How to choose a thesis topic

One of the most common questions I get asked is how to choose a thesis topic or research project. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as just “finding a gap in the literature”, and there are many complicating factors to consider. In this excerpt from the book, “PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life”, I outline what you need to know…

There’s a lot to consider, so take your time reading this!

What makes a good project?

Good research depends on many factors, and a good idea alone is not enough.

You can have a brilliant idea, but the ultimate quality of the research will depend on your execution; an average idea well-executed is much better than a brilliant idea executed badly.

In turn, your ability to execute the research will depend on your specific research skills (existing and developing), as well as your access to other resources such as equipment, funding, technical support and time. Since these factors vary greatly, what may be a viable project for one person may be entirely unsuitable for another.

Your research idea needs to be of interest to other academics in the field. Partly, this will depend on your ability to justify your research and the originality of your proposal, but it can also depend on timing, as technology makes new things possible and old
techniques obsolete and as various theories and areas of study come in and out of fashion.

The interestingness of your project to others depends on who your audience is, as some projects will be fascinating to some, utterly pointless – or in some cases even offensive – to others. This is worth bearing in mind not only when you present your
complete research for examination or publication and nominate examiners or referees, but also when you choose whom to work with; if your supervisor is fundamentally opposed to your project, then you should either choose another project or change
supervisor.

Originality

Although a degree of originality is a key requirement, research is never totally original. Rather, it operates on the edge of what is already known; venturing forward but still connected to and dependent on that which has been done before.

Not every aspect of your research needs to be original. The skilful application of unoriginal ideas and well-established techniques gives you a reliable foundation to work from, and even the most revolutionary research will rely upon much which is unoriginal, perhaps combining pre-existing elements from disparate fields in an original way.

Find an edge to work on

Academic research is analogous to learning, but on a societal scale. Just as when learning a skill, research pushes just beyond the edge of society’s current collective ability or knowledge.

Rather than searching for a gap where there is nothing, it may be better to search for an edge to work on where you can take existing research further. One way to do this is to ask yourself after reading a paper: “is there a way to expand upon this research, or to approach it in a different way, or to apply the same techniques to a different subject?” If you do this with several papers, you’ll find that there is no shortage of ideas.

Another approach is to test the basic assumptions that others in the field have used. It is quite possible for an assumption to become accepted fact simply because several authors have stated or cited the same idea, even though it has never been systematically tested or proven. If you find such an untested assumption and can think of a way to test it, then your work will be of great value to the field (provided it is well executed).

Developing an idea

The decisions you make early in your PhD about what research to pursue will affect everything that follows, and this puts a lot of pressure on your choice of project.

Creative processes tend to work best when you take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to consider many ideas without worrying about whether or not they are good. This freedom is important because, often, bad ideas serve as intermediate stages in the development of good ones. So allow your imagination to run free, think of many ideas and don’t worry initially about finding the one.

Developing an idea is not just about freedom of creativity though. Once you have a few ideas it then takes focused work to test their viability and to refine them into a potential research project. How, then, do you test viability?

You will certainly need to check the existing literature to find out whether your idea has already been investigated and what similar research has been done. This is partly to ensure that your idea is original, and partly to help you think through how you might conduct your own research.

The literature can show you how other researchers have approached similar problems, but it is also useful to talk to other researchers in your department; to get feedback on your ideas and to find out what resources and expertise are available to you.

Even if you are given a specific problem to work on there will be multiple possible ways to approach it, so it’s good to think through these alternatives, consider their practicality, and not necessarily just take the first option that comes to mind.

Developing a research idea means investing time and energy into some ideas that you don’t then pursue further. This is not wasted time—it is often through investigating a bad idea that you then develop a good one.

Sooner or later though, you will have to commit to a project. There is no set formula to follow here, but there are some questions you can ask yourself, which may help you decide.

  • Does the project have a clear aim?
  • Do you know what techniques you will apply?
  • What resources and funding will you need?
  • What skills will you need to develop?
  • Do others in your department have relevant expertise?
  • Are you interested in the project?
  • Can you justify why the project should be of interest to others?
  • And who will it be of interest to?

Start small

The natural temptation might be to set your aims as high as possible and make your project as comprehensive as you can. Such projects are easy to imagine, but much harder to implement.

Think of the simplest possible version of your project, and how you would go about it. Then you can add extra complexity, but bear in mind that you will have to achieve the simple version first.

A word of caution

Although it is good to choose a project you have some interest in, it’s possible to be a little too interested in the subject. Using research to prove something you passionately believe in can lead to confirmation bias, where you only pay attention to results that support your existing view.

It’s OK to expect a certain result, but as a researcher you should maintain a slight distrust of your own assumptions, and actively try to prove yourself wrong whenever a new result conforms to your expectations.

Proposals

Depending on your PhD programme, you may have to write a research proposal. The requirements for this differ between institutions—you may have to write the proposal before being accepted as a student, or it may happen at a much later stage. It’s up to you to find out how it works wherever you are. Generally though, your proposal will need to show a clear research objective and choice of an appropriate methodology.

Clarity is the key. It should be immediately obvious exactly what you are trying to do, and this is only possible to communicate if you first have clarity in your own mind. Do not attempt to write down everything you could possibly imagine doing, nor everything you know about the subject.

Get the book

“PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life” is now available via amazon and other retailers

 

 

please do not ask me to give you a thesis topic!!

 

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68 thoughts on “How to choose a thesis topic

  1. I’m pursing a Doctorate degree in Public Administration and this is my topic can you please help me: the topic is : The effects of perceived ethics of Organizational Culture and: Their effects on rating relationships of an organization. I have no idea is this right are not but if need work or re- arrange please do not hesitate.

    Bernestine Dawkins

  2. Hi
    thank you for your useful tips. I spent the last year choosing the area of my topic, but recently, the more I read the papers and dissertations in that area, the more I find out I cant come up with a creative and new topic. why is that so and what should I do in the next step?

  3. i am doing M.Tech and in search of choosing the best topic for my thesis kindly help me choosing the topic on construction Management
    i have one at hand help me in re framing the topic to make more suitable and researcheable
    the topic goes this way;
    “ASSESSMENT OF THE COMPLIANCE WITH HEALTH AND SAFETY MANUAL IN THE NIGERIAN CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRIES”.

  4. Lol the comments section is rather amusing. I think people are trolling you James. I very much enjoyed your responses lol

    • There have been some obvious trolls, but some are not. I get emails like these comments too, and some have seemed genuinely surprised that I can’t give out thesis topics for subjects I’ve never studied!

  5. Hello Sir James!!
    I am student of M.Phil applied Linguistics, going to do my thesis.., regarding Discourse Analysis.. kindly give me some tips, guide me in this selection of the topic!!
    Regards: Eema

  6. am studet of business adminstartion , i can see u are last instarcution you dont lake to chose a topoc

    but tell me the best way can i get the best topic ?

  7. I am Sri Lankan and learn Chinese language MA, my prof needed me to write a comparison of my mother language and Chinese, bt my mother language is only use in my country and there r no.previous papers related, so if i select a topic like this what kind f difficulties u may think i have to face, what should i consider more before selecting a related topic, Thank you

    • if there are no papers comparing your native language with chinese, look at papers comparing other languages for some ideas on how to approach it.

  8. Am a student of public Administration, and I need a full project topics concerns public administration. Thanks

    • Sure, I’ll get started on that straight away. If you like, I’ll do all the research and write it up for you too.

      • James you are a boss haha. Thank you for posting this helpful article, it’s a pity that I didn’t come across it before .

  9. 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!

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

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

  12. 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.

  13. 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

      • 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

  14. 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?

  15. 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

  16. 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!

  17. 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

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

    • 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

  20. 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

  21. 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

  22. 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.

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

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

  25. 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

  26. 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! 🙂

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