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Choosing a Research Topic

Researchers differ widely in their motives for choosing a particular research topic. One strategy is to play safe by proposing to do for your own country what was recently approved as an AERC project for another country. This, of course, economizes on effort since one of your fellow researchers has already thought carefully about the research questions, the potential contribution of the proposed research to the literature, the methodology, possible solutions to the econometric issues involved and so on. Much of this you can easily adapt for your own purposes.

It is not easy, though, to indicate when such copying behaviour is acceptable. Clearly, in all our research we owe an immense debt to our predecessors in the field and there is nothing wrong with, for example, testing an existing hypothesis on a different data set using methods that have been used before. However, you will have to convince the reviewers that there is enough value added in what you propose to do. If you sail too close to the wind your proposal may be rejected, not because there is anything wrong with it, but simply because it is considered to be too similar to what has already been done.

The risk of a proposal being rejected for lack of value added is an important consideration, but not the only one. If your choice of topic amounts to using someone else's research design then the danger is that you will learn very little from the experience. You may succeed in getting the project approved, but you will not become a much better researcher in the course of the work.

It is much better - and certainly more fun - to be adventurous. While this may sound risky, it is not. If you move beyond well-trodden ground reviewers will certainly recognize this. They are then much more likely to support the proposal than if you propose something that has been done many times before.

When choosing your topic you should not feel constrained by the current designations of the four AERC groups:

  • Group A Poverty, Income Distribution and Labour Market Issues
  • Group AT Trade, Regional Integration and Sectoral Policies
  • Group B Macroeconomic Policies, Stabilization and Growth
  • Group C Finance, Resource Mobilization and Investment

There are many excellent AERC research projects that may not appear to fit under these headings, hence the heading alone may not provide a good reason to change your topic. The titles of the groups do not signal very clearly what sort of research they discuss. Basically, if you have an interesting research question that is within economics and addresses an important African policy issue, then you should proceed with your proposal.That last restriction is quite important, however, because AERC looks for policy relevant research. This means that a purely methodological research project, for example, would not qualify for AERC support.

To illustrate, consider group AT. Group AT encourages work in political economy, in applied contract theory and in the microeconomics of industrial performance. None of these topics is, strictly speaking, covered by the group's title. But, there is exciting work to be done in these areas and you should feel free to move in such new directions. The same is true for other groups.

The boundaries of the AERC research programme are fluid. For example, there are numerous studies on poverty (in group A), while there were none some years ago. Also, AERC has supported work on topics as diverse as the determinants of school enrolment and farmers' choice of techniques. The lesson is that the titles of the groups should not be taken too literally when you are choosing your topic, since there is normally more room than these titles suggest.


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