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How to Successfully Choose a Thesis Topic

Topic choice is fundamental to the success of your thesis. It not only foreshadows what you will be living with for months (years!) but can also play a part in determining your success in academia and, in many cases, employment opportunities. A well-chosen topic that is clear and focused helps in planning and outlining the thesis. To put it simply, a good thesis topic is a victory half won.

Here are a few tips you should keep in mind when choosing a topic for your thesis:

  1. Choose a topic you are interested in. You will be devoting much of your time to your thesis over the next couple of years, and it will be difficult to stay motivated if it is not something you are interested in. In addition, your thesis topic may play a part in influencing job opportunities—you want to work in areas that interest you.
  2. Refer to the existing literature as a rich source of potential topics. Most published research includes ‘directions [or suggestions or recommendations] for future research’. You may not choose any of these exactly as they are stated, but these directions may spark ideas as well as indicate outstanding gaps in the field and what is to be gained by filling these. Remember that any new ideas you have will need to be considered in light of the existing literature, and discussed in relation to the peer-reviewed research that others have already published. Consulting the literature on your topic is the best way to verify the originality of your approach.
  3. Think of your topic as a question. Most theses are structured to address specific research questions. These questions not only inform and focus the research that follows but provide context for the results and conclusions.
  4. Niche down, as the saying goes. You will probably start with something very broad, but don’t be afraid to narrow down to something that seems ‘small’ or ‘simple’. Research projects have a way of expanding as you work through them. There are always unanticipated problems and hidden complexities. It is much better to choose a topic that is seemingly small or simple and execute it well than to choose something too broad or overly ambitious and end up with a ‘hot mess’.
  5. Be practical. How well can you execute this idea? Do you have the relevant skills, or could you realistically develop them? What resources do you have access to (e.g. your own or your supervisors’ networks)? How about constraints such as the available time and budget or word count limits? Writing up a formal research proposal can help ensure your scope is realistic.
  6. If possible, test your idea. Can you reduce the concept to its smallest, simplest manifestation and build and run a ‘trial’, ‘pilot’ or ‘beta’ version? This may generate invaluable learning for carrying out the full project.
  7. Get feedback. Of course, your supervisors are key in this regard, but don’t forget others in your department, leaders in your niche (names that you come across often in the literature) or even those in industry. Seek opportunities to present on your ideas, including the motivation for the research, your proposed methodology and theoretical underpinnings, the steps of how you plan to carry out the research and your anticipated outcomes. Experienced researchers may be able to provide valuable input that allows you to refine your choice of topic; presenting or otherwise reaching out also allows you to generate interest in your work and start or keep building your professional network.
  8. Begin with the end in mind. One renowned postgraduate supervisor, who has successfully mentored dozens of candidates, asks his students to draft a conclusions chapter within months of starting. Of course, these students do not have any actual results to report and discuss, but thinking ahead to the kind of results you may have and what these actually mean, for academics, policymakers or practitioners, is an incredibly useful process, and may provide insights into your choice of topic.

Generating and developing fruitful research topics is a skill—one that you can learn. It involves balancing ‘original contributions’ and building on prior research, thinking big and free, and keeping it realistic and as stress-free as possible. While choosing a thesis topic can be daunting, it is also exciting. Have faith, and keep working through the process of developing and refining your topic.

Updated 23 April 2024