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?

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