Tips for the ThM – Part 11 (finding a topic)

Probably nothing causes more angst at the beginning of your Th.M. program than realizing that you need to find a good topic for your thesis or Guided Research projects. Here are some suggestions for doing just that.

  • Focus on your needs. This connects with my last tip, but it’s worth repeating. You’re starting point needs to be on what you need to accomplish with your project. Do you need to strengthen a skill, develop a specialization, address a weakness, etc? Then, do that. At the end of the day, you know that your thesis will at least have accomplished those purposes, and it will have set you up for the future. If other people also find your project interesting, bonus! But, don’t start by worrying about what they’ll find interesting.
  • Make a list. Every class that you take and every book that you read is a possible source for a research project. Until you’ve landed on your topic, I strongly recommend starting a “thesis idea list.” Your goal in each class should be to come up with 2-3 ideas that come out of that class and could serve as the starting point for a research project. Do the same with the books and journal articles that you read in your area of interest. By the time you are halfway through your program, you’ll have generated a rather lengthy list that you can start weeding through. That’s much easier than trying to come up with an idea from scratch.
  • Read journal articles. This also connects with one of my earlier tips, but from a different perspective. Journal articles are a great source for research ideas. Books tend to be too expansive. I often find that the ideas I get from books are good for writing more books, but are not specific enough for theses or research papers. The tighter focus of a journal article is more useful for this purpose.
  • Talk to people. Find people who know your discipline and ask them what they think are a couple of unresolved issues, key debates, or important figures in that discipline. These can serve as the starting point for further exploration.
  • Test your ideas. If you think you’ve landed on an idea that worth pursuing, test your assumptions by sharing the idea with other people. You’ll definitely need to come and talk with me about it, and I won’t be hesitant about telling you if I don’t think the idea is workable. But, what do I know? Make sure you talk with others as well. At the very least, I’d share your idea with one other professor, several Th.M. students, and if you’re ministerially minded, someone in your church. If you have a blog, post the idea there and see what kind of feedback you get. (Feel free to use this blog if you’d like.) That kind of feedback can be very helpful for determining whether a topic is too broad, or if there are debates/issues surrounding your topic you weren’t aware of.

There are lots of ways to generate ideas. At the beginning of their program, many Th.M. students feel like there is no way that they can come up with a good idea. The reality is that there are actually too many good ideas out there. The real challenge for most students is landing on one idea among many good possibilities.

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