When choosing a dissertation or thesis topic, it can be tempting to choose a topic that everyone’s talking about precisely because of its popularity. This approach to a research project that will last several months (or years in the case of a PhD) can lead to a great deal of difficulty, some of which may not be immediately apparent. While this does not mean that flavor of the month (FOTM) topics should always be avoided, if you want to write on something FOTMy, you will need to look especially carefully in the early stages of your topic-selection process to ensure that your intended project is feasible. The points I raise here are intended to help guide that initial research stage so that you can judge whether or not your chosen topic will make a good research project.
Performance Patterns in FOTM Topics
Unsurprisingly, FOTM topics come (and go) in cycles. I’ve written specifically about China’s One Belt, One Road/Belt & Road Initiative, which prior to the onset of the pandemic, was an extremely common choice. Issues relating to Brexit and aspects of the US-China trade war have been other popular subjects over the past couple of years.
This does not mean that all of the projects I’ve supervised on these topics have had disappointing outcomes. For example, some of the challenges surrounding research into the Belt & Road Initiative are specific to that particular subject, but they are easily avoided or remedied with some careful thinking. Students who have been able to clearly define their research question and target specific components of BRI have often done quite well. In contrast, those who are unable or unwilling to refine or refocus their research question and investigation often run into trouble. This leads to a bimodal distribution of outcomes, something that is more common among projects on FOTM topics than others.
What is your motivation?
Your motivation for choosing your topic matters. Personal motivations can help ensure that you’ll continue to remain interested in the topic while you conduct your research. A solid academic motivation typically means it will be easier for you to meaningfully engage the existing literature. With FOTM topics, ‘because everybody’s talking about it’ is a common motivation. This isn’t inherently bad, but you’ll want to ensure that you’ll still be interested when everyone’s moved onto something else, and that your research question is sufficiently refined to provide you with the direction you’ll need for a project that can be completed within your time constraints.(1)
Everything’s changing vs. ‘nothing new under the sun’
With apologies to Keane and the author of Ecclesiastes, FOTM topics can present two very different challenges to original research.
The first is that events will continue to evolve while you engage in the research process. While a typical solution to the need to follow the 24-hour news cycle is to block off a specific period of time for analysis, the potential for for dramatic developments to invalidate an argument or conclusions frequently creates anxiety for students. It also can present a great deal of pressure to adapt the framing, theory, and empirics to remain relevant to further developments. The extent to which this presents a threat depends on the formulation of the research question. In other words, which aspects of the subject matter are important to your study?
The second challenge is finding something ‘new’ in the sense that original research presents or creates new knowledge. If you don’t identify a relevant academic literature, then chances are very good that you’ll essentially try to reinvent the wheel. Quite often, once the veneer of media coverage is removed, the uniqueness of a FOTM topic appears to disappear. At first glance, this may appear to make the subject less useful or interesting as a topic, but it actually can provide a window into framing and conducting the study itself.
How Can You Ensure Your Project is Viable?
The twin considerations of presenting an original contribution to the literature and actually being able to carry out the proposed research project are common to all dissertations (and at least most research). FOTM proposals seem to have little trouble with the former, so I’ll focus my comments on tips to help you ensure that your idea will actually lead to a feasible project. Address these points early on (for BSc/MSc students, before you submit your proposal; for MPhil/PhD applicants, before you reach out to potential supervisors or apply for programs), and you will significantly reduce the chances that you’ll need to backtrack or change topics at a later point in time, when undertaking changes will come with much higher costs.
From a certain point of view
How you approach a topic (any topic, really) will influence your first steps toward framing your research question and thesis. For FOTM topics, it’s extremely common to get ideas from (social) media coverage. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to capture inspiration, but work towards framing the project itself needs to move far beyond this (in weak proposals, it often fails to do so) to capture the subject matter with reference to a relevant and established academic debate or two.
There are two easy ways to identify relevant literature(s):
- Think about how you would frame your research question in abstract theoretical terms. Is this a bargaining problem? A question of asymmetric information? What about a public goods problem or an issue dealing with a common pooled resource?
- Can you identify similar substantive cases with established bodies of research?
In both cases, thinking back to subjects you’ve covered in your coursework is a good way to begin. At the very least, this should provide a list of readings that may guide you toward some useful resources.
In short, you want to make sure you can bring an academic perspective to your proposed topic.
Data, data, data
The presence or absence of appropriate data ultimately determines whether any research project can be carried out. This is also one of the biggest weaknesses I see on a recurring basis in FOTM dissertation proposals. Under the ‘data sources’ section of the proposal form, students will write some vague version of ‘I’ll find data on the interwebs’. For the topics I typically supervise, this lack of specificity is a sure path to a poor outcome, as there’s little guarantee that any data will be available.
This also can be the case for more clearly articulated research questions on FOTM topics. As an example, take the US-China trade war. At the time of this writing (August 2021), there have not been any particularly interesting new developments for months, but the effects of earlier actions might be observed. However, this comes down to data. If you’re focusing on tariffs or trade flows, you’ll need to be able to tie at least one of these to a specific event within the broader trade conflict. You may be able to find these data from government websites, but ease of access, a lack of seasonal adjustments, and in the case of tariffs, establishing equivalence, can all pose problems. Likewise, you would need to capture data at a monthly or quarterly frequency; this rules out some of the more common sources, like WITS, which only provide annual observations. Similarly, a lot of data sources only offer data up to a year or two ago: if you’re lucky, you may get 2020 observations on some indicators, but in most cases 2017-2019 are likely to be the latest figures.
To summarize, clearly identify your data needs, data sources, and data availability early to avoid running into severe problems later.
Some of these data problems can be avoided by framing the research question in such a way that it can be addressed using alternative forms of data. For example, while effective analysis of trade barriers or trade flows (from the previous example) may not be possible to examine, other potentially interesting aspects of the US-China trade war are still accessible. Are there similarities in media coverage across both countries (and third parties)? All you would need to do is think through your design, fire up LexisNexis or ProQuest, and then conduct sentiment, discourse, or content analysis in nVivo (or do computational content analysis in R).(2) Want to do a survey or survey experiment to see how people view the trade war or how responsive they are to framing effects? Go through the ethics process and then design your survey (experiment) and hit up all of your social-media contacts.(3)
It may also be the case that similarities arise between the phenomenon that you want to investigate (but for which data are unavailable) and historical cases. This should become apparent when you do background research for related academic literatures, and may provide some useful ideas for analyzing data that you can get and extrapolating from your results to explain or predict aspects of the case for which you cannot get data.
(1) Students with FOTM topics who can make these adjustments swiftly do always perform better than those who do not (this also applies to students with overly broad and underdeveloped non-FOTM topics). You want to make this pivot before supervision begins, otherwise you’re wasting at least 2-3 weeks of the fairly short supervision period essentially doing simple background work. If you then have to change your topic, you’re starting over entirely, which means you lose more time.
(2) For the record, I don’t supervise on any of these methods.
(3) I also don’t supervise on original surveys or survey experiments. The questions around population representation that are usually levied around publishable academic studies are typically ignored if the author lays out a good research design given the £0 budget constraint.