I’m sure that all of you who are in the program have already heard me talk about how to pick a topic for your Th.M. thesis or Guided Research projects. Nonetheless, it can’t hurt to hear it again, and it would probably be helpful to have it in writing. These comments would also apply to choosing a topic for your Ph.D. dissertation, so hopefully they’ll help in the future for some of you as well.
Let me say first what picking a topic is not about. It is not about wowing the world with your brilliance, making some amazing new discovery that will reshape your discipline forevermore, or otherwise establishing your reputation as a world class scholar. It’s always possible that your research will lead to one of these (don’t count on it). But, that’s not where your focus should be when picking a topic. Indeed, picking your topic really shouldn’t be about other people at all. Once you’ve picked your topic, you will absolutely want to know how your research will impact other people. Academic research should not be a solipsistic journey into ivory tower irrelevance. But, you don’t start by thinking (i.e. worrying) about what other people think. Down that road lies research paralysis.
The starting point for choosing a good research topic is you – i.e. your needs and interests. I’d suggest that a really good research topic will accomplish one or more of the following.
- Strengthen an area of weakness. We all have areas in which our prior training was not sufficient for what we want to do next. It could be a methodology, a background issue, a key debate, or some other issue. Spend some time reflecting on what you are preparing to do and how well prepared you are to do it. If you see some areas that you really need to address, a research project is the perfect time to do it. If it’s an area of critical weakness, then you definitely want to do something in the project that will help. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you focus your thesis in that area, only that you construct in such a way as to provide opportunities for development. For example, if you’re working in systematic theology and you’re weak in philosophy, make sure you deal with some philosophical issues in your thesis. That will sharpen your skills in an area of weakness, even while you chase a topic that accomplishes other purposes as well.
- Strengthen an area of strength. You research is the perfect time to develop an area of specialization. So, again, spend some time reflecting on your preparation and the areas in which you are currently strongest. Which of those would you really like to work into a specialization? Which could you see yourself pursuing on into the future? Which do you want to be identified with moving forward?
- Chase an area of interest. This one is pretty obvious, but also very important. Research takes a lot of time and discipline, don’t make it harder by picking a topic that you don’t find personally interesting. Even if it’s a great topic, you’ll hate it. And, you might not ever finish. Ask yourself what question you are trying to answer with your project, if you don’t find the question personally compelling, ask a differing question.
- Set yourself up for the future. What are you doing next? If you’re preparing for a PhD program, then you definitely want your thesis to set you up for success. Ideally, your thesis will lay the groundwork for what you do in your doctoral program, so make sure it helps you thoroughly explore its area of focus and the necessary methodologies. If you’re already in or headed toward ministry, spend some time thinking about the shape of that ministry and the kinds of issues involved. What questions/issues are most pressing? Where does your biblical/theological framework need more work to ground effective ministry? What everyday practices do you need to reflect more deeply on to make sure that they are theologically, rather than pragmatically, driven?
I could summarize all of this simply: pursue your research with the end in mind. The best way to pick a topic is by not starting with the topic. Start with your needs and interests. You’re going to spend a tremendous amount of time on this project. So, what would you like to accomplish personally in the process? Once you’ve answered that question, you’re in position to begin evaluating research ideas. I’ll comment in the next post on how to generate good research ideas.