February, 2005Volume 1, Issue 2

10 Tips to Selecting a Thesis or Dissertation Topic

Welcome to the second edition of the TA-DA! FinishLine Newsletter. This newsletter was designed to help you accomplish your educational goals — to get started, to keep going, and to finish your degree. Because writing a thesis or dissertation is a lonely process, you should use this newsletter as a tool to keep connected to others like yourself and to keep on task.

TA-DA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished™ CD is based on a step-by-step process to help you complete your masters thesis or dissertation. If you read the first newsletter, How to Start and Finish Your Thesis or Dissertation This Year, you already know the importance of setting a deadline and posting your goals for others to see. If you haven’t set a start date yet, you can get started by going to our website, filling out a commitment certificate, printing it out and posting it on your wall. To those of you who have already filled out the commitment certificate, I want to say congratulations on taking the first step to completing your degree!

The next step involves selecting a topic. Although selecting a topic might seem to be simple and easy, the prevailing research on this issue finds that some graduate students take over two years to complete this task — this does not have to be you. Understand that the longer you take to complete this task — the more money the university makes on your continuous registration. Hence, educational institutions are not encouraged to help you figure the thesis and dissertation process out.

Don’t wait until you are finished with your qualifying/comprehensive exams to start thinking about a thesis or dissertation topic. Use your graduate courses to pursue a possible topic. Procrastination in selecting a topic can sometimes cause gridlock in your graduate career. Without a topic, you cannot proceed to writing or defending the proposal phase; and more importantly, you cannot begin researching or writing the thesis or dissertation

I have provided 10 tips to help you get moving toward your goal of completing your degree:

1. Don’t Panic — Keep Things in Perspective
Let’s face it, not too many people will read a masters thesis or doctoral dissertation. A thesis or dissertation is not the type of document that piques the general public’s interest mainly because of its academic rigor and writing style. The topic is generally of interest only to the student, experts in the field and the student’s advisor and committee members.

2. Be Organized — Maximize Your Research Efforts
In order to maximize your research efforts, you must be organized and efficient in your search efforts. The more organized you are in the beginning, the more time you will have to write your thesis. Be diligent about keeping track of your files in the early phases of your research to reduce your stress levels later on when your enthusiasm begins to wane. If you have to back track on your research efforts, being organized from the beginning will help make the process less painful.

3. Choose a Subject Area First — Then a Topic
The more information you consume in your broad subject area, the more patterns will emerge. In your coursework readings, you may notice repeated results and conclusions by more than one source, or facts that favor one view more than another. Paying attention to these patterns should help you become more conversant with the relevant literature as well as help you to narrow your focus. Narrowing your topic should be done with help from your advisor and committee members.

4. Consider Expanding a Masters Thesis Into a Dissertation
If you’re working towards a PhD and you wrote a Masters thesis, consider expanding on that topic for your dissertation. You already are familiar with the topic and much of the research is done. This approach can accelerate your progress towards your goal: Completion!

5. Make Sure The Topic Is Interesting
It is imperative that both you and your advisor are interested in your thesis/dissertation topic. Some advisors are reluctant to suggest topics because of the implicit responsibilities associated with guiding a student through the process from start to completion. Your advisor’s enthusiasm for your topic will determine his or her willingness to read, support, fund, and provide timely feedback and direction to your work.

6. Choose a Solvable And Manageable Research Problem
It is important to select a problem that is narrow enough that you can address it or solve it in a reasonable period of time. You should select a topic that can be completed within a two-year time frame.

A longer time frame could allow many unexpected and competing events to occur. If you find yourself spending an exorbitant amount of time pursuing and identifying a research problem, it is possible that the problem is not solvable. With a longer time frame, you also run the risk of someone else identifying and solving the problem before you do. Hence, the concept of “original” contribution to the field is lost and you might have to start over. Moreover, you run the risk of your enthusiasm diminishing.

7. The Research Problem Must Be Worthy Of Your Time
Choosing a topic that is compelling enough to sustain further research is critical. Employers evaluate potential employees based on the student’s ability to not only finish the dissertation but also make future contributions to the field.

8. Make Your Research Topic Original- Has It Been Done Before?
The prerequisite for finding a new research topic is to be informed because most things have been studied before. Staying on top of the current debates in your academic field puts you in a position to identify the gaps in knowledge. After identifying the gaps, all you need to figure out is what kinds of information will fill these gaps.

9. Hone Your Research Skills
One way to evaluate your research skills and make sure they are up to par is to pursue a potential topic in your Research Methods or Statistics courses where you can get immediate feedback from an instructor. You can use these courses to work out potential problems in your methodology or your review of the literature; thus allowing you to work out any kinks earlier in your academic career rather than later.

10. As You Read — Ask the Following Questions.

  • What is the Research Question in the Study?
  • Did the Researcher Focus on the Wrong Group/subjects?
  • Did the Research Leave Some Group/Something Out?
  • Is the Methodology Faulty?
  • Were the Findings Faulty?
  • Can I Pursue the Author’s Recommendation for Future Research?
  • What Are the Limitations of the Study?


Email Question of the Month:


I feel like choosing a theoretical framework is like putting me in a box where I have to "remain" and "stay within these theoretical lines." And when I begin to look, I feel like an octopus with all 8 arms being pulled into different directions! I cannot proceed with my writing until I have a framework from which to work. If you can offer any guidance, I would certainly appreciate your assistance!


Here is my advice it might sound simple but here it is.

Take a Stand: Selecting a framework involves the very real possibility that you will have to stand up and defend your perspective in spite the limitations of that perspective. Pick one even if there are millions to choose from. Notice, I didn't say pick the "right one." Theoretical frameworks are just that–frameworks, i.e. a way of viewing the world---they provide the structure for examining a problem and often serve as a guide to examine relationships between variables. Selecting a framework does require you to "stay within these theoretical lines." However it is your job to find the literature that supports your point of view. In contrast, you could also challenge the traditional framework by arguing against it.

If you had selected a different framework (other that one you have already selected), you would view the world in a different way. Your original contribution is the research and conclusions that result from the particular framework you apply to the topic. Once you pick a framework, there is a real possibility that someone will either agree or disagree with you but that is OK because their perspective could provide them with their own thesis or dissertation topic.

3 Steps To Get Past The Fear

1. Take a stand by selecting a framework for your topic.

2. Design an intermediate goal: Write a short 3-page proposal based on why you think the other frameworks are inadequate (or were not selected) ---this shows that you are aware of the existence of other theories and their shortcomings/drawbacks.

3. Share the Plan with others to get feedback: Show the 3-page proposal to your advisor (or others who are aware of these frameworks) and see what feedback you get. If your advisor disagrees with the one you have chosen, ask her/him which one s/he thinks is more suitable and why.


Best Wishes in the New Year.

Please pass on this issue to friends and associates—just keep the entire message intact.


Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.

About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD--TADA! Thesis and Accomplished. To sign up for her FREE tips and teleclasses, fill out the form located on this page. Privacy is our policy. TADA™ Finishline does not give out or sell our subscribers' names or e-mail addresses.

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Inside This Issue:

10 Tips to Selecting a Thesis or Dissertation Topic

Email Q & A of the Month

Next FinishLine Features:

The Ingredients of a Winning Proposal

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