5 ways to know you have the right thesis topic

It surprises many people who haven’t done a PhD that it can be hard to know what your topic really is.

When you first start a PhD your ideas can shift around a lot; it may seem like from week to week you change your mind. Over time you would hope this situation would settle down, but I meet many people who have two or more topics struggling to be in the same thesis, right up to the last minute.

I call this the Incredible Hulk Complex: too much man, too little shirt (your poor thesis text is the shirt in this metaphor by the way).

I am no stranger to the Incredible Hulk complex. I originally got into a PhD program proposing that I would investigate the use of genetic algorithms in architectural design. I ended up looking at how architects use gesture as they are designing together.

It was hard to let go of all the interests that I had but, to paraphrase what a wise man once wrote, there can be only One Topic. Only one Topic can rule them all, find them, bring them all and in the darkness bind them. My supervisor gets the credit for convincing me to do work on gesture – and he has my undying thanks.

How do you know when you have the One Topic? Here’s how I knew:

1) I found there was substantial work in the area already

This may run counter to the idea that a thesis has to be an ‘original contribution to knowledge’, but there’s doable original and too original. If some work in the area exists already you have something to hold onto, examine and critique if necessary.

When I decided to look at gesture I naively thought there wouldn’t be much work on it – how wrong was I! There was about 200 years of research in the area of gesture already. I found this demoralising until I realised that only about 3 people had looked at architects and none had looked at education – a nice little gap was still left for me to squeeze into.

2) I thought it was fascinating

Gesture is a compulsive thing – you can’t help doing it. When you think about it as you do it, it becomes really hard to talk. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean. Did you know that even blind people gesture? They gesture when they are on the phone – to other blind people! If we gesture to communicate with others, why would blind people need do it?

Obviously I still find gesture mysterious and fascinating, even after three years of looking at it. This curiosity and desire to know kept me going. When all else looked bleak and I was slamming doors in my house in a fit of PhD rage I could always return to and draw from this well of curiosity. I really don’t think I could have finished without this thirst to know –  I know that sounds dorky, but that’s how it was.

3) Other people said “wow – what a great topic” when I told them

Apart from one of the mothers at my son’s school who said with genuine disbelief “What the hell would you want to study that for!?” everyone else I talked to about my topic found it interesting. Especially (and this is the most important thing) all the architecture academics in my faculty, my home university and at conferences I went to.

Since academics found it interesting they would remember that I was doing it and send me articles. Lots of people would come to my seminars when I had work to present. I got a lot of help from others, I think because they genuinely wanted to know what I would find out.

4) It wasn’t too hot

Genetic algorithms in architecture used to be HOT. Who remembers that now? God – so early 2000’s… Gesture however is timeless. Others may dispute my findings, build on my work, dismiss it, but it will always be part of the discourse.

Of course, it is impossible for every topic to be timeless. Scientists in particular know it is highly unlikely their work will be relevant for more than 3 years. If it can’t be timeless it is good to work in a field that has the potential develop further, so you can still be a part of it as it moves on.

5) It had clear limits

This point relates back to point one. Since there was work in the field already there were pre-existing boundaries to the work I could do and stay ‘original’. Since I decided to focus on a location (gesture in architectural education) there was a lot that didn’t have to make it in to the thesis. The topic acted like a sieve which only certain things passed through.

How did you know you had the right topic – or are you still slightly green and hulky?

Oh – and thanks to @iambuttons for suggesting this week’s top 5!

12 thoughts on “5 ways to know you have the right thesis topic

  1. I had 3; one I eliminated as unemployable. (The world does not need any more historians, even of education.) I went back and forth between the final two, finally choosing one out of expediency. It was just more contained and controlled than the other. I defend my proposal (which is essentially the intro, lit review and methods) next month but don’t expect any problems.

    The expediency thing is something that a student shouldn’t overlook; “The only good dissertation is a done dissertation”, and this one will be done with a lot less pain and stress than the other would have. Moreover this one easily lends itself into a quick post-dissertation-defense chopping into three articles that should be fairly easy to get published. That is an important consideration if the real goal is to build academic credibility. Few people will read your dissertation, but articles are different and having an idea early of how you will cut it up and get it published can help you structure both the specific question syou ask and the way you write about the answers.

  2. i started with two…they became one, then it morphed into three, and got pruned back to one when ethics would have been utterly unwieldy, but its still a cluster of questions, an area of intrigue rather than something so discrete.
    The choice was about whats significant, not done, not likely to be done by anyone else, and would hold passionate interest for a longtime (part time student). I am glad for a supervisor with wisdom as to size and fascination of topic.
    And really really glad i went with the voluntary organisation rather than a teaching institution, they are so open to being worked with.
    But the thing continues to shape shift, the question has slippage- it couldn’t not given its placement as a study of change. At times it feels like i am ‘studying the blur’….the literature in my area wasnt there when i began, but mushroomed after i collected data, and the changes just keep happening.
    Looking backwards there’s a clear trajectory, but i know that has not been my experience as lived.
    Questions that helped me choose:
    Position it as the cure for cancer; how does it justify the time spent…
    What do you want to do with it post grad? Work life… so i shaped it to fit a bigger context, where it would not be so time bound.
    And then every time the question and its investigation slips too far, there is always the postdoc box where the extra ideas go.

  3. It was definitely that act of proposal re-hashing that got my big green guy under control. Hated it at the time but now I see the value.

    • Well, I believe that ruinnng out of ideas is just an excuse; I think what really happens is that most people are afraid to share the ideas they have. If bloggers could be comfortable with themselves, they’d find the ideas flowing better and faster. Thanks for your comment!

  4. my #1 why I know I have the right topic? It still gives me butterflies, even when I am about to finish. -yeah, not very scientific, I know. But I was always worried that I would do a PhD and everyone else research is more exciting.. Fortunately, my research is the most exciting. ;)

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  7. Hi, Thanks for this post :) I’m doing my honours thesis and mine is a literature based one (no research due to lengthy ethics process). I’m therefore having trouble trying to locate where there is a gap in knowledge. I’m doing my thesis on Indigenous social welfare in relation to stereotypes, (I can’t find much on stereotypes in this arena so that’s great I guess, there’s my gap), but because of it being solely a literature based thesis, I’m stuck as to how I’m going to tackle it. Obviously I need to make some changes, any hints? (I’m still at the reading stage, although I would like to start writing soon, I just don’t feel like I have anything to write about yet – just lots of notes of stuff I have written)

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  9. Now that you’ve said it like that, it just seems so logical ^_^

    I got through the proposal process with little hassle: essentially a regular old science ‘following on from’ type project. That morphed into a ‘that’s interesting’ topic, and suddenly I was shifting campus, discipline, and talking to a new supervisor.

    My topic has settled itself through pragmatics: the first journal article from my research set out a research agenda, which I might as well fulfil!

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