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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Dissertation Topics. Retrieved May 30, 2009, from
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Olson, C., and King, M.A. (1985). A preliminary analysis of the
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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,
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Sherfield, R.M., Montgomery, R.J., and Moody, P.G. (2005).
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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Graduate Catalogue
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SIMON A. LEI
Department of Educational Psychology
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Table 1. Sources for finding an ideal thesis or dissertation research
Faculty, professors and scholars
Professors or scholars from other institutions
Primary and secondary literature
Private industry documents
Research laboratory rotation
Types of Correspondence
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
Familiarity of a topic
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
Availability of research finding
Amount of funding
Duration of funding with a possibility of extension
Publishable research topic
Significance of a topic
Readers' interest of a topic
Readers' appreciation of a topic