An undergraduate thesis is the culmination of a college experience, and if you have the opportunity (or obligation) to write one, you will probably approach it with a mix of anxiety and anticipation. It is your chance to write something that is almost entirely self-directed: it will bring together the information and skills that you have learned thus far on your academic journey and set you free to pursue a specific research topic of your choice.
A thesis is your chance to act as a “real” academic; to pursue a genuine line of inquiry that is of your own choosing and of its own merit.
But the exact pathway to selecting a thesis topic can be a difficult one to navigate. It’s different for each person, of course, and will depend on your major. But some aspects are consistent for everyone who undertakes this research journey.
My tips for finding an undergraduate thesis topic:
This is difficult advice to give, since by the time you’re reading these words, it might be too late to start early. But if you are a sophomore in college, or even a freshman, I highly recommend that you start thinking toward your future thesis. Take some concrete steps (as I advised in my earlier blog post: “Thesis Writing: The Basics”), particularly by reading previous students’ theses and attending defenses for students in your department or across campus in areas that you’re interested in.
Start early to de-mystify the process. Learn what a thesis looks and sounds like. This will free you up to understand the journey you’re about to take.
Curiosity is a key attribute to any academic (and, I would argue, any young person in today’s world). Pay attention to what interests you. This may sound like advice almost too basic to be relevant, but it’s an excellent place to start. When sitting in a lecture hall, or attending a movie, or when you’re out at night with friends, pay attention to the things that make you want to sit up and pay attention. Make a note to self for anything that makes you think “why” with a genuine desire to know.
Your thesis is a chance to explore one topic in depth. It can begin anywhere, with whatever fires a genuine sense of wonder. As you travel, make note of cultural differences. As you read novels, pay attention to the aspects of language or the portrayal of certain people that interest you. As you study a second language, pay attention to the differences in TV or sports or the construction of sentences in that culture.
Curiosity is the starting-place of a thesis. Begin early and learn to ask questions as they arise.
Note: one burden of academic research is that what makes you feel curious may not hold the slightest interest to many people around you. Your thesis will require you to go to extreme lengths to learn about a topic most people probably ignore. Learn to value and cultivate that curiosity independently of external affirmation. If it’s interesting to you, that’s the place to begin.
Ask questions and find answers
When you’ve found a starting place of curiosity, begin to ask questions. Ideally, you should do this for multiple curiosities as they arrive, and pursue lines of inquiry in various ways. I think that the best way to start any academic study is the way you would answer any question: get on the internet and see what the world wide webs have to tell you.
You begin by attempting to satisfy your curiosity. Perhaps what has caught your interest has a well-established answer. Perhaps the phenomenon is over-studied, and with a few google searches you have not only found your answer, you are exhausted by it. If so, then pursue your curiosity to its limit and then move on with your life—you’ve learned some interesting tidbit and ruled out a potential research topic.
Alternately, this initial process of asking questions could lead to deeper research potential.
If you uncover a wealth of information but the answers lead you to a sense of growing excitement and the joy of discovery, then pursue the subject. Read blog posts and download podcasts. Check out novels and pop psychology on the subject. Look for your topic while you’re walking down the street or chatting with your grandmother. Note what products or new technology utilize this concept. If you find answers to your question, but your intellect and curiosity grows instead of diminishing with each answer, keep chasing down that information.
If instead you find an echoing silence in the realms of the internets (and other sources of popular wisdom), pursue that silence. If no one knows the answer, find out if anyone has tried before. Look for subjects that pick at the corners of your question. You may have asked something that no one else has. If so, this is also a place for you to begin.
Ask an Academic
When you have satisfied the top level of your curiosity and you know something about your question, take it from the realm of general interest into the world of academic thought. Instead of searching the internet, search your university/research library. Ask for help. Find out if the academic discourse matches what your searches have told you.
Then ask a professor. If you have been assigned a thesis advisor, that’s a good place to start. Another place would be by scanning a relevant departmental faculty index to find out who on your campus is pursuing this line of inquiry.
Go and ask. Sign up for related classes. Read the academic journals.
Academics know what’s being discussed in scholarly circles. A professor can help guide you to the most recent research in your area, and can direct you as you develop your curiosity from a broad idea to a direct and targeted research question.
Discuss your topic with an advisor
Ideally, by the time you meet with your official advisor to discuss your thesis, you will have two or three areas of interest you would like to pursue. You would have background knowledge for each of these topics, and a reasonable grasp on the current discourse. You will know who on your campus would be suitable to advise you.
You then work with your advisor to tailor your interest into a question that is suited to an academic work, and is possible within the scope of time and resources you can devote to this undergraduate thesis project.
Unfortunately, my advice on choosing a thesis topic basically ends here. The process is unique to each person, and requires an intimate knowledge of the relevant field of study and the culture of your department and university. What I will say is that curiosity is important for everyone studying anything. Whether it’s a specific mobile coding technique, a physics question of powering a subdivision with renewable energy, a social concern of the depiction of trans women in contemporary TV, mutations in fruit flies and how that can apply to genetics or medicine, or an interest in how graffiti makes use of literary themes in the city where you studied abroad…it all starts with curiosity.
Whether this curiosity begins in a mandatory for-credit lab assignment or strikes you while hiking alone in the backcountry somewhere, it’s yours.
General thoughts on what makes a “good” thesis topic
Originality. You cannot replicate what was done in one of last year’s theses. Ask something new, or ask in a new way.
Relevance. Your thesis topic should fit within your discipline and the academic environment you are part of. “Relevance” does not mean it will make sense to your friends back home, or would interest a local paper. It means that when you name your thesis topic to faculty members in your department, they can understand where and how it fits.
Feasibility. Many interesting topics are beyond the scope of what an undergraduate can do, either because of necessarily training or because of resources, such as time and money. You can only do what is possible. If your topic is beyond what you can do for your undergraduate thesis, scale down your ambitions for now, tackle some relevant aspect, and set your sights on graduate school.
Ethics. You must be able to approach your research in an ethical way. There are standards governing research that you have to meet. This is particularly the case in medicine and psychology, or any social sciences when you want to conduct surveys or research involving direct contact with people.
Passion. You will be working on this thesis for the next weeks/months/years of your life. You will spend thousands of hours researching, nuancing, outlining, writing, re-writing, editing, and ultimately defending your thesis. Depending on your post-graduation plans, it could also be something that stays on your CV forever. Pick a topic that’s worth the energy.
Launch into your thesis with the pride and passion your research deserves. I wish you great success as you begin!
Check out my previous posts "Thesis Writing: The Basics," "Thesis: The Defense," and "The Fast First Draft." Also, depending on your interests, it might be worth reading "7 Coping Strategies While Doing Depressing Research."
If you’re planning to write a thesis, please share where you are in the process. What other questions do you have? What obstacles are you encountering? If you haven’t started yet, what are some ideas that particularly interest you? For anyone who has previously written a thesis, please share any additional wisdom here.