“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after. ” - J.R.R. Tolkien
Of all the issues, the choice of a research area and more importantly, a research topic can be a daunting task for many. Usually the choice of a research area from an undergraduate level forms the basis for future career in research, as a clinical physiotherapist, a post doc fellow or as an academic professor. Infact, your appointment in any academic position can depend on your research interests. Thus it is vitally important that the choice of area and topic is done wisely and with considerable thought.
Some important points to consider when choosing a research topic -
Interest - As you would be spending quite a lot of your time following up on the selected topic, reading, writing and publishing papers, it is imperative that your chosen area should be of interest to you. Genuine passion for any area or topic would make the task less tedious and more enjoyable.
Advisor or Supervisor’s interest – If you have been allotted a supervisor, choose a topic that is within his/her area of expertise and knowledge. This would help garner the interest of the advisor and make collaborating with him more congenial. If, the interests clash, and you do not want to pursue the interests of your supervisor, it is always safer to consider a change of supervisor, rather than a change of topic (remember, follow your interests).
Unique – Do significant research to make sure this topic has not been done before. Be creative and choose an idea that stands out as original and innovative. There is no point doing a research that does not add to the body of knowledge and would have no future clinical or research implications.
Now we will look at the process of selecting a topic and narrowing the focus to a specific research question with an example of a 4th year undergraduate physiotherapy student, David.
As an undergraduate, David has been taught the general skills needed as a physiotherapist with placements in musculoskeletal, neurology, cardio respiratory, general medicine and surgery, both in patients and outpatients. He is now faced with the dilemma of choosing the topic for a dissertation, which is a compulsory part of the degree.
The best way to for David will be to find out his area of interest from the broad categories of physiotherapy, for e.g. musculoskeletal, neurology or cardio respiratory. Apart from these women’s health physiotherapy, geriatric and paediatric physiotherapy form other major categories under which physiotherapy can be classified. So let us assume that David likes musculoskeletal more than neurology as he is fascinated by the immediate results on patient’s pain and movement. So now he can focus on specific sub categories in musculoskeletal physiotherapy.
He is a fast bowler and had suffered a shoulder injury in the past, which needed intensive physiotherapy to sort out. This made him read a lot about shoulder injuries and mechanics, so he has developed a strong understanding of the basics of shoulder anatomy, biomechanics and pathology. In his placement in outpatient clinics, he also showed keen interest in shoulder rehabilitation, as he could relate it with his previous experience. Therefore the most logical area of research for David would be Shoulder joint.
Once a broad area has been decided, then David needs to spend time reading the latest research on his chosen topic, which will provide him with some ideas as to his research question. When reading any study, it is imperative that he focuses on the research questions asked, the clinical and research implications of that study and any weakness identified. Each study also presents some recommendations for future research. David identifies the pathologies, their management strategies, prevalence rates and other features studied by other researchers. These aspects of previous research would provide David with an idea of research questions which can be studied.
So let us assume that David chose the topic of subacromial impingement of shoulder (SAIS). Now for this topic, there are lots of aspects which can be studied.
Case Study – David can present a case study about the effectiveness of a certain physiotherapy management technique or strategy in SAIS.
Observational Study – How a group of patients responded to a certain physiotherapy treatment in SAIS.
Cohort Study -To follow a group of patients over a certain period of time to assess the impact of physiotherapy or manual therapy or any other relevant technique.
Clinical trial – A randomized, control trial compares the effectiveness of a management strategy with control treatment, no treatment or placebo.
Survey - An analysis of the prevalence or incidence of SAIS.
In addition to these quantitative studies, a qualitative analysis can also be done, which can look at the perceptions and attitudes of patients or professionals towards SAIS, its effect on QoL, or other such topics. One to one interviews, questionnaires, focus groups fall under the qualitative category. This is an important methodology which can explore the feelings and attitudes of people which cannot be answered in quantitative designs. Thus, David is able to prepare about 3-4 research questions. These then need to be refined and made more focused. Another important factor which needs to be looked into when designing a research question is the availability of resources. An institution which does not provide access to patients for research would not be suitable for a patient focused research question. It will be better to choose a research question studying the normal subjects.
Thus, choosing a research topic needs concentrated effort and understanding on the part of the researcher.
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