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Thesis Topic Hunting???


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So, I'm on my first year of a two-year MPhil (master of philosophy instead of master of arts), and I'm keen on starting at least cursory preparations for my thesis.


I am starting early because I know that I can't work quickly. I can't work well under intense pressure. I am slow and methodical.

The problem is, at least, with my experience in grad school, one is thrown into the sea of postgraduate studies as if one already knows how to swim. I know how to swim enough to get across the hypothetical lake. I would just like to swim WELL, not inefficiently.


Of course I've done a thesis before, for my undergrad degree. Yes, it was original work. But for this degree, the amount of data to synthesize, the amount of documents to translate, and the fact that I want it to be high quality is making my head spin. How to approach this efficiently? How does one choose a solid topic to begin researching? How to organize data from the very beginning? It is in a humanities subject.


I don't want to approach this in the haphazard fashion that I did in undergrad. Any practical advice would be really appreciated. Are there methods that worked for you at the very, very beginning? Are there pitfalls I should look for? And I mean as practical as what kind of annotating system/data capturing worked, up to how did you go about each stage of the research?


I would rather not attempt to reinvent the research wheel by attempting to develop my own system from complete scratch. I'm looking for ideas.


Finally, besides length (mine is to be 25,000 words), what's the REAL difference between a Masters thesis as opposed to a PhD thesis? I emailed my supervisor this query, and his main response was to say that the length was different. But...as far as originality and the degree to which one advances one's field in the master's thesis...I've got no clue about that.

Edited by Eccentricity
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Start by looking at the literature. What are you interested in? What studies (articles or books) capture your interest? That might help you decide on a general, broad area for your research. Then, as you're reading those (or after, it's always good to re-read), think about what gaps there are in the published literature. Do they identify areas in need of further inquiry? Is there a theory that captures your interest that you want to apply? If so, where has it already been applied and how? Taking stock of the current literature is always the first step. From there, it can be easier to identify a specific project once you know what projects other scholars think are out there. For a master's, you don't necessarily need to come up with a completely original (or novel) research idea.

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To add on to the sound advice offered in post #3, I recommend that you add (if not start with) recently completed doctoral dissertations. Dissertations will generally provide overviews of "the state of the art" both IRT the existing literature as well as emerging methods.


When looking at articles in scholarly journals as well as dissertations, I recommend that you make sure that Interpretation Z of Topic 23 has traction.


Penultimately, resist the temptation to be too focused in your reading. Don't lose sight of the forest for the sake of finding the leaf. Topics that have nothing to do with your areas of interest may actually be vitally important to your discipline over all. 


Finally, when picking a topic for a master's thesis/report (and some schools make less and less of a distinction between the two), make sure that you develop a clear understanding of the extent to which you may or may not use that topic for a doctoral dissertation. Some professors in doctoral programs will not mind if your thesis lays the foundation for your dissertation. Others will.

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  • 2 weeks later...

EndNote is a great organizational tool when you're doing lit review. You can import citations and PDFs and your notes as well, so it's super handy and helps keep everything in one place.


When I was doing my thesis I made a timeline for myself. I know that I don't work very well if I don't have deadlines, so I would set my own deadlines to ensure that I kept moving along and being productive. I would tell my adviser that I would have x to him by x date, and that kept me accountable to the deadlines.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I have chosen a topic for my thesis already (I am done with my first year, but I have two years left as I am a part timer).  I have also chosen my main advisor, but still have yet to select my second reader. 

I have been given the direction to work on a prospectus for my chosen topic... the thing is, I haven't taken that class yet (It will be this fall) and I would like to get started on it this summer.  


Does anyone have ideas on how to do this?  I am not getting much help from my cohort (unfortunately).  


I am going to do a cost-benefit analysis on suicide prevention and early intervention programs for youth (k-12).


My program is Public Policy and Administration.

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So you have a topic but there is one course you're missing in order to do some part of the analysis? You could still use the summer to find all the relevant literature for your work and do a lit review. You could collect whatever data you might need in order to do the analysis. You could start writing up the data. You could do other parts of the analysis, if that's possible. Depending on what the analysis looks like, you could maybe write up parts of the methods section or discuss possible predictions or outcomes of the analysis. I am guessing that you would like to have some discussion of why your topic is important and what the findings might teach us -- you could probably do that too. If I were you I'd schedule a meeting with your advisor to discuss a plan for the summer. 

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I agree with fuzzy's suggestion to schedule a meeting to come up with a plan. In my field, it's actually not that rare for students to work on projects related to a certain course prior to taking that course, because there might really only be 10% of the course material that you absolutely need to know before you start analysis/working on it. You often can learn this 10% with guidance from your supervisor before you begin the project. Then, you can just learn the extra stuff in the course as background material.

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