It’s no easy task to take on the culminating project of your degree, the dreaded dissertation or thesis. Though it might feel like your supervisor expects you to begin your project straight away with an original research idea, in reality, no one expects you to start your dissertation with an exact focus (unless your university defines your topic for you, of course). On the contrary, the first of the many steps in the research process is finding a suitable topic.
At Grad Coach, we’ve worked with thousands of students to help them find high-quality research topics. In this article, we’ll share five practical tips to help you fast-track the topic ideation and refinement process so that you can move your thesis forward.
1. Start with the literature and focus on FRIN
The starting point for finding a solid research topic is to wrap your head around what’s out there in the existing academic literature covering your broad area of interest. Rather than solely reflecting on possible topics in your head, it is through the process of reading scholarly articles in the literature that your topic ideas will emerge. In other words, topic ideation starts with reading.
A useful tool for locating preliminary literature is Google Scholar, which allows you to type in several general keywords related to your interest areas and then provides you with a list of the most popular articles in that area. Once you’ve located a handful of articles that seem interesting (preferably empirical research studies, but review papers are also useful), you can skim through each article’s abstract. This will typically contain a summary of the methodology and the findings of the study, allowing you to get a big-picture view of the content with very little time investment.
Once you’ve got a big picture view of any given article, navigate to the conclusions and/or recommendations section at the end of the article, where you can hone in on the recommendations offered by the authors. This section is often titled “future research is needed” or “further research is needed” (FRIN). The FRIN section generally contains a wealth of potential research ideas, as suggested by the authors. These suggestions will indicate possible research gaps that your project could build from and contribute to the field.
It can be tempting to cease your search at that point, but it’s still important to check whether the recommended research has already been done. To do so, look up the relevant article again in Google Scholar and click on the “Cited by” link to see which studies have since cited that particular piece of work. Take some time to work through those cited studies to verify if the research gap still remains. If it does, you can add the topic to your list of potentials.
2. Leverage your university’s dissertation database
In addition to Google Scholar, your university library is an excellent source for both public research and research specific to your university. More specifically, your university should have a database of dissertations and theses from past students, including those from your program. Here you’ll often find existing dissertations covering topics in your interest area, and within their FRIN section, they’ll offer existing gaps in the research that you can consider.
In addition to illustrating topic ideas, past dissertations and theses from your university database can give you insight into the format and structure/layout norms for your specific university (and program), which will be extremely helpful. It’s also common for your university library to provide access to public dissertation databases such as ProQuest and EBSCO. These databases are much larger, so it’s worth having a dig through them to get a comprehensive view of what’s been done.
Beyond these databases, you may also find a possible research topic within the micro-level research community that consists of your program’s professors and students. For instance, it can be helpful to look up the profiles of potential supervisors, as universities often list the primary research interests of each professor on the program website. Similarly, it’s a good idea to engage with other students in your cohort to stimulate your thinking and generate research ideas by asking questions and seeking input. While it can feel a bit daunting, don’t be afraid to ask as many questions of your peers and faculty as possible, as this will help you fast-track the process significantly.
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3. Prioritize topics that genuinely interest you
Once you’ve identified a few potential research topics (i.e., legitimate research gaps), you’ll need to start evaluating the options and refining your potential topics.
Contrary to previous short-term program modules and assignments, you’ll be engaged in your dissertation or thesis for a significant amount of time, typically anywhere from 6 months to multiple years (for Ph.D. programs). Because of this time investment, it’s essential that you prioritize and focus on topic ideas that are of genuine interest to you because you’ll need to stay motivated during your research journey. More practically, you’ll also convey a genuine interest in your writing, so, picking a topic that doesn’t excite you is going to make this difficult.
On a separate but related note, it’s also important to be confident in whichever topic you settle on. It is quite common to feel like a bit of an imposter as an emerging scholar when comparing your work to the established literature on the research topic. For example, you may feel that your research topic doesn’t look quite as “academic” as others. However, don’t be discouraged because it’s very common for the exact focal point of your research to evolve during the research process. So, if there’s a novel topic within the literature gap that genuinely interests you, silence those niggling doubts and pursue it.
4. Play to your strengths
In addition to prioritizing topics that you’re passionate about, it’s also wise to give preference to topic ideas that play to your strengths in terms of the research design and methodology. Some of the main questions to consider from the get-go are:
- What kind of research approach (qualitative or quantitative) is comfortable for me?
- Where and/or whom can I collect data from?
- Will I be able to collect the intended data within the time limit of my project?
To begin, consider your preferences in terms of work with either qualitative or quantitative, data. Qualitative research, commonly abbreviated to QUAL, tends to rely on personal engagement with people, so this kind of research makes use of interviews, focus groups, or observations for data collection. In contrast, quantitative research, or QUANT, predominantly involves analyzing numerical data using statistical methods. Mixed methods, or MIXED, makes use of both qualitative and quantitative features in a holistic manner.
Think about what your methodological preference is (are you a numbers or words type of person?) and look for topics that support that approach. Keep in mind that everyone differs in terms of their preference toward qualitative or quantitative data, so don’t try to force a methodological decision that feels unnatural to you. It’s worth mentioning that while mixed methods has been growing in popularity over recent years, you should only take this approach if your research aims and research questions strongly justify it, as it can be quite challenging to execute well. As a rule of thumb, a simpler design executed well will typically earn more marks than a complex one executed poorly.
After determining your preferred approach, it’s important to be realistic about the data and people (participants) that you’ll be able to access to accommodate any given topic and approach. It can be particularly challenging to recruit participants for a variety of reasons and it’s extremely common for students to overestimate the availability of data or interviewees, which can lead to major problems down the line. Remember, without data, you have no study!
Lastly, keep in mind that there are many things that potential participants won’t be comfortable talking about. So, be realistic in terms of your expectations, and remember that other people won’t be as enthusiastic about your project as you are. Nevertheless, don’t be shy to reach out to people and ask for favors or get feedback, as they are generally receptive, but be respectful of their time and do this well in advance. Ultimately, if you’re not confident that you can access the required data for any potential topic, avoid that research topic.
5. Keep it simple
Our final tip is to keep it simple in terms of both your topic and methodology. One of the most commendable aspects of students as emerging scholars is their idealism when it comes to research outlook. At Grad Coach, we commonly interact with students at the start of their project who want to change the world with their research or present a breakthrough in the field. Despite the best of intentions, this kind of macro-level, overly ambitious research topic is not typically achievable (or even desired).
In reality, your supervisor is not expecting your research project to change the world. As I mentioned earlier, what typically works best is a simple project that’s executed well, rather than a complex project done poorly. So, keep your scope narrow and focused rather than trying to connect every possible dot with your research. This can be accomplished by keeping your research focus straightforward, making sure your research questions, aims, and objectives are all in alignment, and by finding a new way to expand on existing work, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and start from scratch.
Importantly, you need to be realistic about what’s manageable within your timeframe. Your program will only last a finite amount of time, so you need to think about what you can do within that time frame. Overall, the key assessment criteria will be whether you’ve learned how to design and carry out research, not whether your research has broken new ground.
In this article, we covered 5 tips to help find a quality research topic for a dissertation, thesis, or research project. To recap:
- Start with the literature and focus on FRIN
- Leverage your university’s past dissertation database
- Prioritize topics/areas that you have a genuine interest in
- Play to your strengths in terms of topic and methodology
- Keep it simple
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment. Alternatively, if you’d like hands-on help with your topic ideation, be sure to check out our 1-on-1 private coaching services here.
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This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.