a competitive one.  If your idea is fantastic and food for thought and we hope it is, you don’t want a fellow student to follow your idea.  Rather keep your research topic to yourself until you join your PhD.  You don’t want your idea stolen, but you also don’t want to lose confidence in your idea, especially if you are convinced by it.

The other reason not to reveal your topic in advance is in case of friends brush off your idea.  You may think your topic is worthy but somebody may take away your confidence.  As long as you have done your research in advance and you feel strongly about your topic, keep it.  Always listen to advice given by academics, but be a little more guarded with your friends. Do initially only.

Confidence is necessary when doing a Ph.D.  You can drive yourself literally made when you question and the second question what you are doing.  Don’t let friends or academics second guess you, unless you are asking their opinions.  Otherwise, as long as you feel sure, keep going.

Attend various interviews taking the topic

This is a good tip for you when you are deciding about your research topic, but also once you have chosen your research topic.  Universities are always having special interest lectures, interviews, workshops and more, and you will find all of these on your topic of interest.  When we say interview, we mean an interview, a meeting, and a lecture.

Attend as many interviews as you can.  This means you should try and go to all public lecturers or book readings or similar when you have chosen your topic.  And if you are still choosing your topic, ask as many experts on the subject as possible to interview and talk to you. Remember; interview a wide range of people before settling on a topic.  People are interesting and have interesting ideas – one person will give you something nobody else will have thought of.

One on one interviews or meetings can be the most beneficial thing.  You, as the researcher, need to do a lot of listening.  An interviewer will guide you in every single way and make you think.  If an interviewer can make you think, imagine how one day you are going to make your readers think.

Try to buy novels

Have you ever seen an academic’s bookshelves? They are always jam-packed, floor to ceiling, with books.  And academics have many bookshelves, not just one.  Your research topic is going to be with you for a long time.  It’s your Ph.D., you are going to read, research, write and defend.  It’s yours and will be forever.

Buy all the novels and books you need. You are the expert on your subject, the expert on your topic.  You need to read everything you can lay your hands on.  And print is so much better than online.  Take the books with you to bed, to the bath, to your coffee shop. Do more reading

It’s also an excellent idea to make a note of all the books you read.  You will have a Ph.D. English literature file.  Have an index and one of the chapters should include all the books by the author, and all the books you have read on the author.  Summarize and make notes on the books.  Make notes in the book.  Read the book a second time if it really appeals to you.

Do not read novels on the computer

This is a contentious issue because academia is changing.  There are two schools of thought – read novels in print or read novels on the computer.  Don’t do both.  The truth is you can do whatever works for you.  If you prefer to read online, it is better than not reading at all.

The reason academia says ‘do not read novels on the computer’ is that they feel you may not retain as much.  When you read in print you can make notes easily, highlight certain sentences or chapters, dog ear pages so you remember what to go back to, and also, read at any time.

Books are fantastic, especially in print.  You always have them, you don’t have to go online to find them, they are real treasures and should be treated as such. And to have a whole range of novels or books on the subject of your thesis is something incredibly special.

Use time properly with some interest

It is very easy, especially in this world with the internet, to be distracted.  When you are writing a Ph.D. the one thing you cannot afford is a distraction.  You need to use your time properly and be incredibly disciplined.  Many academics say when they write a Ph.D., they eat, drink and sleep it.

Let’s get back to discipline.  Your thesis is going to take you a long time.  When you undertake your research topic, think about the time frame that you have.  You will need to manage your time well.  You need to be well disciplined in giving yourself time to collect data and go through it.

Everyone needs to take a break sometimes.  Do things that you enjoy in your free time.  But when you are working on your Ph.D. work. Use your time smartly and always be reading, researching or writing.  Do this and you will not have any last minute chaos in meeting your deadline.

Make a point to take short notes of ideas

The one thing you always need to have in your bag is a pen and pencil.  Otherwise, have a mobile device where you can take notes.  Ideas come to people at the strangest of times – when you’re taking a walk, sipping coffee, waiting for a friend on the corner.  Always write them down.

Likewise, when you attend an interview or a lecture, have your pen and paper handy.  Make notes so that you can refer to them and read them.  Once you have got home, take your notebook and transfer anything relevant to your PhD folder.

Be aware of the interview or lecture, or meeting that you are in.  It may come across as rude if you scribble down every little thing.  Be discerning with your notes.  Yes, write things down, definitely.  But don’t write down an entire lecture.  Listen, jot down short notes, and always – go over everything afterward.

Do some literary survey what others are interested

Before you choose your literary Ph.D. topic, do a lot of research.  Your idea may be an extraordinary one, but what if nobody has any interest in reading it?  You want to choose a topic that is interesting and excited and where the academic world will be talking about it.

Ask your lecturers what they think of your topic.  Make notes and surveys.  You could choose five topics – as suggested earlier – and run a literary survey.  Ask lecturers, fellow academics and other students what they think of your topics.  Put it in a survey form and see which topic comes out tops.

Look carefully at the results of your survey. If everyone is choosing one topic for a reason, they are probably right. It does not mean they are definitely right though.  You can take your survey one step further and find out why they find that particular topic interesting.  Then make a decision based on how you feel.

Do not take foolish and irrelevant topics

This is an obvious one, isn’t it?  Nobody is going to read a PhD, or take it seriously when your top is foolish or irrelevant.  We are living in a world where relevance is everything.  Whether it does to with gender, feminism, sexism, history, climate change, politics or art – you must be relevant.

Remember, a PhD is something that everyone in the academic world takes seriously.  Your research is going to be read by your peers and by peers who you hold in high esteem.  You want them to read your work and be wowed by your work.  If you are foolish, you lose your chance of being held in high esteem too.

You are going to be spending a long time on your PhD, maybe a year and maybe more.  You also want to be interested in what you are doing and not find it a chore.  Your research is important, not just for others but for you too.  Take the whole thing seriously.  PhD studies are serious – you need to be serious too.

Do lots of reading about other areas

You need to read as much as possible when you are writing a PhD.  To be honest, you need to read as much as possible at all times.  When you read other work, ideas come to you.  You learn about style and content by reading.  Read anything you can get your hands on.  You are going to be writing your PhD.  A good writer reads a lot, it is the only way they become a good writer.

When we say you should do a lot of reading, it does not mean you have to only read about matters connected to your particular research.  You should read everything you can.  Read academic papers, read transcribed interviews, read the newspaper, read novels and read magazines.  The more you read, the better you write.  Any writer will tell you that.

As a researcher, books are going to become the most important thing in your life.  All books are going to become important to you.  Keep a book in your bag. Read when you’re on the bus, on the train and at home in front of the television.  Reading gets our own creative juices flowing, whether academic, fiction or non-fiction.  Reading makes you think.

Keep all the collected notes and reading in hand

When you write a PhD you are going to have a ton of material that you need to go through.  The first thing you need to do, even before you have chosen a topic, is to open up a PhD file.  Get yourself a good one, it’s going to be with you for a long time.  Make different sections.

Your collected notes are going to be the most important part of your Ph.D.; you are going to refer to them for a very long time.  Make sure you have your notes in one section and as you can, cross-references them to your summaries or to chapters or books you are reading. Always go over your notes.  You will suddenly read something and go ‘oh that makes sense.’

The same goes with all your reading.  Keep your reading close by.  Wake up in the morning, read.  When you go to bed at night, read. The more reading you do, the better.  Make notes of all the books you have, and of all the books you still plan to get.  Tick them off as you read them. And mostly, always have a copy of your PhD notes and research as you go along. You do not want to lose it.

Syam Reddy

Hello, My name is Syam, Professor of English and Mentor for Ph.D. students worldwide. I have worked years to give you these amazing tips to complete your Ph.D. successfully. Having put a lot of efforts means to make your Ph.D. journey easier. Thank you for visiting my Ph.D. blog.

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