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Finding a Thesis Topic
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Mon, 30-Oct-2006
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Finding a Thesis Topic. Article by Marie desJardins

Doing a master's project is often a good idea (and is required by some schools). Although choosing an appropriately scaled-down topic may be difficult, having the ideal topic is also less important, since you will have the chance to move on after only a year or so. If you have a good idea of what you want to do your Ph.D. dissertation on, choosing a master's project that will lead into the dissertation is wise: you will get a head start on the Ph.D., or may decide that you're not interested in pursuing the topic after all (saving yourself a lot of work and grief farther down the road).

A good source of ideas for master's projects (and sometimes for dissertation topics) is the future work section of papers you're interested in. Try developing and implementing an extension to an existing system or technique.

Generally speaking, a good Ph.D. thesis topic is interesting to you, to your advisor, and to the research community. As with many aspects of graduate school, the balance you find will depend at least in part on the relationship you have with your advisor. Some professors have well defined long-term research programs and expect their students to contribute directly to this program. Others have much looser, but still related ongoing projects. Still others will take on anyone with an interesting idea, and may have a broad range of interesting ideas to offer their students. Be wary of the advisor who seems willing to let you pursue any research direction at all. You probably won't get the technical support you need, and they may lose interest in you when the next graduate student with a neat idea comes along.

If you pick a topic that you're not truly interested in simply because it's your advisor's pet area, it will be difficult to stay focused and motivated -- and you may be left hanging if your advisor moves on to a different research area before you finish. The same is true for choosing a topic because of its marketability: if you're not personally excited about the topic, you'll have a harder time finishing and a harder time convincing other people that your research is interesting. Besides, markets change more quickly than most people finish dissertations.

In order to do original research, you must be aware of ongoing research in your field. Most students spend up to a year reading and studying current research to identify important open problems. However, you'll never be able to read everything that might be relevant -- and new work is always being published.

Try to become aware and stay aware of directly related research -- but if you see new work that seems to be doing exactly what you're working on, don't panic. It's common for graduate students to see a related piece of work and think that their topic is ruined. If this happens to you, reread the paper several times to get a good understanding of what they've really been accomplished. Show the paper to your advisor or someone else who's familiar with your topic and whose opinions you respect. Introduce yourself to the author at a conference or by e-mail, and tell them about your work. By starting a dialogue, you will usually find that their work isn't quite the same, and that there are still directions open to you. You may even end up collaborating with them. Good researchers welcome the opportunity to interact and collaborate with someone who's interested in the same problems they are.

To finish quickly, it's usually best to pick a narrow, well defined topic. The downside of this approach is that it may not be as exciting to you or to the research community. If you're more of a risk-taker, choose a topic that branches out in a new direction. The danger here is that it can be difficult to carefully define the problem, and to evaluate the solution you develop. If you have a topic like this, it helps a lot to have an advisor or mentor who is good at helping you to focus and who can help you maintain a reasonably rigorous approach to the problem.

In the extreme case, if your topic is so out of the ordinary that it's unrelated to anything else, you may have difficulty convincing people it's worthwhile. Truly innovative research is, of course, exciting and often pays back in recognition from the research community -- or you could just be out in left field. If you have a far-out topic, be sure that people are actually interested in it, or you'll never be able to ``sell'' it later, and will probably have trouble getting your work published and finding a job. In addition, it will be hard to find colleagues who are interested in the same problems and who can give you advice and feedback.

In any case, a good topic will address important issues. You should be trying to solve a real problem, not a toy problem (or worse yet, no problem at all); you should have solid theoretical work, good empirical results or, preferably, both; and the topic will be connected to -- but not be a simple variation on or extension of -- existing research. It will also be significant yet manageable. Finding the right size problem can be difficult. One good way of identifying the right size is to read other dissertations. It's also useful to have what Chapman chapman calls a ``telescoping organization'' -- a central problem that's solvable and acceptable, with extensions and additions that are ``successively riskier and that will make the thesis more exciting.'' If the gee-whiz additions don't pan out, you'll still have a solid result.

Remember that a thesis is only a few years of your work, and that -- if all goes well -- your research career will continue for another 30 or 40. Don't be afraid to leave part of the problem for future work, and don't compare yourself to senior researchers who have years of work and publications to show for it. (On the other hand, if you identify too much future work, your thesis won't look very exciting by comparison.) Graduate students often pick overly ambitious topics (in theory, your advisor will help you to identify a realistic size problem). Don't overestimate what other people have done. Learn to read between the lines of grandiose claims (something else a good advisor will help you to do).

Some schools may require that you write a thesis proposal. Even if they don't, this is a good first step to take. It forces you to define the problem, outline possible solutions, and identify evaluation criteria; and it will help you to get useful feedback from your advisor and other colleagues. Writing a good thesis proposal will take up to several months, depending on how much background work and thinking you've already done in the process of choosing the topic.

The proposal should provide a foundation for the dissertation. First, you must circumscribe the problem and argue convincingly that it needs to be solved, and that you have a methodology for solving it. You must identify and discuss related work: has this problem been addressed before? What are the shortcomings of existing work in the area, and how will your approach differ from and be an improvement over these methods?

Present your ideas for solving the problem in as much detail as possible, and give a detailed plan of the remaining research to be done. The proposal should include, or be structured as, a rough outline of the thesis itself. In fact, unless your final topic differs significantly from your proposed topic (which many do), you may be able to reuse parts of the proposal in the thesis.

You will probably have to take an oral exam in which you present and/or answer questions about your proposal. Be sure that your committee members are as familiar as possible with your work beforehand. Give them copies of the proposal, and talk to them about it. During the exam, don't panic if you don't know the answer to a question. Simply say, ``I'm not sure'' and then do your best to analyze the question and present possible answers. Your examining committee wants to see your analytical skills, not just hear canned answers to questions you were expecting. Give a practice talk to other students and faculty members. Remember: you know more about your thesis topic than your committee; you're teaching them something for a change.


Copyright for this article belongs to Marie desJardins

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Marie desJardins . Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.cs.umbc.edu/www/graduate/advice/subsubsection3.3.3.2.html



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