How to choose a subject (for any kind of thesis)

choosing a subject

After rushing through a Bachelor or Masters program, students usually are supposed to deliver a final scientific piece of work within an extremely limited time frame.

Initially one of the biggest obstacles for most students is to choose a subject area and to find a problem to focus on within the subject area. Let’s see what one can do to make this tedious process a little more pleasant.

I recently stumbled upon a book called Thesis Projects: A Guide for Students in Computer Science and Information Systems which provides a set of guidelines for writing thesis projects from start to finish. As the title already reveals, the book  aims at computer science and information systems students, but it also contains some general advice one can adopt across all fields. This article is a summary of some of its contents flavoured with my personal experiences.

Choosing a subject area

A subject area defines the general topic of a project. For me as a user experience consultant and researcher, a typical subject area is human-computer interaction. In more detail, one can break down a subject area into its different components. In case of human-computer interaction this might be something like usability, user experience, information architecture, interaction design, interface design, etc. The names of subject areas often match with titles of books, magazines, courses, and so on.

Subject areas can be combined at will. A human-interaction researcher that designs driver assistant interfaces for automobiles will most likely also work in the subject area of human perception and cognitive psychology.

Choosing a subject area is a decision that only you can make. Staying motivated during a project is crucial, so it’s wise to choose a topic that you actually care about.

A good technique to choose a subject area is to keep track of all interesting topics you come across (during your studies, conferences, team meetings, while reading magazines, watching a presentation, etc), so that you will soon have a list of potential subject areas to choose from.

In case you haven’t done that yet, take a short break right now and try to think of all the projects and subjects that thrilled you so far. Take your time. It will be worthwhile. Then write down the most important items you were able to recall.

If you can’t think of anything specific right now, try introspection. What blogs and magazines do you read? What subjects do you talk about with fellow students, colleagues and friends? Try to figure out what arouses your interests in those topics and write it down.

This list of ideas will help you to brainstorm even further and to lay the groundwork for choosing a specific topic within you areas of interest. Furthermore you now have a starting point for a in depth analysis of relevant literature.

Defining an interesting problem within the chosen subject area

Once you’ve found a subject area that suits you it’s time to further investigate that area. Ask yourself the following questions: What topics or problems in the chosen subject area would I like to explore? What is the focus of the technical literature? Are there any questions left unanswered? Is there anything that I can build upon (a theoretical model, prototypes, etc)? Are there any companies or organizations that encounter problems that I may be able to solve?

No ideas? Maybe it helps you to think about what kind of project you would like to do:

  • Theory: You present the state of the art on a given subject and extend or compare existing theoretical models.
  • Practice: You get your hands dirty and conduct experiments, design and implement proof-of-concept prototypes or work directly with a company on a given problem.
  • Theory & Practice: You do the theoretical groundwork and the execution in practice. This is the silver bullet for most thesis projects, because it shows your ability to combine theory with practice.

A rule of thumb: Keep it simple! Don’t try to revolutionize a whole field of science in one blow. Take your time and start the revolution one project by another :)

Doing quality assurance

Talk to people who know their business well. Present your ideas and concepts both to theorist (professors, academic supervisors, etc) and to practitioners (companies, professionals in a given area, etc). Speak with colleagues. Show your project to people that have no clue of the given subject at all, in order to discover flaws or to generate new ideas. Gather as much feedback as possible and refine your project outline on the way.

This step will help you discover if you have really understood the idea, have thought about it carefully enough and if you are able to develop it further. If your finding should be negative, you either haven’t done your homework properly (see paragraphs above), or the chosen topic may not be appropriate for you.

Sometimes it’s better to drop a faulty project and start all over again from scratch instead of pushing it to mediocre results. Don’t give up too easily, though. Finding and shaping *the* thesis project is a time-consuming and difficult task. Self-doubt is an ordinary symptom that should not distract you. Once you’ve come this far and feel comfortable with your subject area and the specific problem you picked, go ahead and write a proposal.

Writing a proposal

A project proposal is a summary of what you intend to do. It’s usually no longer than a few pages. I would recommend limiting it to one page maximum, as this forces you to get to the heart of your project description.

In a proposal you should cover the following points:

  • What: The subject area, topic and wider scope of your project.
  • What exactly: The problem description (what do you want to investigate) and aim of your project.
  • Why: Your argumentation why it is important to cover the selected topic.
  • How: Your concept and ideas how you want to deal with the selected problem in your subject area.

The proposal is a tool for quality assurance, too. At the end of your project you can compare the final results with your project proposal. You (and/or your supervisors) can use this as an objective basis to evaluate your project. Moreover you can assess what went wrong and may have learned some valuable lessons for your next project.

For further reading you may want to take a look at Thesis Projects: A Guide for Students in Computer Science and Information Systems.