Starting a PHD at 40. I have a topic but nowhere to start…

Hello, I am looking to start a phd. I am a well establish professional in the humanitarian and built environment sector. But I would really like to dig my teeth into a topic for some time. I don’t know where to start ? Anyone else can share a similar experience ? What are some of the hints and tips you have ? Thanks


Hello @Sahdia,

It has been six months since I’ve started my Ph.D. journey, and I have a similar experience. I’ve started reading articles similar to a board topic which I and my advisor help me get started from. As reading more and more articles, I’ve begun to understand the topic better and what the current challenges are. From here, I’ll try to focus on a particular problem and see If I can come up with one or more solutions.
So I can say that I haven’t had a topic to start with, but as reading and dug into the literature I can now list a few sub-topics which could be the bones of my thesis.

Good luck on your journey!


Thanks Emil, That’s really helpful.
I was curious as to how you chose your advisor. Seems they are key to guidance.

Welcome, Sahdia.

Try to find review articles in your field and ask your supervisor for a starting list of papers to read.
Starting is always the hardest part but reading every day will get you familiar with your field.

Once you find a good paper use a tool like Connected Papers to find the associated studies to build out your knowledge from there.

All the best,



Hi there- identify something that 1) ignites your passion, 2) drives your thirst and quest for answers and solutions and 3) hasn’t been studied (or in this way) before. You’ll need to have a ‘passion’ and thirst for answers to drive you through the entirity of this gruelling (yet challenging) phd process. Make a wish list of dream projects you’d like to do -mind map some exciting projects you can come up with-and work/wittle down from there. In that way you’ll find something that interests you, you can find the passion in, you can commit to, are interested in and sustain over a number of dhallenging years. best of luck. Jonno


Hi Sahdia, I have a similar situation, but I think having a broad work experience can give you a lot to start on. You might know already what you like and what you don’t like from your professional fields. Also, what worked for me was to look for different opportunities on the web, there are some good websites where you can find PhD opportunities in excellent universities around the world in any area, so if you find something that might interest you, you can find some articles on the specific topic and if you really like it, apply before the deadline!

Good luck!


Fabulous advice here - I defo recommend using an article that sparked some interest and plugging it into connected papers to see what comes up and start to build a lit review because once you understand what has already been done, then you will start to understand the gaps and that is where you will find your research question/idea/theme and from there you will know what kind of background you want your supervisor to have :wink:

Not sure if you’ve done a Master’s or not because then you will know what to do but if it’s been a while or you didn’t do a Master’s then this link might be helpful: Raul Pacheco’s academic resources

I also found it helpful to establish a set time every day to spend sitting down and writing for a few hours ( I do 3-5hrs every day) - just to get yourself into the habit and if you share your space it also helps to train others to know why your door is shut and you are not answering their texts :rofl: So in the early days after morning rituals, for example, I tacked onto that scanning a few articles and writing notes about them to start building the framework for a lit review. Then at the end of the week, I organised them into main ideas/themes/arguments. So after 3-months, while doing 100 other things it was easy to put it all together for submission. For my Master’s I did the same process but it was condensed into like 3-weeks of 10-hrs a day! haha Sometime I just use the time to just use a pen and paper to write out everything I know, thoughts, arguments, questions, comments, even about not having anything to write about anything just to write something - like today I am writing this as part of my writing time :wink:

wish you all the best!


YES! consider the following in your browser search:

  • location: are you limited to attending a uni with in commuting distance of where you are currently located? or can you consider another city? district? country?

  • discipline: built environment professionals can include architects, planners, engineers, surveyors, designers, etc so not sure what your specific discipline is but I think finding universities that have the program you want within your preferred focus is a good starting point, within your geographical parameters - for example here are ten universities across Australia that have a masters program in the built environment - Curtin Uni just opened a brand new school in Perth, WA with this focus in fact

  • institution: consider the reputation of the uni as well as the location and if they have your discipline - what faculty is your discipline in? this can affect the focus of the discipline as well as the working relationships with other disciplines. Also there are universities that focus on professionals doing postgrad work while working or long-distance learning which can be tremendously helpful because I was able to continue working overseas while doing my Master’s because all my coursework was online and my annual leave was scheduled around the 3-weeks of annual on-campus work required.

  • professors: once you find the right institution for you, then look at the staff lists for the department of your discipline as most will show if (a) they are available to supervise and (b) what their current projects, publications and interests are - even the topics they are currently supervising for example

  • research interests: it is, it can be important to match up your strengths in experience and knowledge with the interests & background of a potential supervisor unless you are willing to invest a lot of time & effort in learning something new. You will likely not find the perfect fit, so look for someone who is the best potential fit and then

  • references: another way to find a potential supervisor, especially if you are not super restricted by location, is to check out professionals on Linked In - you might find a professor that way too but you can also look for professionals that doing what you aspire to be doing and then find out what uni they went to and then look up their thesis project to see who their supervisors were. Or look at who is being cited in the reading that you are doing, or who is writing the journal articles that you are reading that you resonate with to see if they are available to supervise your potential postgraduate research project.

  • discuss BEFORE application: Then when you find a couple of potential people - email them to see if they have time to meet you for a coffee or a zoom chat for 10-mins to discuss your project idea and their availability & expectations as a supervisor. This way you will both get a feel for each other. This is going to be a 3-4 year working relationship so you want to feel comfortable with them as a person as well as their expectations and availability. If they take 3-weeks to reply to your email, or can’t make time for a 10-minute chat then I suggest crossing them off your list.

  • aplication: Once you have found one or more people who you feel would be a good mentor to work with throughout your research project then apply to the program with their support.

Hope that helps - Wish you all the best!



I think it’s easy to start re-inventing the wheel when it comes to a PhD because it is such a jump. I would look back on your academic career so far… Was there anything you wanted to spend more time on in your under-grad or Masters? Was there something you had to leave out because it would be too big a challenge for or divert your thesis? Was there something interesting that was new to your field and still developing, too new then to consider but perfect now? That’s a great place to start. Doing it this way too means that you aren’t starting from nothing, you have a base knowledge of the area or topic (including the reading and experts in the area). Good Luck!

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Thank you all for the helpful advice. There are so many good points in this thread. I will look into all of them. I feel already less lonely in the endeavour :slight_smile:

Excellent advice! I’m going to start doing this! Thank you Elle!

Hi. I am also hoping to (somehow) start a PhD next year. I will also be 40 this time next year.

Hi Sahdia! I am glad I found this post. I am in a similar situation as yours. I am working in the third sector and at the moment I am looking for a topic that would be most beneficial for the sector and at the same time interesting to me. There a lot of areas within the sector that require further research, and I am now looking into Knowledge Management. I hope I would be able to finalize something very soon. All the best!

Start a PhD at 56! If I were doing it again the advice I would give myself is this: -

  1. tighten the focus again, and again, and again: clearly this depends on the topic, method and other criteria, but what you think is fairly tight can prove to be quite ambiguous.
  2. If your research is inter-disciplinary, be careful on their use of terminology. Quite often the same words can have different meanings, and often this is subtle, nuanced and an absolute nightmare!
  3. be especially critical in the literature review. You will use probably less than 5% of what you scan (abstracts) and pay attention to the methods and scientific rigour because a lot of it is dross… and that’s the articles that were actually published!).
  4. be thinking about research methods you will employ the whole time and check that you have access to the relevant material/people and that you can motivate people to participate in your research.
  5. think about timeline - if your PhD is going to take 3-5 years (and it will), think about what will change in your domain within that time. The last thing you want to find is your research has become obsolete. In a sense you are paddling upstream against all the research being produced in your field of choice…

Hope this helps,


PS: read very broadly at the start. You would be amazed how many silos are out there!

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