How to choose your thesis topic

It’s hard to commit yourself to a thesis topic. You don’t yet know if the idea you have now is a good idea or not, and if you commit to it, you might not be able to pursue a better idea you could come up with later.

So here are a couple of guidelines to stop you going round in circles.

1: Stop looking for the one big idea

Start investigating something… anything at all, and see if it grabs your interest.

This might not be what you end up researching, but just exploring your subject can lead to unexpected flashes of inspiration. You might try 3 or 4 (or more) ideas before you hit gold.

2: Talk to people

Share ideas with people in your department, and see what they think.

But also find out what other people are doing. There may be a what’s hot in your subject at the moment. Are there big gaps where nobody else is looking? Should people be looking there?

3: What do you want to learn?

A PhD isn’t just about your contribution. It’s also about what you learn, and the skills you can use later in your career.

What skills and knowledge do you want? What are you already good at and want to improve? 

4: What do you like doing?

Choosing your research topic is choosing what you’re going to be doing every day for the next few years.

What do you enjoy the most? What do really dislike doing?

5: Combine ideas

Once you’ve followed the above steps, if you are still stuck but have a few ideas to play with, try combining ideas in new ways. Applying technique A to area B.

There are very few truly original ideas, but there are always new perspectives on old problems.

When you find a combination that could be interesting, useful, or even exciting, go for it!


This post was written in response to a question from a reader. Use the comments section to let me know what you’re struggling with, and I’ll do my best to help!

4 thoughts on “How to choose your thesis topic”

  1. I am a phd student at Carleton university in Computer science school. I worked for 4 years as oracle programmer ,I want to do my phd in software engineering but I don’t have any background about this area ,so taking courses during PHD can help me to pick up or I should change the topic ?

  2. please l am shuaibu mahmud ohimege with the Nasarawa state University,keffi,l am under going my thesis right now,my thesis topic is “An Assessment of flooding in Jos north Area of plateau state,Nigeria.pls can you send me books on flooding,causes of flooding,preventive measures and metigations on flooding,looking forward for your urgent replay.thanks.

  3. The biggest challenge for me is knowing the size of the research, the amount of work i.e. data collection, analysis. What is too big? What is too small? Would really appreciate your opinion on this. Thanks.

    • That is a difficult question, as it doesn’t have an exact answer. It will vary depending on your subject, the academic system you are in, and the kind of research methodologies you will use.

      One way you could get an idea would be by looking at a thesis from a previous student from within your department, ideally one who studied under your supervisor or who researched a similar area to the one you are looking at.

      I’ll try to think of a better answer, but it’s 1AM here right now!

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