How do you figure out the topic for your thesis, dissertation, or creative project? Obviously, you want to be passionate about your area of study. At the same time, you need to choose something you can realistically tackle. Here’s the deal: your thesis or dissertation will not be the groundbreaking discovery of the century. That’s okay. Don’t perceive it as such. You want to produce quality work that you can complete not a 5-10 year research agenda that goes unfinished because it was too hard and too big from the beginning.
Factors shaping area of focus, leading to pinpointing your topic:
- What is your program? Our grad program is Media Communication. All theses/projects therefore must be connected to some form of media.
- What has your coursework prepared you to study? I would not recommend introducing an entirely new area/theory/method at the thesis stage.
- Who is your advisor? What input has this person given you?
- What piques your interest? You need to have passion for your topic, especially at the beginning. Don’t pick something just because it’s trendy, your advisor’s interest, etc.
- What is your timeline? Your method and sample need to reflect how much time you have before you want to graduate.
Let’s start out discussing what’s not going to work. For a master’s thesis (at least in our program), you do not have time to do an ethnography or to travel for your research. You probably don’t have time to conduct an experiment or series of focus groups. (I can think of a few exceptions, but in general, not the most feasible approaches). In other words, samples that require IRB approval and then recruitment require additional months.
For the traditional thesis, studies of existing data sets or media content are much more doable. Narrowing it down further, choose samples that you can easily and cheaply access. For textual research, identify the parameters of the study, making sure that (once again) the sample is something you can realistically analyze.
3 approaches to Picking Your Topic
Once you have your broad area of focus and an idea of the method, you can take the next steps to narrow it down.
- Approach 1: Lightning Strikes
An “AHA!” moment may spark the overarching concept of the thesis. During my first year of grad school, I saw the movie Daredevil and found the depiction of Journalist Ben Urich fascinating. This interest prompted my thesis on representations of journalists and the press in comic book films, which I revised and published 14 years later as this article. [Note: I am linking my thesis as an example of idea–>concept–>operationalization–>done thesis, NOT BECAUSE I THINK IT’S A GREAT THESIS. To my students reading this, I can provide better examples of a completed thesis].
2. The Question Path
If you don’t have the idea spark, no worries. You can also start broad and then narrow down the topic by asking yourself a series of questions (or your advisor/professor may ask you), such as. . .
- In your coursework, what papers related to your broad topic have you written? What did you enjoy about those topics? What didn’t you enjoy? Is there a project that you’d like to expand for your thesis?
- Do you want to do a historical study or examine a current issue? If current, do you want it to be related to the pandemic?
- Within your area of focus, what interests you more specifically?
- What methodological approach would you like to take (qualitative, quantitative, mixed)?
- Do you want to study content, effects, or both? (Specific to media)
- What type of sample interests you?
- Have you checked out existing literature (see #3)?
3. Going to the Literature Approach
If you don’t have the idea spark, no worries. Take your area of interest to Google Scholar and do a little reading. What’s been done before on your topic? With what sample? What timeframe? Using what theories and approaches? Identify the gaps in the literature and figure out what interests you.
The next step is to meet with your advisor/potential advisor. This person can help you figure out what is doable and what is not. Seasoned instructors can also help, but it is very important that your advisor is on board from the beginning.
|Do This||Not That|
|Analysis of 8 films on a topic||Interview 20 film producers|
|Secondary data set on voter beliefs||Survey of 20,000 voters|
|Twitter scrape to assess vaccine misinformation||Ethnographic study at medical offices|
|Narrative analysis of children’s cartoons||Focus groups with children|
|Content analysis of Olympic coverage in mainstream news||Participant-observation at the 2021 Olympics|
Do you see a common theme here? DOABLE. Set yourself up for success from the beginning of the writing process. If your topic isn’t working, talk to your advisor immediately about shifting the plan or making a new one. Remember, the goal isn’t to become a star from your magnificent piece of research, but to move from student to graduate.