For undergraduate and masters students, choosing a dissertation/thesis topic can be a daunting task. I’ve previously written a couple of times on what sorts of things to avoid, such as how FOTM topics can lead to a focus on novelty over rigor, or how the emphasis on a particular relatively broad topic can hinder the development of a feasible research question, particularly where data are scarce.
I’ve written a few times about what not to do as far as choosing a topic goes, but there are a few strategies that can help make the process less stressful and more rewarding.
Don’t Procrastinate, Start Early
This doesn’t mean that you need to identify your specific topic early. However, it does help to start thinking about potential topics well before the dissertation component of your degree begins. For some undergraduates, this may mean the beginning of your second year of study; for most, the second half of the second year, particularly during the third term, is a good time to start. My recommendation for MSc students is to start thinking about the dissertation when you begin your program: once the second term begins and you need to choose a topic for your proposal, things move very quickly.
The deadlines for submitting your proposal are generally inflexible; the Submitting a poorly-composed or incomplete proposal may result in your being assigned to a supervisor whose research interests do not closely match your eventual topic.
Make a List, Check It Twice
So if you’re not choosing your specific dissertation topic this early in the game, what should you be doing? Make notes of what interests you from your classes and keep it in an obvious and easy-to-access place. For some people, this is a file (text file, Word document, spreadsheet, etc.) they stick on their desktop and update as they go along. Others use a physical notepad or a bunch of sticky notes.
Some of these topics are likely to be exceptionally broad – for example, many of our MSc students who get introduced to behavioral economics in their compulsory PPEA module decide they want to do something on ‘nudge’. In general, topics that come out of compulsory modules will be like this, and that is not necessarily a bad thing; it simply means that you’ll want to look for a more specific application that may be feasible for research.
Reading widely outside of class can also help you identify potential topics to add to your list. Try to apply the analytical frameworks that you’ve been learning in your coursework to these issues so that you can frame them in relation to a broader set of behavioral dynamics or cases.
Ultimately, you’ll want to have a list of several potential topics. This list can be as long as you want; having a wealth of ideas is far better than having none that are viable.
What Makes a Good Prospective Topic?
The dissertation project is primarily an exercise in conducting original research. Once you’ve got a few potential topics in mind, some of the points mentioned in my FOTM post can be applied. In practical terms, this means taking a bit of time to do a little preliminary research into each topic and adding a few more notes to each. If you hit a dead end with a specific topic, that may mean that it might not be appropriate for a dissertation project.
First, start with the relevant literature(s) and academic debates. These may have been covered in your classes; otherwise, you’ll need to search online for a few good sources to get a sense of where your topic(s) fit.
For empirical projects, data concerns are a big deal. This includes availability: most crossnational data that would be used in quantitative IPE, IR, and comparative politics studies will not yet have coverage for the past year or two (I’ve listed links to a number of good sources in these areas). Other project ideas may be hampered by a lack of access to suitably fine-grained data.
Your personal tutor and module tutors may be able to provide additional feedback or direction. Keep in mind that, if your ideas are far outside your personal tutor’s expertise, they may not have much in the way of advice for you. However, it can’t hurt to ask.
Once you’ve got a couple of good prospects for your dissertation topic, it’s simply a matter of deciding which you would prefer to work on for several months. For undergraduates, the dissertation module that begins in the first term of your final year is likely to give you an opportunity to consider this, with your proposal due in the middle of the term.
MSc students will have about a month from the beginning of the winter term before you need to submit your proposal.
You will have an opportunity to nominate potential supervisors when you submit your proposal. When you read through the list of supervisor profiles, pay careful attention to both substantive and methodological interests. You want those to match your proposal as much as possible. For example, if you are doing a qualitative project, do not list a supervisor whose methodological subjects are purely quantitative or philosophy/political theory-based. For substantive topics, focus primarily on the type of policy or political issue you are investigating. Geography is, to some extent, a secondary concern. For example, if you plan to study urban tax policies in China, focus on people who work on tax policy and fiscal policy before trying to narrow down your choice to those who work on the developing world. Someone who specializes in China may not also work on fiscal policy; locality-specific knowledge is often easier to overcome in a short period of time than subject-specific knowledge.