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?

Recommendation letters and references

I’ve had some conversations with students lately and I noticed they know very little about recommendation letters. In the spirit of transparency, I thought I’d provide some information that can help students make the best decision about asking for recommendations and references.

What goes into a recommendation letter?

When I write a rec. letter, I’m expected to mention how long I’ve known the student and in what capacity. Hint: If I don’t know you well enough (i.e. you haven’t taken a class with me, you haven’t worked closely with me on PRSSA or something similar), it’s best not to ask for a letter.

Next, I’m expected to explain why I recommend the student. What are the student’s demonstrated abilities that make her/him right for the job? By demonstrated abilities, this means that I have to support my claims with specific examples from your performance. This often involves talking about your assignments and class performance. In fact, Clemson now requires you fill out a FERPA waiver* stating you allow me to discuss this confidential information in the letter. Hint: If you haven’t performed very well in my class, it’s in your best interest not to ask me for a letter.

Often, I’m expected to rank you among my other students. For example, I can state that “this student was in the top 1% of her class” or “in the top 5% of students I’ve ever worked with.” Hint: Ask for a recommendation from a professor who can rank you (very) high.

What should you send me along with your request for a letter?

First, think about who can give you a great recommendation based on your great performance. If you ask me for a letter but you’ve not done great in my class, you put both of us in an awkward position. I usually avoid to write letters if I can’t say that I highly recommend you for a position, without any reservations.

Second, contact the person and ask if they could write you a letter by a certain date. Or, ask if they agree to be listed as a reference. Never, ever list someone as a reference without getting their approval first! If they do agree, then:

Third, send a formal request including the items in the FERPA waiver*. Attach a current resume and the information about the position you’re applying for. Include a firm deadline by which the letter needs to be received (no, that cannot be “tomorrow” – it should be at least one week).

If you’re an employer and you read this, can you help out? What do you look for in recommendation letters professors write for their students?

FERPA waiver*

Your request for a recommendation letter should include the following information (which you can type in the body of an email):


I, _______, am currently or have been a student at Clemson University. I hereby give Clemson University permission to disclose the following student education records under the following conditions:

1. Student Education Records to be disclosed:

2. Person or entity to which the above-referenced Student Education Records can be disclosed:

3. Purpose for which the Student Education Records can be disclosed:

4. This permission to disclose Student Education Records will remain in effect until _______________

Student Name

Student Signature