How to pick a topic for your thesis. What they forget to tell you.

Posted: December 16, 2016 in Uncategorized

Choosing a topic for your Bachelor, Master or Ph.D thesis can be hard. I’ve done two Masters and a Ph.D and here is are a few important things I learned on the way and that your professors are unlikely to tell you. The first most important thing to know is that …

It’s not about the topic

People speak a lot about research topics. But the topic is just a very small part of what makes for a good topic. It is really about what that topic allows you to do while you work on it and after you are done. So don’t just accept a topic your professor suggests to you. Try to understand what kind of work that topic implies and see if that’s the kind of work you’d like to do for the next few months (or years). If your professor doesn’t seem supportive, choose another supervisor before it’s too late and you are stuck with having to get up to a job that’s not even a job and which you hate. Doing a thesis is not only about having the title in the end. It can and should be much more.

Thinking about what you would most like to do while you write your thesis – and what you don’t want to do – will help you not to suffer most of the time while you work on it day after day. Even if you like in principle what you need to do for the thesis, you will still sometimes not feel like doing what needs to get done. But having chosen a topic which in principle needs you to do exactly what you want to do helps a lot.

Know what you want.

You would like to meet new interesting people from a specific walk of life ?

Choose a topic which is based on qualitative research and for which you need to do interviews. Say you’d like to meet actors. Develop a topic where they are your experts. Don’t feel imprisoned by your field. Any field in the humanities will allow you to work on what you are really interested in. You are in education science? Work on how actors acquire the ability to retain long texts. You are in economics? Work on collaboration and competition between actors. Don’t forget: it’s not about the topic, but about doing the kind of stuff you want to do.

You want your topic to prepare you for your job?

Develop a topic where you need to meet the people you want to become.

Figure out if the people you want to work for (or with) in the future would be interested in the topic too. To do so you may have to talk to some of them a little bit. If you find it hard to connect to them, your topic might be the door opener – unless, of course, you want to work on contract killers, hustlers, the American president or, maybe, consultants at McKinsey. You want to do communication consulting? Work on how communication consultants position their own brand. You want to work in a gallery? Work on the way galleries try to position their artists. You get the picture. 

You want to get profound knowledge on a certain topic or author ?

Pick a library-based research topic where you have to read what has been written about the subject or by (and on) the author. Whoever or whatever you want to learn about, there will be a topic that forces you to do so. Once you know who or what you burn for, you can also ask your professor to recommend possible topics to you. But if you choose people like Hegel, Marx, Keynes, Freud, Foucault or a subject like free will, power, public healthcare or war be careful to specify a very precise take on the topic. And be aware that if you work on these kinds of figures or topics, you need a high tolerance for frustration and an iron will to be exclusive. However much you work on your thesis, you will know that you have not included everything relevant.

You want to develop your own thing (or theory) ?

Pick a rather exotic topic on which very little has been published. You won’t be able to not read and quote anyone else. But you’ll be able (and forced) to creatively identify sources. There are basically three ways to address such a topic: theory transfer, theory application and bricolage.

Theory application consists in taking general, fundamental and often rather important theories and trying to apply them to the chosen topic. You might try to apply script theory from cognitive science to still images, actor-network theory from sociology to the relationship between hospital staff and doctors or between curators and galleries or apply iconology from art-history to advertisement. Whatever works!

Theory transfer consists in taking a theory which has been developed for one specific case and applying it to another. Noel Carroll wrote about how actors’ personal identities relate to the identities of their characters in movies. You might try to apply and adapt his theory to how, for example, the personal identities of university professors relate to the identities of the institutions where they teach or how nightclubs pick the DJs that perform on Saturday night.

Bricolage means to take bits and pieces from different theories and putting them together. To analyze how a single picture can tell a story, I used Paul Grice’s concept of implicature David Herman’s concept of story scripts and Jean Matter-Mandler’s research on how we spontaneously provide causal links in narrative and many more. To get there, you need to read a lot of theory and play around with it like you would with Lego to find out what fits together. You’ll also often get a chance to make your own pieces, so you can articulate two different theories. For all of these to be successful you need a certain lack of respect. You are building your own building where a part of another persons theory is simply a brick.

You should’t care what the role of the brick you choose had in the building of the other theorist. Don’t feel like you have to perfectly understand her building project, even less explain it in your thesis. It will make you and your readers lose track and patience. Just understand enough to see what place the brick can take in your building.

Know yourself

You easily get bored by a topic?

Maybe do a Bachelor, but don’t do a Ph.D. Well, or choose your topic wisely. Don’t let it have such things as the name of an author, a time period, a geographic location, a specific institution name in it. Let it be “systematic”. My own topic was perfect for me. It was about how to tell a story with one picture. Fortunately, people have tried to tell stories with pictures since pre-history. It allowed me to read narratologists, comics theorist, film theorists, philosophers, art-historians, even child book researchers and archeologists. 

Your are prone to easily get distracted and being all over the place and are scared it will kill your thesis?

I would say choose a subject that has the name of an author, a time period, a geographic location, a specific institution in it. But this is a tricky one. If you are easily distracted, you might also get bored by a topic that has one of these. It might then be better to choose a “systematic” topic – and to take the thesis as a chance to learn to control your distraction.

These things help always: Turn off all push notifications on your phone, stay off facebook, netflix, instagram. Go to the library. Seeing others work helps a lot. Disconnect from the internet if you don’t absolutely need it. But don’t waste away your day smoking cigarettes and going for coffee with your friends. If it’s to hard go to another library. Only take a break when you really cannot focus anymore. I didn’t tell you it would be easy.

You are creative?

Choose a subject where you can develop your own thing.

You are not creative?

Choose a clearly delimited topic. For example one that has the name of an author, a short time period, a geographic location, a specific institution in it.

That’s all for today. Don’t hesitate to criticize, ask questions in the comments or tell me about your own experience.

Oh, and that’s me, academically speaking:

  1. […] How to pick a topic for your thesis. What they forget to tell you. […]

  2. […] How to pick a topic for your thesis. What they forget to tell you. […]

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