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How do you choose a thesis topic?

A thesis is a big commitment. It's understandable that you'd want to get it right by picking a topic you will care about and remain connected to.

Below, we explore a very important question raised by Elliott and look and some of the ways a person in his position could make the best choice possible.

"What's the best process for deciding what you would like to do a master's thesis on, and what factors should be considered? I always worry that I will struggle to find an angle that hasn't already been overdone, or that I will lose interest in my topic too soon." - Elliott (he/him), London, Ontario, Canada

Hi Elliott,

You've picked a question close to many hearts! All academics have our struggles with originality and motivation from time to time. Luckily there are some sensible ways to deal with both of these issues.

In terms of originality, don’t stress too much about overused angles. I'm yet to see two research students answer the same question in the same way. Your work will be distinctly your own because your thoughts and approaches are unique.

Before proposing a Master’s thesis topic, the most sensible thing to do is educate yourself enough to identify a gap in current research. A gap is an area where other people are yet to explore or where exploration has been limited.

You can do this by reading recent monographs, edited volumes, or journal articles about topic areas you enjoy and can imagine writing on. Take some notes on any unanswered questions you’re left with, any points where you disagree, or any case studies that could support a theory. This is easier when you’re dealing with newer ideas or areas of research where there has been less time or opportunity for other scholars to engage. You can also find a gap by taking a revisionist approach to the classics. For example, using Queer Theory to reappraise a traditional folk story. In many cases, academics will conclude their studies by pointing out areas that need more exploration or questions they did not have the time or space to address. This could be where you come in.

In terms of motivation, the best way to stay engaged is to pick a thesis topic that relates in some way to your identity or your ambitions - ideally both. If you’ve got the opportunity to, I recommend picking a project that supports your values, passions, and goals for the future. There will be times when you’re tired, bored, and overwhelmed by even the most meaningful topic. But if you have this genuine connection, you can always remind yourself of it when you’re struggling and in need of motivation.

Here are some useful questions that can help to guide you. I’ve given some examples to help you shape your own responses:

  • What does your project mean to you personally?

“My thesis is my chance to really explore a passion project.”

­“Developing my skills in Spanish language and culture has been a dream of mine since high school.”

­“As someone impacted by mental illness, being able to study it in detail is a way of gaining back a sense of power.”

  • What does your project mean to your community? (This could include your family, your neighbourhood, your ethnic community, your national community, and more)

­“Writing my thesis is more than telling my own story. It’s about telling the boarder story of the immigrant experience.”

­“I hope that my research leads to better understanding of antisemitism so this bias has less impact on my daughter’s generation than on my own.”

­“Australia’s Indigenous history isn’t given enough attention in academia. As a Darug man, my research seeks to address this important gap in scholarship about my people.”

  • How does your project interact with the vocational sector you wish to work in?

“All my original field work is going to place me in a great position for a PhD.”

“I really want a traditional academic position in the Humanities. Completing my Master’s is the logical pathway into this workplace.”

“My ultimate goal is to work in public policy. My dissertation unit is a chance to really sit down and conceptualise this field and how I can add to it.”

Your own answers will vary, but maybe something here resonates.

Best of luck, and let us know how you go!

How did you pick your thesis topic? Did you have trouble staying motivated throughout the process? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Don't forget to submit your own question for a chance to have it answered by our experts on an upcoming Ask WOTS blog!

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