Engineering a research topic

By Jennifer Harlim


A PhD can be a feat of engineering (Photo submitted by Jennifer Harlim)

I wished I had come up with my PhD topic via an Archimedes moment. Unfortunately, the way I ended up with my research topic was pretty unexciting. I came up with the topic because of the supervisor that I chose to work with.

I’m researching in the area of engineering problem solving. Specifically, I’m looking at the transferability and measure of engineering problem solving knowledge. While knowledge management deals with transfer of knowledge between individuals and/or the retention of knowledge within an organisation, I was more interested to see if people having solved problem A, would be able to solve problem B, which is in a completely different field. Modern engineers are expected to be able to transverse between different engineering fields (and even at times outside their field) and the education of engineers are also very much focused on problem solving. So I was curious as to what extent education is successful in creating the ideal engineer. However, like most PhD research, it is starting to evolve into something completely different. To measure transferability, I needed to investigate what it is that young to expert engineers consider being aspects of good problem solving and I think the definition stage alone seemed to occupy my whole research.

Anyway, here’s the interesting bit. I’m not an engineer. In fact, I’ve got a BA (Hons) in Textile Design and Masters in Business Administration. Doing a PhD research within an engineering school was one thing I never expected. However, the journey that got me there was certainly interesting. It’s mostly down to circumstances. After completing my BA degree, I started freelancing as a textile designer and that led me to the decision, to be able to run a freelancing business I needed the business know-how. In my opinion at that time, the shortest possible way to get that knowledge was to do an MBA (1 year compared to 3 years of a business undergraduate degree). After graduating, I fell into research when someone I know asked me if I’ll be interested in being a research assistant for an academic in an engineering school. Coming into the meeting, I wasn’t sure what to expect from an engineer-led research. To my surprise, the research had nothing to do with technical experiments. The research was in the area of engineering education. Specifically, we were evaluating a self-reflection tool as to how it assists with learning.

After completing that contract, I got a full-time research assistant position in the business faculty. Interestingly, again, the project that I got involved in seemed to be in the area of learning. Though the project deals with non-academic learning, it was looking into evaluations of micro-finance programs. I think the defining moment when I decided to do a PhD was when someone said to me since I enjoyed research, I should consider being a research assistant all my life. That thought kind of horrified me. Research is fun for me but, like in any other jobs, things are quite different when you are not the decision-maker. Being a research assistant meant doing someone else’s research. I thought the best way to be able to be a researcher in my own right was to do a PhD.

Initially my PhD topic was in the area of social entrepreneurship within the business faculty. As I had run my own freelancing business, I was interested in business start-ups. Why social entrepreneurship? I think this was more to do with the values I have. I was very much interested in the concept of businesses giving back. I did a number of volunteering placements when I was in school, university etc. I wanted to do a topic on the sustainability of social entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, due to supervisor issues I had to drop the topic even before I started. I ended up choosing to do my PhD with the supervisor that I started with in the engineering school. I felt, given the focus of his research and mentoring style, I would probably gain the best value out of PhD years. So I allowed myself to “find” a topic that would suit his area after my transfer from the business faculty. I don’t have any regrets though about choosing a topic that would suit the supervisor that I chose to work with. At the end of the day, the learning goes on and I’m actually enjoying my PhD despite the ups and downs.

I actually found this whole process writing this blog post interesting. I just realised that despite how much I said, “Oh this topic is because of the supervisor”, perhaps parts of the decision-making was informed by personal beliefs and past experiences. When I was doing my MBA, we had to write down our epiphany stories. It was part of a personal development exercise. I guess that is the Archimedes moment, isn’t it? We were doing all these exercises based on the works of Bandura and Cervone on personality architecture, and how sometimes the choices that we make can be explained by our past experiences. When my lecturer read my exercises, he mentioned to me casually, would I ever consider going into education? I said no, I’m not really interested in academia and I want a job in industry. And yet, here I am, 4 years or so later after doing those exercises, sitting in a university, doing research that covers learning, education, cognition, reflection, etc. When I think back on that incident, where this particular lecturer asked me that question, I thought at that time he must have seen something in my writings that indicated that I am more suited to academia.

If I reflect back on what my research topic is…I actually went through it, didn’t I? The whole transferability thing…I mean I did learn in various different fields. Whether it made me a better problem solver, I don’t know. But the experiences I went through certainly, unconsciously, informed my decisions that got me to where I am today. Also, I seemed to highly value the experience of learning a lot…which again seemed to be linked to my own research topic.

Jennifer Harlim is a PhD Candidate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) in Australia. Her research topic is in ‘Problem Solving for Engineers: Measures and Transferability’. She is also interested in the area of research methods. You can follow her on Twitter at @me_udesign. She blogs about design at


Filed under Education, Engineering

2 responses to “Engineering a research topic

  1. So was the self-reflection tool helpful, very helpful, not really relevant to their learning? I am intrigued.

  2. Hello,
    The self-reflection tool was very helpful. It was initially developed for engineering students’ use but it has been implemented in other schools within the university. This is a link to the specific tool:
    If you are interested, I can send you links to published research papers that we have done. 🙂

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