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10 Tips for Choosing a Suitable
Graduate Thesis Topic or Idea

This article about selecting a thesis topic was written by Dr. Wendy Carter for FinishLine, the free monthly newsletter of TA-DA!™, which provides tips, tools, and techniques for completing a thesis or dissertation

 

If you read my article, How to Start and Finish Your Thesis or Dissertation This Year, you already know the importance of setting a deadline and posting your goals for others to see. If you haven’t set a start date yet, take a minute to get started by going to our the commitment page. Fill out a commitment certificate, print it and post it on your wall. It's a great reminder to help you reach your goal.

To those of you who have already filled out the commitment certificate, I want to say congratulations on taking the first step to completing your degree!

Some Graduate Students Take over Two Years to Choose Their Thesis Topic

Although selecting a topic suitable for your thesis might seem to be simple and easy, the prevailing research on this issue finds that some graduate students take over two years to complete this task — this does not have to be you.

Understand that the longer you take to complete this task — the more money the university makes on your continuous registration. Hence, educational institutions are not encouraged to help you figure the thesis process out.

Don’t wait until you are finished with your qualifying/comprehensive exams to start thinking about idea for your thesis topic.

Use your graduate courses to pursue a possible topic. Procrastination in selecting a topic can sometimes cause gridlock in your graduate career. Without a topic, you cannot proceed to writing or defending the proposal phase; and more importantly, you cannot begin researching or writing  your thesis.

I have provided 10 tips to help you develop thesis ideas and start moving toward your goal of completing your degree:

1. Don’t Panic — Keep Things in Perspective
Let’s face it, not too many people will read a masters thesis. A thesis is not the type of document that piques the general public’s interest mainly because of its academic rigor and writing style. The topic is generally of interest only to the student, experts in the field and the student’s advisor and committee members.

2. Be Organized — Maximize Your Research Efforts
In order to maximize your research efforts, you must be organized and efficient in your search efforts. The more organized you are in the beginning, the more time you will have to write your thesis. Be diligent about keeping track of your files in the early phases of your research to reduce your stress levels later on when your enthusiasm begins to wane. If you have to back track on your research efforts, being organized from the beginning will help make the process less painful.

3. Choose a Subject Area First — Then a Topic for Your Thesis
The more information you consume in your broad subject area, the more patterns will emerge. In your coursework readings, you may notice repeated results and conclusions by more than one source, or facts that favor one view more than another. Paying attention to these patterns should help you become more conversant with the relevant literature as well as help you to narrow your focus. Narrowing your topic should be done with help from your advisor and committee members.

4. Consider Expanding a Masters Thesis Into a Dissertation
If you’re working towards a PhD and you wrote a Masters thesis, consider expanding on that topic for your dissertation. You already are familiar with the topic and much of the research is done. This approach can accelerate your progress towards your goal: Completion!

5. Make Sure Your Thesis Topic Is Interesting
It is imperative that both you and your advisor are interested in your thesis topic. Some advisors are reluctant to suggest topics because of the implicit responsibilities associated with guiding a student through the process from start to completion. Your advisor’s enthusiasm for your topic will determine his or her willingness to read, support, fund, and provide timely feedback and direction to your work.

6. Choose a Solvable And Manageable Research Problem
It is important to select a problem that is narrow enough that you can address it or solve it in a reasonable period of time. You should select a topic that can be completed within a two-year time frame.

A longer time frame could allow many unexpected and competing events to occur. If you find yourself spending an exorbitant amount of time pursuing and identifying a research problem, it is possible that the problem is not solvable. With a longer time frame, you also run the risk of someone else identifying and solving the problem before you do. Hence, the concept of “original” contribution to the field is lost and you might have to start over. Moreover, you run the risk of your enthusiasm diminishing.

Thesis Topic7. The Research Problem Must Be Worthy Of Your Time
Choosing a topic that is compelling enough to sustain further research is critical. Employers evaluate potential employees based on the student’s ability to not only finish the thesis but also make future contributions to the field.

8. Make Your Research Topic Original- Has It Been Done Before?
The prerequisite for finding a new research topic is to be informed because most things have been studied before. Staying on top of the current debates in your academic field puts you in a position to identify the gaps in knowledge. After identifying the gaps, all you need to figure out is what kinds of information will fill these gaps.

9. Hone Your Research Skills
One way to evaluate your research skills and make sure they are up to par is to pursue a potential topic in your Research Methods or Statistics courses where you can get immediate feedback from an instructor. You can use these courses to work out potential problems in your methodology or your review of the literature; thus allowing you to work out any kinks earlier in your academic career rather than later.

10. As You Read — Ask the Following Questions.

  • What is the Research Question in the Study?
  • Did the Researcher Focus on the Wrong Group/subjects?
  • Did the Research Leave Some Group/Something Out?
  • Is the Methodology Faulty?
  • Were the Findings Faulty?
  • Can I Pursue the Author’s Recommendation for Future Research?
  • What Are the Limitations of the Study?

Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.

 

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