Whether it is for your master’s or your PhD, picking a thesis topic is a vital step in your academic career. Choosing the right topic will give you a great head start on your thesis, so it’s worth taking your time to think through your options and to choose a subject that will suit you and meet the needs of your course well. Here are some tips for economists who are picking a topic for their master’s or PhD thesis.
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Make sure you pick a project with appropriate scope
The biggest mistake that students make when picking a topic for a thesis is choosing a topic that is too broad for the length of thesis they are going to write. In almost all cases, your topic should be narrower and more specific than you think it should be at first. Being more narrowly focused will help you to keep your thesis well-structured and with a clear argument, instead of ballooning out across too many related ideas in an unstructured way. If you’re unsure if the scope of your project is appropriate, ask an adviser or experienced researcher whether it sounds appropriate to them.
Pick a topic that plays to your strengths and existing knowledge
Certainly, a thesis can and should be a way for you to learn new skills. However, you’ll already have a lot to learn about long-form writing, so don’t make your job even harder by picking a topic in which you have no experience whatsoever. If you’ve never been much into statistics, for example, it’s probably best to stay away from research projects which require complex data analysis. Conversely, if there’s a subject that you really excelled at in your studies, consider doing your thesis on a related topic so you can build on your existing knowledge.
Gauge the right level of originality for your thesis
You’ve surely heard that your thesis needs to be ‘original work’. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be performing research from scratch! For a master’s thesis, you’ll typically be reviewing other people’s work on an established topic and adding your own spin to the analysis. For a PhD thesis, you should aim for a novel approach to an existing topic or investigate a new or under-researched topic.
Make sure it’s something you’re interested in
This sounds obvious, but you should absolutely make sure that the project you choose is of interest to you! If you’re going to be working on a project for months or even longer, then it has to be something which you are engaged with, and the best way to keep engaged is to pose a question for your project to which you want to know the answer. Think back over the lectures you’ve attended and the books you’ve read, and consider what issues you enjoyed discussing and thinking about. If there was ever a topic which you came across and wanted to know more about, but didn’t have the time or resources to investigate, this is your chance to find out more.
Get inspired by previous students’ projects
If you’re unsure where to start, or don’t know what sort of project would be appropriate for your course, then it’s a great idea to look at previous students’ projects. In most universities you’ll be able to access previous student theses in the library, so you should take advantage of this resource. While you should never copy someone else’s idea, you can use it as inspiration. For example, perhaps someone has done a project on the economic implications of an international policy within a certain country. Your project could look at the implications of that same policy in a different country. Or you could look at a similar policy in a different period of history
Ask your lecturers or supervisor for advice
Once you have one or more ideas about a topic for your project, you’ll want to ask for advice from people who have experience in assessing projects. You don’t want to do a lot of work on a project idea, only to hear much later that your supervisor thinks your topic is not a good choice. Do some basic preparation before meeting with a supervisor or lecturer – make sure that you understand the basic facts of the subfield which you’re interested in, and that you have some ideas about what your research question would be and what methods you would use to answer it – but make sure that you get feedback on your idea early in the process.
Consider an interdisciplinary topic
If you’re working in economics but are also interested in another academic subject, you may have the opportunity to learn about the field as a part of your research project. You could consider a project which touches on a subject like history, sociology, business, politics, or psychology, for example. The advantage of this is that you can experience information and methods from another field to see if studying it further would interest you. It will also help you to create a unique and memorable project, as most of your fellow students will likely study a topic which is based purely in economics. This might make your project a little harder, as you will have more new information to grasp than others.
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