How to choose a thesis topic

One of the most common questions I get asked is how to choose a thesis topic.

It can be a frustrating problem finalising your research ideas. You have to commit to something, but how do you know you’re setting out on the right track?

In this post, first I’ll explain what makes a good research topic, then how to choose a thesis topic and how to do the right things early to avoid problems later.

1. What makes a good research topic?

Thinking about the end result, your examiners will be looking for research which is;

  • novel (original)
  • set in the context of the existing research in the field, and
  • competently executed

When choosing a thesis topic, it makes sense to use these criteria to help you.

Novelty

It’s incredibly hard to come up with a completely new idea. Almost every invention or discovery or new theory depends on a combination of existing ideas, but put together in a new way or applied to a new problem.

There are three approaches to novelty. The first is to aim for a specific outcome nobody has achieved before, as Watson and Crick did when aiming to find the structure of DNA. In research projects like this, there is a clear goal, but a risk that another group working on the same problem might beat you to it.

The second approach is to pick a specific subject you want to study, and identify a question or problem that hasn’t been addressed before in that niche. This could be a specific group of people, a species of butterfly or a new class of materials.

The third is to apply a new methodology. There could be a subject which has been widely studied, but never before using your methodology. The methodology doesn’t need to be new, just new to the problem you are addressing in your research.

Context

You might have found an interesting problem to work on, but that isn’t enough. It needs to be put in context with existing research.

This is because

  • You want to make sure nobody else has already done it
  • You can learn from the methodologies used by other researchers
  • You need to justify why your research matters

While it’s possible that someone else has already done what you plan to do, it’s also possible that you come up with an idea so far removed from what anyone else anywhere in the world is doing that it’ll be impossible to publish.

So you need to do some reading to find out what other people are doing in your chosen field.

Competence

Do you have the skills and resources to carry out your project? And if not, will you be able to attain them?

An idea is only a good one if you can carry it out competently. So you must consider what resources and expertise you will have access to.

2. How to choose a thesis topic

Now that we have some guidelines for what we’re looking for, how to choose a thesis topic?

If you sit and wait for one idea that ticks all the boxes, you will be waiting for a very long time. The eureka moment is a myth (or at the very least, a massive oversimplification). Instead, there is a process you need to go through, which may be repeated several times.

  1. Idea generation
  2. Testing
  3. Elimination & refinement

1. Idea generation

Rather than look for one perfect idea, it is better to consider several. In the initial stages, you should be open to all ideas, even if they seem crazy.

The ideas don’t need to be completely unique, you could start with one idea, then consider multiple variations on a theme. However you approach it, take some time to think of as many different topics as you can.

This takes away the pressure to choose the perfect topic immediately, and will open up potential avenues of exploration you may otherwise never have considered. OK, many won’t be useful, but it just takes one good idea to make it worthwhile.

Once you have a few ideas, you can pick the best ones and then…

2. Testing

This stage is crucial, and can save you years of pain.

Before you finalise your thesis topic, you need to test potential ideas for viability. Is the project possible? How will you go about it? What do you need?

Ask yourself, what is the simplest first step that would need to be taken, and figure out if it is possible

Testing may involve:

  • Doing simplified experiments or mini-investigations
  • Checking that you will have sufficient access to equipment, people or information
  • Reading relevant literature
  • Asking relevant experts

For example, if you have a research idea based on the assumption that you will have access to a database, then it makes sense to check before you commit to the project that you will actually have access.

Or there may be another idea which seems viable, but if you aren’t familiar with the methodology then you need to ask for an expert opinion from someone with experience, who can tell you the practical elements you need to consider.

It’s best to do this as early as possible! Don’t worry if it doesn’t work, that’s the point of testing.

3. Elimination and refinement

It’s OK to let go of ideas if they don’t work or are impractical (and much easier to do if you start with several possibilities). But others may just need a little refinement to become viable.

Or you might find new ideas evolve out of ideas which failed testing. A piece of one idea combines with a piece of another, in a way you never would have found without going through those rejected ideas first.

4. Get good data

Your aim is to get good data. No matter how good or original your idea, everything you present in your thesis will rely on getting good data. No amount of writing or analysis or insight or creativity can correct for poor quality data, so make this the ultimate criterion when choosing your topic; can I get good data?

If not, reject the idea, and choose another. It might take longer to find your topic, but you will save time in the long term.

I know that “data” doesn’t apply to all projects, in which case consider whether you can get good source material or information.

In Summary

How to choose a thesis topic? Consider multiple options, do preliminary testing, and then refine good ideas, eliminate bad ones.

 

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Other things to consider when choosing a thesis topic

I haven’t written about ethics applications in this post, so f you need tips check out this excellent post over on the thesis whisperer blog

Read this before commenting below…

There have been a few comments saying things like, “I want to do a project in X, please guide”, or even “please provide me with a topic”.

The point of this post is to help you do it yourself. If anything is unclear, I am happy to answer questions, but can’t provide people with guidance in the comments section of a blog post, and certainly can’t just provide you with a topic!

 

 

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Comments

  1. James Hayton says

    I am closing the comments section on this post, since there are so many people asking me to provide a thesis topic it’s making me want to beat my head repeatedly against my desk.

    I can’t provide you with a topic, so please don’t ask!

  2. Anum khan says

    I am in MA educational planing and management(epm) kindly suggest some interesting topics for my thesis.i will be thankful to you.

  3. Zahid says

    Your post is really thought-provoking and leads to some way anybody wants to go in research sphere.Thanks for providing this lead.

  4. monika says

    i am doing MTECH (E.C.E) and in search of choosing the best topic for my thesis kindly help me choosing the topic on OTICAL COMMUNICATION.

  5. Anwar Zahid says

    HI,
    i am looking forward to chosse a topic in banking and fiannce in masters level. can you give me some topics that i can use as an idea to generate dissertaion topic in future

      • Rohan says

        James,

        As an Asian PhD aspirant in Barcelona, I am ashamed to read people’s demands/requests for research topics. :)

        Great article, by the way. I think this would help me in giving a concrete shape to thesis idea that I had been thinking about.

        I have just one curiosity. I consider myself very much ignorant to the whole process of choosing and completing a PhD. What I wanted to ask is that instead of attempting to derive or establish some sort of original findings in the topic of my interest (Sociolinguistics here, to be more specific), could I possibly do a comparative study between a similar phenomenon found in different set of demography? And then attempt to discover something valuable out of it? Does this seem legit to you?

        My apologies if I ended up being specific about what I am looking for. My question is only and only about the approach and a simple curiosity if I should know what I am going to conclude by the end of my PhD or is it okay to go in certain direction with a potential of finding something useful.

        Best,

        Rohan

  6. Anas says

    I want to start my MBA thesis. I am interested in working something related to zoo (animals breeding captivity etc). Can any kindly suggest me a topic for thesis?

  7. Almantas Vainauskas says

    Dear James Hayton,

    I sincerely appreciate your invaluable advice on choosing an interesting dissertation title. Many people think you will show them the ‘magic door’ to success, without comprehending that you showed valuable directions toward those ‘magic doors’.

    By the way, I’m a last year Honors Bachelors student in International Relations, chosen a topic based on political psychology and foreign policy decision making.

    Thanks again!

    Yours sincerely,

    Almantas Vainauskas

  8. weng says

    Greetings in love and joy mam/sir:

    I’m now constructing my thesis topic and the topic that i want to study is all about “Discipline”. kindly give some suggestions relative to this topic.the specific title on discipline.Thank you and Godblessed!

  9. Fazren says

    Hi,

    Im really confused with my choice of topic for my thesis.

    Im doing MA Tourism Events and Conference Management. Im trying to find a suitable topic for my dissertation. However ive always come to an end where i think the topic i choose is not ‘resource friendly’ topic. Cant really find the source of reviews and such.

    Trying to be unique is not the key i realise that, however to have that niche idea would be great. Wondering if you could help me with the topics. Maybe to discuss on the general ideas which is related to my course.

    Looking forward to your reply

    Fazren

    • James Hayton says

      I can only do this through one to one coaching I’m afraid. See the link at the top of the page

  10. Ivy says

    Hi,

    Your article had given me some insights on how to get my thesis started. However, here is where i am stuck. I have ideas for my thesis, but have no idea how to get there. It is as if i have a destination, but i do not have any routes. What are the questions i should ask myself to pave out the way to reach there?

    I’ve tried asking myself, what are the myths or questions i have, hoping to conclude my research direction. And when i did, and sought friends’ opinions, they were able to answer my questions easily. Does this mean my topic/direction is wrong?

    If you could email me in private, i could be alot more specific. I just dont wish to have people ripping off ideas from the comments area.

    hope to hear from you soon.

  11. Griffith says

    Very useful tips indeed. In my case, somehow i have mismanaged my PhD, partly because of problems with previous supervisor, and partly because of my indecisiveness to choose a topic(peppered with a bit of procrastination). The problem is I’m left with very little time to finish my Phd now or else to let it go and take a fresh admission latter on (which sounds scary to me after investing so much time). I have been interested in an area or two in which I plan to work in the future (I am a philosophy teacher), but those areas are require too much effort now given the short time i have. My new supervisor suggests to choose an area and topic in his area of interest which could be easy to tackle in the present time constraints. I am exasperated: If i do my PhD in one area and later on decide to work in some other areas only, does that make any sense to you?I mean the whole idea of doing PhD in an area you’re not interested in seems horrifying, especially when one has no intention to work in that area latter on :( An advise would be really appreciated. Sorry for a very long comment.

    • James Hayton says

      How much time is “very little”?

      If it is a few months, and you don’t have a project yet, you need to at least have some solid skills in whatever methodology you want to use

  12. ritika says

    i am doing MTECH and in search of choosing the best topic for my thesis kindly help me choosing the topic on computers

    • Prof. Mianus says

      I recommend a study regarding the feasibility of interspecial relationships using cyber kinetics.

      Prof. Mianus

      University of Stathampron

  13. Hadji Gariba says

    THANX FOR THE INSIGHT, BUT I WANT TO CHOOSE A TOPIC ON OIL SECTOR CAN YOU GUIDE ME ON HOW TO CHOOSE A GOOD TOPIC IN THAT SECTOR

  14. elaria dodoo says

    Thanx a lot for these ideas..A̶̲̥̅♏ offering BA Human Resource Management nd about to do my thesis,i would be very grateful if you can help me choose a topic

  15. dominc Koblah Tsatsu says

    thank you sir. i will be embarking on a thesis project very soon and this write out has given me some clue as to what to do.

  16. khairunnisa says

    I am BA(hons) in English literature and linguistics, please help me in choosing topic for thesis in applied linguistic….

  17. huma says

    i am doing MBA and in search of choosing the best topic for my thesis kindly help me choosing the topic on management

  18. Joe says

    thanks for such great explanaition
    and i noticed that you duplicated 3, i don’t know if thats a mistake of Get good data is related to the first one, if yes i think it should be 3.1

  19. Rianne Fijten says

    I love the post! I’m actually thinking about topics to applying for funding for a PhD. I will definitely use these tips to choose a great topic! :)

    • says

      hello

      I research a perfect thesis topic, but I haven’t been researched it. I don’t know what to do abouth it. may be, can you help me? thanks

    • Bismillah says

      i am studend of BBA and looking for an interesting topic, so can some one provide me some topice name

      • James Hayton says

        Absolutely not. A PhD takes effort and time. If you read the post, there are tips to help you choose, and I don’t think I said “leave a comment on a blog post and expect someone to do all the work for you”