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Re: Guidance on choosing research areas
I'm in Quant Marketing/Strategy.
1 - What has been your timeline for narrowing down research questions?
First, it's important to notice that I had a good idea about my research interests and who would be my advisor when I applied. It's not like that for all quant students, and that can really change things. For me, the timeline was a little like this:
- First year was focused on coursework, with barely any research being involved.
- Second year was still heavy on coursework, but I started doing research. The research question was mostly suggested by the advisor. This was the period when my strengths and weaknesses became more evident. So, we were better able to understand what kind of research I can do, and what kind of research is not for me (at least for now). This is very important because it's useless if you think of a research question that you are not able to study for some reason.
- Third year is when things really happened. Now I had taken several courses, read a ton of papers, discussed a lot of ideas, knew my strengths and weaknesses, knew more about my advisor, knew the resources I had available, etc. So, I thought of lots of research questions, developing them into a simple proposal (like 1 page, with the question, method, data, some literature). Then we chose the ones to work on during the PhD.
2 - How do you balance your personal interests with popular/trending subjects?
That's a very complex question to answer. It's hard to tell what to do without understanding what's behind the popularity of a topic. Why is something trending? Or why something you want to do is not trending?
In my case, some of my main interests are not so popular anymore. And one of the main reasons is that a lot of work has been done in the past decade or so. In that case, it's a lot hard to make a contribution, the gaps that are left are probably very challenging to address.
On the other hand, I can't do something just because it's popular. The research I do will influence my positioning as a researcher, influence the opportunities I'll have in the job market later, etc. If I do something that is not of my interest, that will make me go to places that are not of my interest too.
Now, a research has many components. Not all of them need to be popular or trending. For example, maybe your research question is not something trendy, but you are using a trendy methodology to address that question. Or maybe you can frame your research question in a way to makes it closer to something trendy.
3 - Is the quality of a PhD program fit more related to the actual research subject matter or the methodology/approach to questions?
It can be due to the subject, due to the methodology, or due to a combination of both. And it can be related to other things, like culture of the department and job placement. Again, this is something complex.
For the quantitative people that are more theoretical, usually the methodology is extremely important. For example, there are people who focus on game theory approaches. As long as the program is good with game theory, it's good for the applicant.
For those who are closer to strategy, usually the subject is more important. Professors can be experts on sales management, for example. Whether they will use a field experiment or machine learning is less relevant, they will choose the approach according to the research question.
In the end, it depends on what you're looking for. Are you more interested in the subject or the methodology? Do you need more help with the subject or the methodology? If you are already an expert on the methodology, but know nothing about the subject, getting into a program that can't help you with the subject is a bad idea.
In my case, we had a "deal" from the beginning: I would be responsible for the subject matter, and my advisor would help me with the methodology.