In the past couple of weeks I received several requests, some from total strangers, asking me to help them select a topic for their research projects, usually MA dissertations. I am, of course, flattered by the trust implicit in such a request, and I certainly sympathise with those students who cannot rely on the institutional support they deserve in order to make an informed choice of research topic.
Regrettably, though, I cannot provide much help, at least not in the form of topic recommendations. Rather, what I would like to do in this post is pass on some good advice that I was given many years ago, and -in the process of doing so- explain why I am reluctant to suggest topics to people whom I do not know.
When I first approached my MA advisor, Richard Fay, to discuss a possible dissertation topic, he suggested that I should focus my efforts on finding a topic which was (a) useful, (b) enjoyable, and (c) feasible. I briefly discuss each point below:
A useful topic is one which aligns itself well with your professional development goals. That is to say, you should expect that, after investing several months and lots of effort in the topic, you will have acquired knowledge and skills that you can bring to bear on your future career. This might involve evaluating a new teaching method, or perhaps experimenting with new technology, or maybe even probing a topic in depth, in anticipation of a possible PhD in the future.
In one’s eagerness to satisfy expectations or prove how smart one is, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that a dissertation topic is supposed to be something you enjoy. For most people, a dissertation will be the largest research project they will have engaged with. As it will involve working on a topic over a period of several months, before long, the effects of fatigue will begin to register. Unlike coursework, it will entail working autonomously, as contact with one’s supervisor and colleagues will be less frequent. Under such circumstances, intrinsic motivation will be of paramount importance, and it will be much easier to sustain such motivation when working on a topic that interests you.
The last criterion, feasibility, can be broken down into several considerations: The scope of the project should be commensurate to institutional requirements, i.e., it should be something one can realistically expect to complete within the given time-frame. Apart from scope, one needs to consider what resources are available (What literature will you have access to? Will you be able to recruit research participants?) Lastly, students should also think about their own expertise and that of their supervisors, and choose a topic that builds on their collective strengths.
To summarise, before selecting a topic for a research project you will need to reflect on three questions:
- What do I want to do in the next few years?
- What do I like doing?
- What can I do with the resources at my disposal?
From the above, it should be clear why I think it would be very risky for me to attempt to steer anyone towards a research project. Without knowing much about such a person or the expectations of their institution, I’d simply recommend what I find useful, intriguing and feasible, which would not very likely be in line with anyone else’s needs, interests and abilities.
In addition to the risks involved, there is another reason why I prefer not to give overt guidance to anyone who has trusted me enough to ask: whether working towards the completion of a bachelor’s degree, or at M-level, a dissertation is the culmination of a long process of professional and academic development. It is an opportunity for students to develop confidence and independence, and to do so, one has to take risks.
So, to summarise: the bad news is that I simply cannot provide the kind of help you may have been expecting, and I am really sorry about that; the good news is that you are probably better off without my advice.
I have seen how some researchers literally dictate the research projects students should do, leading them to engage in projects where you can see the lack of passion and commitment.
…and, in too many cases, quit or fail the project.