Crafting a Dynamite Thesis Topic

Earlier this week we posted on picking a research subject. So let’s say you’ve done that, you’ve found your supervisors, and you’ve done a little reading on the area you’ll be working in. Now how do you form a thesis topic within that area?

My number one, gold-plated piece of advice here is to talk to your supervisors. Supervisors have seen multiple postgrad research projects succeed and, sometimes, fail. They’ve conducted countless projects themselves. Setting a topic is the kind of job that calls for experience, and supervisors have it in spades. Use them. Talk their ears off! They’ll appreciate it, since a well-formed topic will save you (and them) lots of stress and hours of work in the long run.

In the meantime, here are some questions to ask yourself as you formulate a topic.

Where can I make an original contribution?

This is particularly a requirement for a PhD thesis. You don’t want to devote years of your life to repeating somebody else’s research. That being said, you don’t necessarily need a totally original topic. You just need to make an original contribution. Maybe your topic has been researched before, but your perspective on it is new. Maybe your methods are original. Whatever the case, before you decide on a topic, search some keywords on Google Scholar and in a few thesis repositories like ProQuest and EThOS to see what kind of work has been done on that topic.

What kind of research will be beneficial to my field?

Once you’ve done a little reading in your immediate area of research, you’ll have a good grasp of the status quo in your field. What would be of interest to your colleagues? How could you build upon existing research? (A caveat: people often talk about ‘gaps in the literature’ as a starting point for a research topic. While this does speak to the need to make an original contribution, it can also be misleading. Research is often about scaffolding on work that others have done before you. It’s perfectly valid to add another level to an existing house, rather than lay a brand new foundation.)

What can I realistically manage given my skills and time?

It’s so, so easy to be ambitious when you’re planning future work. (I still do this. I perpetually believe that I’ll complete every item on my to-do list tomorrow, even though I always know I got very little done yesterday, and should be able to extrapolate better from that data.) It’s important to think realistically about what you can accomplish in the time you have available to work on your thesis. You don’t have to solve world hunger or end climate change to get a Masters or a PhD. Think small; think manageable.

What can I realistically manage given the resources available to me?

While there are some funding options available to research students, they don’t allow for major outlays. You will need to be able to conduct your research with the equipment, resources, and expertise available within your university. If you need exclusive use of the CERN supercollider in order to answer the research questions you’ve set for yourself, you’ll run into some difficulties. (Unless, of course, you’re super well-connected.)

How can I limit my scope?

In my experience, most thesis writers start off proposing a topic that is much too wide. Limits are great! Limits focus your research, and stop you from spending years going off in all directions. Limits allow you to do solid work in a well-defined area, rather than dispersing your efforts and achieving little of substance. Once you’ve come up with a topic idea, consider limiting your scope by time (examine artifacts from a particular time period) or space (from a particular location). Consult with your supervisor until your topic is narrow enough to allow for depth, not just breadth.

How can I find space to be responsive to my findings?

Data doesn’t always behave as expected, and sometimes the results you think you’ll find don’t emerge. Sometimes the data leads somewhere else entirely. Ultimately, thesis topics can change – mine did – and you needn’t feel locked in to yours. However, a topic should not carry any foregone conclusions. You are setting research questions, not answers. A research topic that anticipates and relies upon certain findings defeats the whole purpose of research!

Once you’ve crafted a topic that you think could be the one, check out this post from the Thesis Whisperer on 5 ways to know you have the right thesis topic.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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