Strategies for finding and selecting an ideal thesis or dissertation topic: a review of literature.
Article Type:
Dissertations, Academic (Management)
Graduate students (Management)
Lei, Simon A.
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Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: Dec, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Event Code: 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Product Code: 2731920 Dissertations NAICS Code: 511199 All Other Publishers
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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Choosing an ideal master's thesis or doctoral dissertation topic is probably one of the most important decisions students will make while in graduate school. Some graduate students may spend a year or even longer looking for potential topics before finally selecting one for their thesis or dissertation. There are a number of successful strategies to find such a topic regardless of students' academic discipline. Finding a research topic involves looking at various types of literature, while selecting a research topic involves identifying the most critical factors and weighing their importance against the large quantity of choices available. The purpose of this study was to briefly describe the process of finding and choosing an ideal thesis or dissertation research topic using previously published literature. With the full approval and support of faculty advisors, the final topic selection should closely match the personal, academic, and career goals of graduate students.


A graduate school can provide students with an opportunity to pursue their interest in a particular field of study, and can develop knowledge and skills for their future career (Poock and Love, 2001). One of the most critical decisions that graduate students are facing is to decide which master's thesis or doctoral dissertation research topic they will select, and present the best fit for them both academically and personally. Many graduate students nationwide view the research topic selection (decision-making) process to be quite stressful and time-consuming (Poock and Love, 2001).

There are many ways to find and choose a research topic that may be right for students; there are many critical sources and factors to consider before making the final decision. Graduate students with different academic backgrounds need to think about which ones matter most to them and tailor their investigation accordingly. Regardless of their academic backgrounds, all students should initially make a list of variables that factor into selecting a research topic, and then decide how important each variable is to them (Olson and King, 1995). The final research topic selection is a personal one, and the reasons to select vary widely from individual to individual (Olson and King, 1995). In general, the final decision should be based on careful reflection and clarification of graduate students' personal, academic, and career goals.

A thesis or dissertation is very formal, extensive, highly focused, and addresses a specific, well-defined research problem or question. The decision-making process for selecting an ideal thesis or dissertation topic is a complex one, involving critical sources and factors that both students and their advisors are considering. This article reviews the process of finding and choosing an ideal thesis or dissertation research topic. Specifically, this article addresses 1) successful strategies to find a thesis or dissertation topic, and 2) identify and briefly describe critical factors that influence students' final topic selection during a graduate school study.

Strategies to Find a Thesis or Dissertation Topic

Use Advisors, Professors and Scholars Ideally, students should commence the process of finding and identifying potential research topics during their first semester in graduate school (Table 1). There are two ways to find a thesis or dissertation research topic--either the topic can be provided to students or students find and choose by themselves, in consultation with their advisor (Peters, 1997). Many students are afraid of finding and eventually selecting a topic completely on their own. Students must find out what professors and scholars have commented on a topic, perhaps this topic is exciting enough to capture their attention for further research in the next several years (Choosing a Topic, 2009). Professors and scholars may comment on areas that have not been sufficiently studied in their own research or from other researchers, implying that certain topics ought to be further investigated. This is often a signal that research on a given topic is ripe for additional study (Choosing a Topic, 2009). In many academic fields, including sciences, mathematics, and engineering, advisors may suggest a piece of their own research for students' thesis or dissertation. If accepted, students are part of a research team because projects are too large for individuals, expensive equipment is necessary, and technical training is essential (Peters, 1997). In the humanities and social sciences, where research is usually an individual effort, many students still end up performing thesis or dissertation suggested by their advisors (Peters, 1997).

Read Primary and Secondary Literature

Students may visit the department and graduate libraries on campus to read theses and dissertations of successful graduates (Table 1). While there, students should notice the topics, overall length, structure of the thesis and dissertation, and names of professors serving on the advisory committee (Peters, 1997). Students should also pay close attention to topics that interest them, including the reference and literature review sections. The literature review section may allow students to develop research ideas and designs, while the reference section may allow students to develop their own bibliography once they have decided on a topic. In addition to theses and dissertations, students may search for primary and secondary literature. If selected literature is not available in students' campus libraries, they may request an online interlibrary loan immediately. The waiting period for reference arrival usually takes a few days. A library staff member will notify students by phone or through e-mail once the references have arrived on campus

Students can also electronically access thesis and dissertation topics at other academic institutions. Students should start familiarizing themselves with computer databases as soon as they start graduate school (Peters, 1997). Many databases, such as ERIC, EBSCO, Academic Search Premier, First Search, CSA Illumina, and PsycINFO with key terms and phrases, should be free to students once they have paid their tuition and fees each semester. These databases are Web-based libraries for accessing historical and current resources, including books, journal articles, symposium articles, documents, theses, and dissertations (McMilllan, 2008). Many of these databases display abstracts of the articles, which is a quick and enjoyable way to get a sense of the scope of a topic and an overview of previous research (Peters, 1997).

Students should start reading through annual professional journals and conference proceedings in their academic field for possible research topics. Future research directions will appear in the final paragraphs of many journal and symposium articles. These journals and conference proceedings tend to give students better research ideas than the theses and dissertations for what is hot or the current trend in their respective field.

Students are also advised to search for appropriate secondary sources. Secondary sources are seriously considered because they provide an overview of the topic, often citing relevant research studies with important primary sources (McMillan, 2008). Some examples of secondary sources include textbooks, scholarly books devoted to a particular topic, and reviews of research in books or journals (McMillan, 2008). If students have decided on a topic early in their graduate study, they may design the appropriate curriculum in order to prepare them for conducting the thesis or dissertation research later on.


Moreover, students may also get research ideas from their curriculum. Curriculum may include required and elective courses, seminars, special topics, graduate problems, independent study, and research laboratory rotation (Table 1). Research laboratory rotation, offered in some institutions, provides an opportunity for newly admitted graduate students to experience the research of graduate faculty through one-on-one interactions. This course provides graduate students the information they need to make informal choices about the laboratory where they will eventually carryout their thesis and dissertation research (UNLV Graduate Catalogue, 2009).

Students may examine previous and current semester class notes. Professors may have pointed out potential research topics or commented on unsolved or unexplored issues in the field.

Moreover, students should pay close attention to calls for papers (Choosing a Topic, 2009). Sometimes graduate faculty will briefly announce the upcoming annual research conferences during class time. Students should be aware of issues that conference committees ask presenters to address, and these issues can often direct students to current and possible future trends in the field. Students should notice and read annual research conference flyers that are regularly displaying on department bulletin boards or through email in order to search for an ideal topic.

Types of Correspondence

Once students have identified a topic they are interested in, they may request additional information by communicating with experts and researchers in the field through e-mail, traditional mail, telephone, and/or fax transmission (Table 1). Collectively, these methods can save students a tremendous amount of time for library and Internet research. E-mail can be a valuable tool in rapidly locating research. The speed and ease of e-mail communication allows students to find resources and "talk" to experts (McMillan, 2008). Through e-mail, researchers, librarians, or institutions are easily contacted in order for students to receive proper guidance on a specific research topic or question (McMillan, 2008). Students may simply type in the name of the college or university in any major search engine, go to the Web page of the appropriate school or department, and peruse a list of faculty under the hyperlink of faculty and staff directory, which usually includes e-mail addresses (McMillan, 2008).

Once students are speaking with or writing to a researcher, politely ask him or her that they are graduate students and are expressing genuine interest in his or her research area (Peters, 1997). At this time, students may request additional information regarding this researcher's reprints, manuscripts in press, in submission, in preparation, and research projects currently in progress. While communicating, the researcher may also direct students to other experts with their recent research publications closely related to students' chosen research topic.

Strategies for Choosing an Ideal Thesis or Dissertation Topic

A thesis or dissertation research paper must start by having a good topic containing several important chapters. If students have not decided on a topic, certain important factors must be considered that will assist them choosing an ideal topic. These factors may include faculty-and student-related factors, nature of a topic, trend, duration of study, research funding, and eventual audience if the research work is expected to be published (Table 2).

Faculty and Student Factors

If students accept a topic suggested by their faculty advisors, life can be easier because students have their advisors' blessing and have saved a tremendous amount of time searching for an ideal topic (Peters, 1997). Even if advisors assigned a topic to students, students must still ensure that such a topic is familiar with and personally interesting to them because they will be conducting research on this topic from one to several years. Students must be intrinsically motivated because motivation increases research effort and energy, as well as enhances cognitive processes and research productivity (Ormrod, 2008a and 2008b). The research problem or question must be worthy of students' time. Choosing a topic that is compelling enough to sustain further research is critical (Dissertation Topics, 2009). Research experts would suggest students to select a topic on which they are familiar with (Table 2), or a topic on which they have a keen interest and enough preparation time to become an expert (Sheffield et al., 2005). This does not mean that students cannot write on a topic that is completely new or unfamiliar to them. If students choose such a topic, their research completion time will need to be extended (Sheffield et al., 2005). However, if students later find out that this new topic is extremely difficult, useless, and uninteresting, they may dislike the topic and research in general; it would be a complete waste of time for both students and their advisors.

If students select a research topic on their own, they ought to closely align their work with advisors' research (Table 2). The closer students' research is to their advisors' specialty area, the more likely their advice is to be helpful to students. In general, students who nestled under their advisors' wing finished early, compared to independent students (Peters, 1997).

Nature of a Topic

Choosing a thesis or dissertation research topic should also consider the availability of reference materials (depth of existing information; Table 2). This implies that students must initially check whether they can find sufficient information and closely related topics that will support students' research goals (Dissertation Research, 2009). In order to come up with something unique or original, students need to know what has been investigated previously, and then identify the gaps in knowledge in their respective field. Once students know how these gaps can be properly filled, they will be able to come up with a final topic (Dissertation Research, 2009). Along the way, students should take appropriate coursework and write class research papers that may eventually be important components of their thesis or dissertation.

In every academic field, there are certain topics that are highly controversial. Students should avoid such a topic that is full of theoretical or political controversy, although it may be good to focus on a new, rapidly expanding area (Peters, 1997). As new graduate students, their research work will be under review by other people. They are likely to have a difficult time getting their research work published and accepted without stumbling into the midst of intellectual warfare (Peters, 1997).

However, if students do choose a controversial topic, they must think carefully about the realistic chances of passing the institutional review board (IRB) dealing with human and animal subject research, and whether it may severely limit their future employment, academic tenure promotion, and book, journal, or conference proceeding publishing opportunities.


Although it is extremely difficult to predict far ahead, students may pay close attention to future research directions of a chosen topic (Table 2), which are shown on the final paragraph of some journal and symposium articles. By reading these articles and communicate with advisors and other professors, students should be able to sense or visualize the general direction of their respective topic (Peters, 1997). If students have selected a topic that is hot (popular) and on the rise, they are likely to have more success being hired upon completion of thesis or dissertation research than topics that are full of theoretical or political controversies (Peters, 1997).

In terms of springboard for future research, students' research work will likely to influence their life long after they have received an advanced degree, particularly in a doctoral program. If students are hired as an assistant professor, their research work for several years after graduation will likely be an extension of their dissertation research. Since the dissertation research is so important, it is not surprising that many students find choosing a topic the most excruciating task in graduate school (Peters, 1997).

Duration of Study

In terms of solvability and manageability of a research problem or question (Table 2), graduate students in the humanities have a major advantage over graduate students in the science and engineering fields-- it is rare for their research to fail completely due to IRB review, experimental treatment, and data (statistical) analysis issues (Peters, 1997). For this reason, students need to consult with their advisors for research subject cooperation (accessibility and availability), experimental design, and statistical analysis before firmly committing to a particular topic for research (Peters, 1997).

In terms of tractability of research subjects, students should make certain that their research subject group would remain available throughout the course of study (Peters, 1997). For instance, students in the field of biological sciences must be certain that their organisms are easily to obtain and will stay alive during the course of study (Peters, 1997). There is a good reason why biology graduate students use white rates and fruit flies: these two species are affordable, easily to purchase in abundance, feed, and breed them (Peters, 1997). Meanwhile, students in humanities and social sciences must ensure that research subjects will remain accessible and available over the years for a longitudinal study. Otherwise, the research subject pool will become substantially smaller with a high attrition rate over time.

A research timeline will further assist students in selecting a topic (Table 2). Some research projects may be completed in one year, while others may take several years. Students should select a topic that will be managed and resolved within the pre-determined deadline. Both manageability of a research topic and tractability of research subjects will partially determine the duration of study while in graduate school. Some students have a major misconception indicating that they must learn every aspect of their specialty area before graduation. In fact, learning is life-long, and students will continue to learn new knowledge and skills long after graduation. Thus, students need to establish a reasonable timeline for research project completion.

Research Funding

When investigating potential research topics, students should also consider which ones are definitely fundable (Table 2). If students' research is closely linked to their advisors, students may be provided funding for equipment, travel, and other research-related expenses from their advisors' grants (Peters, 1997). It would be beneficial if students are working on their thesis or dissertation and receive financial compensation simultaneously. Yet, every research project has a deadline, and students need to find out when is the termination date of funding and to find out if there is a strong possibility of funding extension when project is not completed from the expected original deadline. For this reason, it is easier to obtain funding for ongoing research projects proposed by advisor than for completely new unfunded topics proposed by beginning graduate students.

Eventual Audience

When reviewing the literature, students should determine if their completed research project is publishable (Table 2) by fitting well into an existing journal. Students should place themselves in the desk of a journal reviewer or editor and assess, with minimum doubt, whether or not their thesis or dissertation would enhance the integrity of a reputable journal (Peters, 1997).

Obviously, research topics selected by students must be important to them. Yet, results of thesis or dissertation study must also be new and significant enough to add to their field of interest (Table 2). Students' topic should offer additional insight into an existing problem, and offer an opportunity to demonstrate their level of expertise and quality of scholarship (Choosing a Dissertation Topic, 2009). This is one way to increase readers' interest and appreciation of students' research work if it is published.


The process for finding and selecting an ideal thesis or dissertation research topic is a complex one, involving critical sources and factors that both graduate students and their advisors are considering. If students do not know enough about a research topic to evaluate it, they need to find out before fully committing themselves from one to several years of research on a single topic.

Once students have narrowed down to a few potential research topics with advisors, they may communicate with other professors and graduate students, along with outside researchers or experts identified from preliminary research (Peters, 1997). From there, students may further draw in researchers and experts outside their own institution by writing, calling, or visiting them to ask advise about the eventual chosen research topic (Peters, 1997). With the faculty advisors' full approval and support, the final research topic selection should closely match the personal, academic, and career goals of doctoral students. Once the topic selection has been firmly made, students are ready to progress to the next major step, which is writing their thesis or dissertation research proposal.


Choosing a Topic. Retrieved May 30, 2009, from

Dissertation Research. Retrieved May 30, 2009, from general/dissertation-research.html

Dissertation Topics. Retrieved May 30, 2009, from

McMillan, J.H. (2008). Educational research: Fundamentals for the consumer. Boston, Massachusetts: Pearson/Ally and Bacon.

Olson, C., and King, M.A. (1985). A preliminary analysis of the decision process of graduate students in college choice. College and University, 60(4), 304-315.

Ormrod, J.E. (2008a). Education psychology: Developing learners (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson/Merrill.

Ormrod, J.E. (2008b). Human learning (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson/ Prentice Hall.

Peters, R.L. (1997). Getting what you came for. New York, New York: Farrar, Stratus and Giroux.

Poock, M.C., & Love, P.G. (2001). Factors influencing the program choice of doctoral students in higher education administration, NASPA Journal, 38(2), 203-223.

Sherfield, R.M., Montgomery, R.J., and Moody, P.G. (2005). Cornerstone: Building on your best (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Graduate Catalogue (2007-2009). Las Vegas, Nevada: University of Nevada Press.


Department of Educational Psychology

University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Table 1. Sources for finding an ideal thesis or dissertation research


Faculty, professors and scholars
  Department professors
  Professors or scholars from other institutions

Primary and secondary literature
  Journal articles
  Symposium articles
  Conference proceedings
  Scholarly books
  Government documents
  Private industry documents

  Special topics
  Graduate problems
  Independent study
  Research laboratory rotation

Types of Correspondence
  E-mail search
  Traditional mail
  Fax transmission

Table 2. Factors influencing the final topic selection of graduate


   Advisory committee's approval
   Advisory committee's support
   Closeness of topic to advisor's research
   Ongoing research projects

Student factor
   Familiarity of a topic
   Personal interest

Nature of a topic
   Depth of existing research
   Theoretical or political controversy

   Hot topic (current and future trends)
   Springboard for future research

Duration of study
   Solvable and Manageable research problem or question
   Tractability of research subjects
   Research timeline

Research funding
   Availability of research finding
   Amount of funding
   Duration of funding with a possibility of extension

Eventual audience
   Publishable research topic
   Significance of a topic
   Readers' interest of a topic
   Readers' appreciation of a topic
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