How to pick a thesis/dissertation topic

One of the hardest things for me in graduate school was to pick the topic for my Ph.D. dissertation. I felt that:

  1. it had to be “the work of my life” and
  2. it would define me and my expertise for a long time to come. So, I wanted to be comfortable with that identity.

I was wrong about #1. 🙂 But 9 years later, I still feel that my dissertation topic has influenced my identity and opened new doors (hello, CGT!)

I would like to share with you the advice I give my students about how to pick a topic for their M.S. thesis or Ph.D. dissertation:

  1. Pick something you LOVE. Something you are passionate about. Otherwise, it will be hell to invest in it the attention and time commitment it requires.
  2. Use your thesis as a stepping stone in your career. Think about how it can help you get where you want to be. Use it to bring together, build upon, demonstrate, and extend your current skill set. Your thesis should be a culmination of what you know and can do. It should make use of and bring together your existing skills. But it should also stretch and extend them, and therefore prepare you for the next step up. For example, if you already have demonstrated experience (internships, jobs, assistantships) in one skill, don’t use the thesis to demonstrate the same skill. Use it to build on it and to take you a level higher.

    For example, one of my very theoretically-trained student is choosing to do a very applied thesis, to demonstrate that she can build and design, not only research and write about certain skills. Another student with demonstrated building and programming skills is doing a much more research-oriented thesis that can show not only his mastery with research, but can also position him as a manager who sees the big picture and can manage a process from beginning to end – as opposed to executing specific parts.

Of course, your thesis should be feasible in the amount of time you have, etc. But that’s a process of focusing and narrowing down your chosen topic. Your advisor and committee should be able to help you with that.

What difficulties did/do you encounter about choosing a thesis or dissertation topic? What advice do you have for others?

How to write a statement of purpose

I see many applications to graduate school and 99% of those coming from India follow the same template: They begin with a childhood memory of seeing an animated movie or playing a game and wax poetic about how that became the inspiration for their interest in computer graphics. I don’t know where that template is coming from and why it is that popular, but it is ineffective, and I’m tired of it, and I’m sure there must be better advice out there, but here’s what I would hope to see in a grad school statement of purpose:

  1. What are your long-term goals? Where do you want your career to go?
  2. How can the graduate degree you are applying for help you get there? What are you looking to learn in this graduate degree?
  3. What skills do you bring to the table that will help you succeed in graduate school? (This would also be a good place to explain some of your lower grades, if any – do so gracefully and honestly).

As I read your statement of purpose, I (and I think I speak for some of my colleagues, too) look mainly for fit. We hope to understand if we can help you get where you want to be in life, and if our department offers what you are looking for.

Wisdom of words

This is a guest post by Eileen Hegel of Higher Ways. I met Eileen when we overlapped on the Clemson faculty for a brief period of time. We got into a conversation on Facebook about the power of words in a diversity context.. and I asked her for a guest post. Here it is.


Words have power. We have all said or heard the words fat, ugly, skinny, beautiful or perhaps gay. The impact of words, even just one, should not be overlooked as they can speak hope or hatred.

Without a doubt, words can inspire us to forge ahead or instigate failure. I am positive we can all think of words that have ignited our heart. In the same fashion, I am sure we can reflect upon words that have fueled a fight. Hence, the British writer, Rudyard Kipling noted, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Recently, I had an opportunity to become reacquainted with the power of my words.  Herein, I said something that sparked a mini-wildfire in a person. Shortly thereafter, another word, this time a missing one, caused me some challenges with the same person.  I knew that I had set off the fire alarm once again!

In both instances, one word triggered a set of emotions. Words have an interesting way of doing this. The trigger may go beyond what we see on the surface.  In fact, words often do.

Whether two people know each other or they don’t, words can be like a match. Words have the power to either kindle the fire of friendship or scorch a relationship. How we handle words may be the difference between saving a soul or in some cases, sending the relationship into ashes.

Although I can think of times when my words have blackened some bridges, maturity has for the most part, taught me to pay attention to what I say. Even with care in the use of my words, they will always have a transactional effect. Hence, words make for an interesting fuel between two people.

In fact, I will never forget the time my words truly stoked a spirit. While teaching a group of alternative students, I let 13 year old, Jeff, know I enjoyed him in my class. He told me, “No teacher has ever told me that!” I secretly understood why, but nevertheless, I meant what I said.

The next day, my boss let me know she had received a call from Jeff’s psychologist. The psychologist wanted her to know that in his 20 years of counseling, he had never seen a kid turn around so fast. He wanted to know what the school and his teacher were doing.  Unbeknownst to me, Jeff had been suicidal before he came to my room. That day, I knew, that the power of words were, indeed, the power of life!