The correct choice of thesis / dissertation topic, or research project will improve the chances of a successful outcome.
The topic you choose to research has a great influence on how well you succeed in carrying out the investigation and in writing up your work. A crucial factor is whether you have a genuine interest in the subject matter, as this will motivate you to complete the task to the best possible standard. In addition, many practical matters need to be taken into account, such as the availability of relevant resources, or the feasibility of the intended investigation.
When you first choose a thesis topic that you are interested in, it can be very difficult to know whether it is going to be achievable to carry out. This is particularly the case if you are an undergraduate or a graduate student, attempting a thesis for the first time, but it is also common amongst postgraduate students. However, there are a number of factors that influence whether your thesis topic is likely to be achievable in the 9-months (give or take a few months) that you have to complete writing your thesis. This article sets out some of the questions you should ask yourself before settling on a particular topic.
What makes a good project to come up with a thesis topic?
Good research depends on many factors, and a good idea alone is not enough. You can have a brilliant one, but the ultimate quality of the it will depend on your execution; an average idea well-executed is much better than a brilliant one executed badly.
Your topic research idea needs to be of interest to other academics in the field. Partly, this will depend on your ability to justify your research and the originality of your proposal, but it can also depend on timing, as technology makes new things possible and old techniques obsolete and as various theories and areas of study come in and out of fashion.
The interestingness of your project to others depends on who your audience is, as some projects will be fascinating to some, utterly pointless – or in some cases even offensive – to others. This is worth bearing in mind not only when you present your complete research of a topic for examination or publication and nominate examiners or referees, but also when you choose who to work with; if your thesis advisor is fundamentally opposed to your project, then you should either choose another project or change advisor.
Although a degree of originality is a key requirement for picking a thesis topic, research is never totally original. Rather, it operates on the edge of what is already known; venturing forward but still connected to and dependent on that which has been done before.
Not every aspect of your thesis topic research needs to be original to write. The skilful application of unoriginal ideas and well-established techniques gives you a reliable foundation to work from, and even the most revolutionary one will rely upon much which is unoriginal, perhaps combining pre-existing elements from disparate fields and subjects in an original way.
Find an Edge to Work on
Rather than searching for a gap where there is nothing, it may be better to search for an edge to work on where you can take existing research further. One way to do this is to ask yourself after reading a paper: “is there a way to expand upon this research, or to approach it in a different way, or to apply the same techniques to a different subject?” If you do this with several papers, you’ll find that there is no shortage of topic ideas.
Another approach is to test the basic assumptions that others in the field have used. It is quite possible for an assumption to become accepted fact simply because several authors have stated or cited the same idea, even though it has never been systematically tested or proven. If you find such an untested assumption and can think of a way to test it, then your work will be of great value to the field (provided it is well executed).
Practical tips for choosing your thesis topic
- Make sure that you are making an informed choice. Do the necessary background reading. Discuss the thesis topics with your course director or assigned advisor so you avoid taking on a topic that is risky to write and understand fully the challenges of the thesis topic area.
- Look at past work. Theses and reports produced by students in previous years will help you in your writing and to gain a sense of the style and standard required. They will also enable you to look at a variety of approaches relevant to your discipline. But don’t be put off by apparently sophisticated structure and style in these completed examples. Remember that achieving this standard did not happen spontaneously. Your starting point may not be at this level, but the learning process will very likely result in a similarly high standard of report.
- Plan out a thesis or report as part of the decision-making process. Write out the structure at the macro-level and then, later, for selected options, think about a more detailed plan. In practice, you may not stick rigidly to the plan you create, but the process of planning will help you to sort out the ideas and decide how appealing and feasible they are.
- Think for yourself. When choosing a thesis topic, try not to be influenced by other students’ opinions. This is, and should be, a highly personal decision. Some of your peers may have their own reasons for liking or disliking certain topics or supervisors; you will need to distance yourself from their thoughts when considering your own options.
Developing an Idea
Creative processes tend to work best when you take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to consider many ideas without worrying about whether or not they are good. This freedom is important because, often, bad ideas serve as intermediate stages in the development of good ones. So allow your imagination to run free, think of many thesis topic ideas and don’t worry initially about finding the one.
Developing an idea is not just about freedom of creativity though. Once you have a few of them it then takes focused work to test their viability and to refine them into a potential research project. How you test viability?
You will certainly need to check the existing literature to find out whether your thesis topic idea has already been investigated and what similar research has been done. This is partly to ensure that your idea is original, and partly to help you think through how you might conduct your own research.
Troubleshooting your Thesis Ideas
If you discover that another academic has written a thesis on a topic similar to your own, don't stress out. Carefully read the material to gain an understanding of what it is that the prior thesis has accomplished and consider ways your thesis might further develop the topic or might approach the topic from a totally different perspective. You are likely to find that the former thesis is not the same as the thesis you are considering after all. To be sure, show the competing thesis to your advisor; he or she can give you indispensable advice. Or you can turn to specialist to help you make something brand new and "extraordinary" out of "already used" and middle-of-the-road!
Quotes of the Day
I have very high philosophical expectations of what a Ph.D. thesis should be, but I won't let that interfere with my main goal: to get one fast
I had this idea of a Ph.D. thesis topic. I got drunk. It still sounded like a PH.D. topic. Then I decided it was one