24 November 2020 Blogs, Academic, Student/Researcher

Where Can I Get Ideas for My Thesis or Dissertation Topic?

Tips for graduate students beginning their advanced research project.

By Jan Allen, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs and Author, Cornell University Graduate School

Where do graduate students get ideas and topics for theses or dissertations? When you applied to graduate school you might have already had an idea of what you wanted to research. Or you may have chosen a graduate program for the opportunity to study with a specific faculty whose research you had read and admired as an undergraduate. And as you were advised or mentored by your advisor or by multiple faculty members, you began to think of a research project related to your advisor’s research, either a component of a larger project or an original idea for a smaller, related project.

Once you started graduate school you likely read many articles or books focusing on research, theory or critical analysis. These assigned readings, and the related publications you read as resources and citations for the class papers you write, will prompt other ideas as options for your research.

Another source for topic ideas is already completed theses and dissertations. Start local, reading the theses and dissertations completed by graduate students with your same advisor.  A much larger repository is that archived in ProQuest Dissertations and Theses and Global, with over 5 million titles and full-text manuscripts from 100 countries. Scan titles. Read abstracts. Begin to read full texts of those that interest you. You will begin to think of other research questions from the gaps or next steps in this literature.

Once you have ideas, begin to consider which one would be the best for you to pursue. How? Make a list of factors and evaluate each option:

  • Will this topic sustain your interest for the length of time you will need to successfully complete the research and write the manuscript? For writing a thesis, this might be 6 to 12 months. For a dissertation it could be a year, two, or three (depending on your graduate discipline).
  • Will this topic be novel, one that hasn’t been done before? A dissertation must make an original contribution to the research or scholarship in your field. You will read extensively to become familiar with the existing research before you can determine that your research question(s) is a new one. A thesis is usually smaller in scope than a dissertation, requiring fewer resources and less time. It can also replicate an earlier study while still contributing to the literature.
  • Will your advisor and other members of your graduate committee be willing and able to guide you through this project?
  • Do you, or your advisor and graduate program, have the resourses you need for this project? Lab, equipment, materials? Access to archives, online materials, maybe travel funds to field sites?  In general, will you have the funds and other resources to support the research you want to do?
  • Can you complete this project before your advisor’s support and your funding end? In other words, is this project doable by you? You may have a great idea but need to wait until you have more funding, as a postdoctoral fellow or faculty member with graduate students of your own, to attempt it.

How do you decide? Talk to advanced graduate students. Talk to your advisor and other faculty. Once you think you’ve narrowed your topic to one or a few, begin writing. Draft a list of research questions or hypotheses. Write a summary of the literature you have read. Place you own research questions in the context of this previous literature and scholarship. Can you begin to envision this project from start to finish? From conceptualizing to design to methodology to results? If so, and your advisor approves, then you have a research topic!

Congratulations. You can do this!


For more information, check out Module 1: Getting Started on Your Thesis or Dissertations from the ProQuest Dissertations Bootcamp.