Research topics - hope me!
March 6, 2011 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Grad school thesis topics -- please help with a couple of questions about a) doing a topic similar to someone in my department and b) finding a good topic in general...

I've started a graduate program that requires a thesis as part of the requirements. I'm in the coursework phase but will soon have to pick a topic. It seems that my mind doesn't easily organize the world into empirical chunks, so I'm wondering if the hive mind can help!

- One of my fellow graduate students and I have lots of discussions about what we like and don't like in the class readings, possible topics, etc. One of the topics she is interested in also greatly interests me. We have a similar professional background (although hers is more extensive) and very similar interests.

In fact, after a discussion a few days ago, I want to do a topic related to the one she put on her admissions essay (and far different than what I originally applied to do). Obviously, we would have slightly different takes on it, but most people in our department do very different sorts of things, so it would look weird. Also, I already have a reputation as a bit of a maverick because I changed supervisors (to a new one that I'm very happy with).

So, do I need to ask her permission? What if she says no? When should I bring it up? How should I bring it up?

- Also, how does one go about choosing research topics in general? I'm pretty good at the other aspects of research (at least I think so), but I am really, really bad at coming up with the kinds of questions that fit into a research framework. How do I get good at this skill?

I really want to be good at coming up with good research questions. I know it's a bit of an art, but what resources (books, websites, ideas, etc.) have been helpful to you?
posted by 3491again to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's hard to give advice about coming up with a research topic without knowing what general area you're studying in (arts? social science? hard science?). But my very general suggestion is to choose something that interests you enough that you won't be overwhelmed or depressed or anxiety-ridden if it takes over your life for awhile. Because it will take over your life.

(I may or may not presently be working on an M.A. thesis)
posted by torisaur at 12:50 PM on March 6, 2011

Yeah, this one is hard to speak to without knowing what your field is. Other useful information: how big your department is, how many students are involved, and if you'll be intending to publish.

If you're planning to publish and the topic that your buddy wrote about in her admin essay and still wants to research is somewhat similar, there might be some ethical concerns. Obviously it is entirely up to you how you play it, but this is a big reason why many academics are pretty close-mouthed about projects until they are in press.

Try to make sure you have your own spin on things, your own idea. I realize it is really tough to come up with a thesis subject (it took me 1.5 years to figure out what my doctoral research should be!) but try to give yourself some space to breathe and come up with something that is both authentic to you and entirely original. Don't be afraid to ask your new and awesome supervisor for ideas. Depending on what your area of study is and what your department is, you probably need to make sure they like your proposed thesis topic, so a good way to start is asking then fir udeas,
posted by arnicae at 12:54 PM on March 6, 2011

(Also, as someone who has spent a lot of energy to encourage transparency in my own department, trying to get academics to be more open and sharing with each other, try to make sure that if you really want to do this as your thesis, it won't adversely impact your buddy in any way. That is the kind of thing that decreases academic transparency in the long-run, which I don't think is good for any of us)
posted by arnicae at 12:57 PM on March 6, 2011

Also, are you working on a masters or a PhD? The expectations are also different.
posted by zxcv at 12:57 PM on March 6, 2011

Sorry to threadsit, but to answer a few questions:

- PhD in social science, interdisciplinary department. Total first-year students: 10 - 15. Intending to publish (a requirement for graduation).

Arnicae - Also, how did you finally arrive at your topic after 1.5 years? What was the process you went through? What helped you the most?
posted by 3491again at 1:05 PM on March 6, 2011

A good policy is to start reading papers on a general subject that interests you. Lots of them will explicitly say "further work is required to ______". That might be a good starting point.

Also, a general piece of advice: don't over-reach on your thesis topic. Err on the side of limiting the scope. Getting over ambitious leads to never finishing your project. Much better to nail a more limited research topic.
posted by auto-correct at 1:05 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you tried consulting your supervisor? I thought one of the important features of a supervisor is to help students choose a good* question. Certainly, my supervisor (mathematics) was exceedingly helpful.

*where good means not only interesting, but tractable.

For what it's worth, if you haven't read .kobayshsi.'s comment on the relationship between a thesis and getting s drivers' license, you should. On my phone; I'll see if I can find it and post it on the computer.
posted by leahwrenn at 2:19 PM on March 6, 2011

Found the fantastic comment.
posted by leahwrenn at 2:21 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

You REALLY need to talk to your advisor about this.

First, cuz even though YOU have a great idea, you need to work it through with your advisor to make sure that s/he is the best person to produce this work with you and that the topic is appropriate for your field, your career, etc.

Second, your advisor can help you understand how much overlap there is because the 2 students' ideas.

And overall, if both of you have this idea, it might not be so novel afterall. ;)

In my department, the folks that are sort of shining in their advisors' glory are all working on extending the same theoretical perspective.

In my eyes, this sitch that you are in could be fantastic for co-authorship and collaboration (and SHARING THE WORK!!! Of writing, of lit reviewing!) if you two are working in different enough aspects of the same general question that it can help each other.

Remember that you're also going to need to distinguish yourself down the line...
posted by k8t at 2:25 PM on March 6, 2011

Great advice here.

You may also want to talk to more senior students and ask them about their experience. You can even discuss your thoughts about a few topics that may interest you and figure out how those ideas can be molded to fit a dissertation proposal.

I am sure you can come up with your own independent topics and you can avoid the stress about sharing the topic with another student. If you can come up with one topic, you can come up with more.
posted by xm at 3:10 PM on March 6, 2011

As others have said, these really are questions you need to be asking your supervisor. Your supervisor is the person who has to sign off on this, so at the end of the day, only he/she can tell you if the scope of your question is broad enough/narrow enough, if it will be possible for you to put together a committee for this topic, etc. Certainly if you are thinking about pursuing a topic that another student in your department has written about you *must* talk to your supervisor about this, lest you get burned down the road.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:41 AM on March 7, 2011

Depends on how similar the topics are and who is involved. For example, in my very interdisciplinary social sciences MA program, there was a woman who chose a very similar topic to mine. Apparently she was worried that I might be angry at her for "stealing" my topic, so we had a really nice chat about our respective projects. While she was looking at the same general thing I was (our local indie music scene), she was taking quite a different approach. It worked out well. If I came across a source that I thought would be useful to her, I would send it her way and vice versa. It probably helped that I was a year ahead of her and we both had the same supervisor. She changed her topic soon after and never did finish the program, but I would have loved to collaborate with her on something. Our supervisor didn't think it was a big deal, so I'm curious - what does your supervisor think of this?
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:00 AM on March 7, 2011

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