Finding an undergrad research topic for my thesis (in Psychology)?
April 13, 2014 7:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm currently in my 3rd of undergrad (BA, Psychology). I'm planning to do an honours thesis next year but am completely overwhelmed on deciding what to research on.

My main reason for wanting to do an undergraduate thesis is that I really want to have first-experience with research, and as a potential gateway into grad school. I'm working as a research assistant so I have some idea on how research is conducted, but find the process overwhelming regardless. I've done a basic stats course, and have done various courses within the field (clinical, cognitive, developmental, social, to name a few). I'm especially interested in the developmental-cognitive domain (specifically infant language) - but everything looks like it is well-researched already. I know that it isn't entirely true, but I wouldn't know otherwise. How does one go about finding a topic to do a thesis on? Since I'm only in undergrad, I don't think they expect us to be very comprehensive but I am looking for any ideas or resources you may have in mind. Has anyone ever been in a similar situation? Thanks.
posted by raintree to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Read all the journal articles that have come out in the past year about your specific area of interest. Their discussion sections will talk about further areas to explore.

Before getting deeply into something like infant language, think about where you would get research subjects from and what IRB hoops you would have to jump through. Your life will probably be easier if you use a college student sample; many schools offer up their psych 101 students for this.
posted by metasarah at 7:46 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would do enough background reading to get a sense of the general topic, and then look for a faculty member who is doing work in that area. You could have a conversation with them about the work that they are doing and your interest -- many of my students wind up doing smaller projects that are derivatives of the professor's primary research. They have probably done this before and it will help you clarify.
posted by cgk at 7:52 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Presumably you will have a thesis adviser who is a professor currently conducting research at your institution, yes? The person you are currently doing research with is a good start. I'm assuming you are working for that person because you have some level of interest in their area of specialty. Schedule some time to talk to them about gaps they see in the current area of research and studies you could to do help fill in that knowledge. If you aren't terribly interested in their research, find another professor (or even a grad student! I advised an undergrad when I was in my last year of grad school for social psychology) who is taking on thesis advisees and does stuff you're interested in, and pick their brain for ideas. Also do a little background research as metasarah suggested before going in so that you aren't 100% reliant upon the professor to tell you what is and isn't out there.

I agree with metasarah's suggestion of using a college student sample. You may also be able to do some data collection online, but I wouldn't rely 100% on that--different areas lend themselves better to that than others.

Also, hot topics nowadays include anything to do with online communication and social media. Because it's relatively new, there are still lots of ideas that have not been fully researched yet.
posted by Fuego at 7:52 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If I were you, I might look for relatively boring but necessary work, not ground breaking research. The idea is to learn how to do research, not to write the ground breaking paper for your field.

Perform the same test that somebody else did in a paper you liked, and see if you get the same result. Remember, even if your test is perfectly discriminatory without anything that could possibly confound it (IE you are working with genetically identical mice or something), the usual 95% confidence interval means that a single study is potentially wrong 1/20 times.

Maybe look as some sort of psychometric assessment that's new, and assess something about it like criterion validity with another assessment.

I agree with metasarah, if you are going to use real live research subjects, go with what you can get easily. Because even the easily available can be hard. Trying to find a statistically significant sample of children of a certain age is going to be hard without funding.

The person who is going to advise you is going to be helpful.

Just one suggestion... make sure,whatever you do, you understand the statistically model you are going to use. Don't end up neck deep in non parametric models with n < 30 if you can help it.
posted by gryftir at 8:08 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Please go talk to the faculty in your department. They will know what is normal and expected and will help you. I say this as a faculty member. I would not feel okay giving you a reocmmation via the Internet.
posted by k8t at 8:14 PM on April 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Perhaps you can speak with the professor you are working as a research assistant for? If possible, extending a part of that project could be a simple and efficient way to complete your honors thesis for a year.

I did this and completed a junior and senior year thesis. I RAed for a psychology professor who had survey data that I was cleaning and analyzing. I found some relationships that were interesting, did a literature review (you can check your library for books on conducting a literature review, which will help you in exploring topics and narrowing to a question), and brought some questions to a meeting with the professor, who helped me finalize the questions and methods.
posted by inevitability at 8:30 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

A general rule is that research = data + method. In other words, you have a method which is anchored in some disciplinary context, and you have a subject to apply that method to, which is normally some form of data.

This gives you for quadrants of research:

1. Known data, Known methods -- This stuff constitutes the existing body of knowledge in journals and textbooks.

2. New data, known methods -- Taking existing knowledge and applying it to a new domain. The challenge is in identifying the domain and extracting information from it to make it analyzable using the discipline's methods.

3. Known data, new methods -- Improving the tools of the discipline. The challenge is proving that the proposed methodology is correct, consistent, and meaningful, and also an improvement on what's currently done.

4. New data, new methods -- The danger zone -- very hard to show off a new method with new data.

The second and third points are the sweet spot of research. The first one would not normally be publishable, but would still be a good part of the learning process to make sure you understand the methods, and this might be sufficient for a thesis. To really hit the second or third (and I would think about the second in your case, not the third), you need to understand the frontier of knowledge in terms of what methods people are doing, and what data those methods have been applied to, and what boundaries are they currently pushing against. Here is where it is important to talk to a professor, because only an expert embedded in that literature will be able to answer such a question.

The challenge in a good thesis will be mastering the methods, and identifying a good data source to apply them against. Generating new primary data sources is complicated and easy to screw up (easy to introduce bias etc) so again talk to your profs and see if they have any ideas; maybe there is a way to do some analysis on a data source that already exists, which would make things much easier.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:36 PM on April 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm interested in responses as I'm in a similar position, but in case it helps, some practical considerations I'm taking into account (most of which came from advisors at my school):

- is the supervisor likely to be fully able/willing to provide guidance. Other psych students might be able to give input into this. If the prof is super high-profile and doing 10 million things, it might be they won't be available to help you translate and apply stuff you've read about research design. Is the prof or subject (e.g. clinical topics) popular, i.e., will gaining supervision be a competitive process. Also, importantly, do you think you'll get along.

- try to think of something that will hold your interest for a year, that's simple to do (as people have said) and looks like you could at least make a case for it fitting with future career and/or research goals.

- is the subject something that might provide an opportunity for grad school funding later on, either by itself (unusual probably) or as evidence that you're fundable. Maybe look at where the relevant funders in your country have made commitments over the past few years and try to get an idea of where things are headed within both your current and target departments. Profs and grad students can help with this.

- also check out which undergrad theses at/from your school have done well in any competitions. Looking at past award-winners might give you a sense of the kind, scope and standard of work to shoot for. Your department or library probably keeps these somewhere, if you wanted to have a quick flip through. (I am going to do this this week.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:34 PM on April 13, 2014

Your department will have resources. Ask for the specific requirements and expectations.
Just to get an idea about scope for BA theses take a look at this list of topics. And here is a general guide on how to find a topic.
posted by travelwithcats at 5:37 AM on April 14, 2014

Unless your thesis advisor has an ongoing study on infant language already I wouldn't recommend using infants as your experimental participants due to time constraints involved with bringing infants and their parents into a lab, and you would likely also have to provide compensation to them which may not be feasible. That said I know someone who did do an infant study for their thesis so it's not impossible, but it has a lot to do with who your supervisor is. They would need to at least have expertise in the area (meaning they have published work using the same methodology) so that you could be trained properly, and ideally you'd be taking over a portion of an ongoing study/series of studies and not starting from scratch.

You will want to have ample time to analyze your results and write them up. It's common for thesis students to run out of time and it makes the process much less enjoyable/valuable when that happens, expect the analysis/writing stage to take up most of the winter term, you need to be off and running right away in September. If you can speak with your advisor soon, it may be possible to get your ethics approval taken care of and ready to go before summer is over, that would be ideal. Keep in mind that most professors are not around in August, so you'd want to discuss things before then.

If you are thinking of grad school, have you selected some potential advisors/programs to apply to? I would look at their research pages and recent publications to get a sense for what they are interested in/funded to study. You may be able to find an area of convergence between a potential grad school advisor and your current thesis advisor and do something that will be of interest to both (and yourself, of course).
posted by lafemma at 7:30 AM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Memail me. I did infant perception and cognition for my BS and MA theses. I actually set up an infant lab for my BS (and it was a pain in the ass).
posted by kathrynm at 9:13 AM on April 14, 2014

A possible resource to keep in mind: if you want to work on child language but don't have the time/resources to deal with bringing babies in for an experimental study, you might think about using the already-collected naturalistic data in CHILDES. Corpus research is tricky though, so I wouldn't recommend this unless you have a supervisor who is already used to working with the CHILDES data.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:48 PM on April 14, 2014

Anything to do with attachment theory is always interesting and there will be loads of research to draw on.
posted by tanktop at 12:06 PM on July 13, 2014

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