How to: Pick a Thesis Topic
So you are about to take the first step on one of the biggest work projects of your life. Where do you start? It’s a difficult question to answer. Let us try and help you with the decision for your thesis topic as best as we can.
The bad news first: there is only so much we can do to help you. This project will be one of the most personal tasks you do, perhaps in your entire career, and it should in some way reflect who you are and your own interests.
However, a thesis statement is ultimately a creative task, and there are certainly some do’s and don’ts when it comes to creative work. Especially short, concise pieces of work such as this.
Your topic will also depend on your own skills, resources, funding, support and time. These elements rely on your own setting and situation- a good project for one person may be entirely unsuitable for another. So bear that in mind.
Where to begin?
Firstly, let’s review what a thesis topic or statement is: A thesis statement focuses your ideas for a project into a sentence or two. It should present the topic of your work and also make a comment about your position in relation to the topic. The statement should tell your reader what the work is about but it should also give you something to focus on throughout your work.
Over the course of your studies, you likely will have had a few ideas for things you’d like to research, or even just topics you’ve been through that you particularly enjoyed. These make good starting points for your research.
It’s also good to remember during your first thoughts that your statement should cover four main bases:
- It should be of interest to you
- It should be of interest to the person reading
- It should make reference to something individual or unique to your viewpoint
- It should allow you space to work (i.e. the statement should be open-ended)
Deciding on a thesis topic is a creative task, whether your course is creative or not. Creative processes tend to work best when you take the pressure off and allow yourself the time to consider a wide variety of options without worrying whether they are any good. Rarely will it be the case that a perfectly formed idea will appear out of nowhere. Bad ideas are often the basis, after some work and effort, for good ideas. So don’t worry too much, at first, about finding the perfect thought.
Once you’ve come up with a variety of ideas, though, there comes a time when some real work has to be put in. The movement from a bad idea to a good one isn’t without effort. You have to go through them, test their viability, compare and contrast them.
Developing an idea means investing time and energy into ideas that you will eventually have to throw away. This is unavoidable, unfortunately. Some of your effort will feel wasted. But it has not been. Remind yourself of the usefulness of working through bad ideas- it is because of them you now have a good one. And who knows? That bad idea may be of use somewhere down the line.
Once you’ve come up with a list of ideas that follow the above suggestions, it is necessary to check their viability:
- Speak with other researchers, teachers, students- get feedback on your ideas and find out what resources are available.
- Check whether the idea has already been done. Or if anything similar has. Your work will have to relate to other ideas, but it obviously cannot be too similar.
- Does your idea relate to your topic directly? Or will your work have to spend a lot of time tying your idea to what you have previously learned?
One easy mistake to slip into is to set yourself an area in which you will work without prior research.
It’s always going to be tempting to choose a big topic and work your way through it, but this is risky for a number of reasons. In choosing something so grand, you’re likely to step over lots of other people’s work which requires lots of research and more personal effort than necessary. It also means that you can’t focus on a single element, spreading yourself thin, and making your work less interesting overall.
Try and keep it as simple as possible: strip away at the question at every available place. If your focus is a topic, why not make it a single piece of work? If you want to write about a theory, why not write your thesis about a specific use of that theory? By chipping away at your idea, you can make it far more interesting.
By starting small, you are also able to broaden at points. You will find that through work, you will feel the need to explain and clarify more often- this makes a far clearer, stronger work than trying to be inclusive of everything but ultimately not finding any real conclusion.
Rather than searching for a gap where there is nothing (which is rather difficult), it may be better to search for a place where you can take existing research further. Your final project should be a part of the modern academic narrative- make references to other recent theories and ideas. Your research should be of note to other academics in the field. That means that you should engage with, as much as possible, others working in similar fields- read their work, maybe even contact them yourself. Go through their theories and try and make them better if you can. Try and avoid outdated methods and theories of research.
Allow your thesis to change as you work on it. Hopefully you will be familiar with your topic somewhat before you start your research. But as you read and think more about it, you are bound to find or consider elements that you hadn’t thought of before.
Once you feel like you’ve come up with something good, check through these questions. Is your thesis still feasible?
- What is the aim of your project?
- What techniques will you need to apply?
- What resources and funding will you need?
- Which skills will you have to develop?
- Do others in your department have relevant experience?
- Are you interested in the project?
- Will others be interested?
- If yes, who will be interested?
Despite what we’ve been through here, the thesis topic is not the most important part of your work; how you execute your project is the important bit. How many movies have you seen with a great premise but have ultimately been disappointing? How many have surprised you by actually being good, despite the ridiculous plot? Large projects such as yours are similar, in a sense.
You can have a brilliant idea, but how you act on it is the important part. An average idea well-executed is far better than a great idea poorly done.
We hope this has helped settle your nerves and begin the (hopefully enjoyable) process of your big, new project. Just remember: the real work is yet to come.