In this article, we shall discuss how students should choose a topic for a dissertation at the undergraduate and the postgraduate level. When exposed to a variety of topics, students often get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they’re exposed to and may struggle with deciding a topic of study that they are not only interested in but can also study for a long period of time.

Here, we lay out a step-by-step guide that can help you pick a topic for your dissertation.

The difference between a dissertation and a thesis

When you are at the end of an academic course, regardless of which step of the academic ladder you’re in, it’s likely that you get increasingly excited about the ‘project work’ you  need to work on to finally graduate. This is when you might come across the two words typically used for this project work: thesis and dissertation

For many of us, the distinction between these two words is often vague, especially since the two terms are frequently used interchangeably and do have considerable overlaps. Nevertheless, we thought it would be interesting for you to know the differences between the two, before you embark on your project. 

There are two generally acceptable meanings to what constitutes a thesis or a dissertation. These differ geographically, with each term having a different connotation in different academic settings. 

According to American universities, a thesis is a written account of the original research done by a student in order to graduate with a Masters’ degree, whereas a dissertation is a written account of original research work done in order to qualify for an award of  Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). A dissertation is often above 100 pages long, while a thesis is usually within 100 pages.

In European universities, the definition of the two terms is almost exactly the opposite. They define a thesis as a written account of original research done towards the partial fulfillment of requirements to obtain a PhD degree, while a dissertation is a written account of original research for a Masters’ degree.

As we go ahead in this article, we will stick to the European definition. 

 

How to choose a suitable topic for your dissertation

Step 1:  Identifying potential research interests 

Undergraduate courses are usually vast, covering all possible courses in a lesser depth. Unlike postgraduate courses, where one masters specific domains of the field, undergraduate courses tend to be diversified or on introductory levels. The aim is to expose students to a lot of different ideas, concepts, theories, etc within a larger discipline. 

For example, say, you pursue a B. A. in History, you end up studying various eras of history on a cursory level, including both global events (the history of the World Wars) and more country-specific histories (the history of ancient India.) In addition, you may even take up technical topics about how history is studied— how a historic survey is done, for instance. 

This type of study contrasts with what you might do in higher degrees, where you’re likely to be specializing in one of these many aspects of history. 

So the bottom line is this: where you are in the academic ladder and how much you know about the discipline you’re studying will inform what topic you’ll end up studying in your dissertation. 

Since you’re exposed to a plethora of different ideas in your coursework, it can become overwhelming at times to narrow down interests. One of the best ways you can do this is to first make a list of topics that interest you. 

For example, Mr X, who studies economics, finds the concepts of energy economics interesting. He identifies various aspects that are possible to be studied under the same topic such as import-export statistics of a country, the energy policies, rise in inflation due to wars, etc. and makes a list of all of them. 

 

Step 2: Identifying methods and methodologies

Once you are ready with the list of ‘interesting topics’, the second level of thought should be given to the methodologies involved. 

Most academic courses, undergraduate or postgraduate, introduce a variety of methodologies that can be used as part of your research work. These methodologies may be broadly classified into three categories—literature surveys, theoretical analysis, and experimentation. 

Let’s explore each approach briefly. 

  • Literature surveys: These types of studies often involve gathering and sorting information from various research papers, journals, articles, etc and then deriving logical results from them.
    For example, study of carbon dioxide emissions of a country, etc.
  • Theoretical analysis: Sometimes, the logical results may only be inferable but not conclusive. In such instances, it may be customary to perform a theoretical modelling of the data by means of simulations on a computer, etc. For example, effects of increasing pollution on the respiratory systems of humans.
  • Experimentation: In order to derive knowledge when the theoretical approach does not suffice, or, In case validation of a certain theory is needed, scientific experiments may be performed to arrive at a conclusion. For example, study of efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines on humans, etc.

As a starting step, it is helpful to figure out which of these methodologies is more suitable to us, depending on our interests and inclinations for the future. 

By objectifying your interest as per above methodologies, it becomes simple to provide a meaningful approach to our dissertation project and also helps us determine the steps involved to get started with the research work needed to complete it.

 

Step 3: Considering time as a factor 

Once you have your list of topics you’re interested in and you have figured out how you’re going to study it, it’s time to consider how long you actually are going to have to complete the dissertation! 

While constructing the problem statements for topics you hope to explore, make sure that you consider the time-fram involved to complete the dissertation. Understand that this is not just the time-frame involved in research, but also peripheral activities—including learning new tools, networking, writing the dissertation, and lastly, our comforts.

Now is the time to revisit your list of topics again. One way to narrow down our list of ‘interesting topics’ after we have considered the methodologies involved, is by understanding the time frames involved in completing the same. 

If you are unaware of the timestamps involved in the research of the chosen topics (or unable to gauge it), it’s always a good idea to approach your professors and mentors for their input and comments. Look for professors who have done work in the topics you’re thinking about. 

Usually, the time duration to complete a dissertation project depends on the discipline of studies of your coursework (for example, Bachelors’ degree in Journalism or Masters’ degree in Physics, etc, would have different time-scales of completion of the dissertation project work) that one chooses. This timeline will usually be laid out as part of the guidelines issued by your university. 

For many dissertations, the first month is usually used to perform literature reviews and/or learn new softwares and tools that will help you in the research. Typically, the last month is used for writing the dissertation. 

For example, if you are a student who is pursuing a Masters’ degree in Physics and you choose to study black holes, you may spend considerable time learning a specialized software called ‘HEASARC’. 

 

Step 4: Pick a unique topic

Remember, knowledge can be derived at any stage in life. While this is not a mandate, students are often advised to choose a topic that has not been worked upon before. 

The uniqueness of your topic may help in addressing the problems in the state of the research in that area. There are various examples in the history of academia where researchers addressing pressing, current issues have led to important and impactful discoveries (and getting the papers published in reputable journals),thereby adding to the existing knowledge of humankind. 

Imagine your work being that seminal! 

 

Step 5: Digging into specifics 

It is a good idea to be specific in the problem statement of our dissertation topic. As we’ve said earlier, the broader your topic is, the more overwhelming your task of research will be. If your question is vague or open-ended, add specific parameters that will help you narrow the scope of your research. 

Consider this topic, for example: 

“The Evaluation of the Happiness Index for Cities in Maharashtra”

This is a very open-ended topic that will require you to research various parameters of “happiness” for people. We must quantify something as subjective as happiness for the purposes of your project. 

On the other hand, consider this statement: 

“The Evaluation of Happiness Index for Cities in Maharashtra Based on Income Per Capita” 

This gives a more specific and direct approach towards evaluating the topic. By introducing “income” as a factor, you have established a parameter that will study “happiness”. 

More often than not, the choice of problem statements helps one find a suitable approach to the problem, providing you more direction in the research. 

In the realm of research, there are various open-ended questions to be solved. It’s your job as a researcher to put those questions in a specific perspective and try to answer them. 

An exact and specific problem statement and its approach helps us greatly in being focused on the project and deriving meaningful conclusions at its end.

 

With these pointers in mind, we hope it becomes simpler for you to choose a good project for dissertation that not only provides impactful results but also helps you build an aptitude for problem solving.