Citekey: @davis2001

Davis, D. (2001). Ph .D. Thesis Research: Where do I Start? Retrieved from Research.pdf


This article is very important–maybe the most helpful one in terms of articulating promisingness in looking for thesis topic. It centers around some points such as being interesting, important, and new.

1. How Do I Find “The Right Topic”?

  • First, there is no “Right Topic.” –Much more important is to find something that is important and genuinely interests you. You need to settle on an area where you are sufficiently interested that you don’t mind making some investments.
  • work on important topics (Note: This is not an incitement to work on broad, vague topics!)

2. How do I know if I have an interesting topic?

  • “interesting” inevitably has a subjective, aesthetic component
  • so identify interestingness based on useful indicators: (1) good minds have spent time thinking about it; (2) one with a real world counterpart of some significant magnitude; (3) new–paid by your marginal product;
  • skeptic of a research topic: “Why should I care?”
  • has some substantive real-world counterpart; real-world examples can be influential and magnitudes matter
  • be as concrete as possible in explaining both the type of problem to which this applies and what the magnitude of the problem is
  • How do you know if what you are doing is new? (1) read the entire history of the literature–not efficient; (2) talk to someone actually working in the area + look at recent surveys of the literature or recent working papers + use library index

New + Important: you are working on an important problem with real-world counterparts and that matter in substantive terms, and moreover that your approach to the problem is new.

–convince readers that the novel element in your paper is in fact important; after reading your paper, researchers familiar with the literature in your area should see the world differently. –After reading your study, will the leading researchers in the field be forced to look at the area in a way differently than they did before and in a way that matters substantively.

–the results have to be convincing.

You should choose a topic that is demonstrably important, that has elements which are themselves new and important, and the resulting study should be both reasonable and convincing.

3. Where do I start? Strategies for Research

“Research Frontier”

there is often a set of questions that the leaders in the field are currently struggling with and may be very far from having definitive answers. Being able to weigh in on these problems with a new insight (and avoid dead topics) is an important step.

  • weekly departmental seminars
  • seminars of potential new assistant professors at your school
  • working papers of the intellectual leaders in your narrowly focused research area
  • Read the best journals selectively
  • Interaction with your professors and your fellow students
  • Question Authority!
  • Your advisor is too nice!–to ask your advisors to be as frank and critical as they are able when reviewing your work
  • writign matters; publish jointly
  • presentation matters

4. Inspiration is where you find it.

In the end, there can be no rules for finding a thesis topic, since it can’t be mechanical. Much depends on your creativity and inspiration, your insightfulness and energy. A bit of magic is required. How do you create your own magic? Some people say their best ideas come when they are in the shower, or playing raquetball, or . . . . I’m not sure the answer is that I should direct you to take lots of showers! You have to find your own muse. Success and failure, in the end, are in your hands only.

Blog Logo

Bodong Chen



Crisscross Landscapes

Bodong Chen, University of Minnesota

Back to Home