How to Pick a Masters Thesis Topic
Giving Your Career Trajectory
Beginning graduate school is overwhelming. Graduate programs are not simply continuations of undergraduate degrees, but an introduction into academia- it is a process of acculturation.
Undergraduate degrees open you to a range of potential jobs; conversely, graduate degrees put you on a specific track. There is no wrong Masters thesis per se, but if you realize that your degree is part of building a career (as opposed to setting yourself up for various and unrelated jobs) then you will understand why a thesis is valuable for giving your career trajectory. Your thesis and Masters degree should be the first step on a career path.
I was a Masters student back in ’07 and I chose my thesis topic (dissertation if you are a UK student) based on some very sound advice from Dr Fred Hocker. Having completed my MA and since helped many others complete their degrees, I have added to Fred’s advice to create some useful tips for choosing a quality thesis topic. These guidelines are written by an archaeologist, but can applied to most fields.
1. Pick something you can get done quickly.
Let’s rip this bandaid off- No one is going to read your MA thesis. I hate to admit it after I spent 2 years writing my thesis, but after my committee approved it I don’t think a single soul has read it cover to cover. My thesis has been viewed over 800 times and I gave hardbound copies to family and friends, but even my father couldn’t make it through that chloroform in print. How do I know? I found some errors when I read through it recently- big enough that anyone paying the slightest attention would notice.
Pick a topic that you can finish quickly. Every topic expands as you start writing, so pick something concise. In archaeology everyone wants to excavate a site or make the next big discovery. Rather than re-invent the wheel, choose something that is easy data where there is an established path. Your role is to push it forward or in a new direction. Don’t overextend with scope, funding, or time commitment. You want to make an impact, but if you spend 5 years on your Masters then you are sure to be disappointed when no one notices or cares. A Masters thesis is not a professional standard, it is a competency test.
And the competency threshold is low.
2. What Jobs Need.
You probably aren’t thinking beyond the completion of your degree, but you should be. What do you need to actually be successful in your field? Consider that even short gaps in your CV are problematic for employment and you likely need to find work in your research area within the first 6–12 months or your career is likely over before it began. After a year there is a new batch of freshly minted MAs that look a lot more attractive on paper than your Swiss cheese CV. Use your time as a student to make yourself as attractive to employers as possible.
What do they require? Are they looking for peer-reviewed journal articles? Then pick a topic that can be quickly turned into an article. Speak to your supervisor about writing it as an article and then you can get free feedback throughout the thesis writing process.
Are jobs looking for people who can write technical reports? Government reports? Find ways to coauthor reports with your supervisors, or intern or volunteer with jobs that will get your name on reports. Simply helping or being in the acknowledgements isn’t enough- put in the time to be a co-author. It is stressful and adds work to your busy schedule, but how do you think it looks when two CVs are side by side and one has “student experience working on a government project” and the other “co-authored a report submitted to the Ministry of Culture.”
Here is a big secret: No one from this point forward will really care about grades. Employers don’t care. Will you be applying to a PhD program? If your research is good enough and your grades aren’t tragic, then you have nothing to worry about. Your time is better spent getting work experience and a B than having no work experience and an A. When you finish your Masters program, there are going to be 50 or 100 or 1000 people worldwide with an identical degree and all looking for jobs at the same time. How will you distinguish yourself from the others? Work experience in your field goes much further than either grades or your thesis topic.
[In the same vein but unrelated to Masters topics, do not start applying for jobs when you need them. Everyone is applying for jobs as soon as they are awarded their degree, so start contacting employers several months ahead so they know who you are. They hire based on their schedule, not yours.]
3. You need to like it.
Pick something bite-sized and smart, but also something that you like. When you spend countless hours on something you develop a complex relationship with that subject. If you start off lukewarm to a topic, you will struggle to make it through the entire process. Most of the graduate students I know who exited programs early or failed their vivas had topics that they were not excited about.
More importantly, you need will need to sell it when you interview for jobs or PhD programs. Everyone is better salesperson when they are genuinely excited about their thesis topic. Communicating excitement about your thesis also communicates engagement with your field of study, which should translate into successful work/research with your new employer.
4. Finding trajectory.
Choose a topic that creates a trajectory- you don’t need to necessarily take it, but it keeps your options open.
You may never do a PhD, but it sure is nice to have the option available. At both my MA and PhD universities are highly successful young professors only a few years older than myself. How did they rise so quickly through the academic ranks? They are brilliant minds to be sure, but they also took the smart approach to their degrees. If you look at their undergraduate capstone, MA, and PhD, you find they are all the same topic. Only the scale of the question changes for each subsequent degree.
It is unrealistic for everyone to find a topic that they will enjoy for 4–7 years and not everyone wants to do a PhD; however, it doesn’t hurt to have the option even if you don’t take it. Choosing a topic that can grow into a PhD not only gives options, but it makes the admission process into a PhD program much easier since you will be able to show data. If you decide to do a PhD, then you will finish more quickly and likely save money on fieldwork or data gathering. Choose a topic that has growth potential. This is something I failed to do and I paid the price in time and money.
Use the same principle for jobs. Your Masters is a time where you can cultivate skills. Take time to learn about the job market in your field, you’ll use this information throughout your career. I am guessing that as thorough as your MA courses may be, they do not teach all of the latest methods, equipment, or software that employers are seeking. Picking a topic with trajectory means that you will learn these in demand skills while working on your thesis and be able to step into a job upon completion. Remember, you need jobs have a common thread, building upon each other. The easiest way to do this is do leave school with a trajectory.
If you want to be successful you don’t need jobs, you need a career.
In another example of me doing it the wrong way, I knew little about the actual specifications of my field. My MA focused on post-processing of excavated shipwrecks. Underwater archaeology jobs are ~95% commercial, which are primarily survey for construction of coastal buildings, pipelines, oil rigs, and wind farms. These jobs require experience with remote sensing equipment and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, which I did not have due to my topic (if you are a maritime archaeology student, DO NOT leave school without remote sensing and GIS experience).
It is not your professor’s job to teach you marketable skills. It is your job to identify the skills you need and make sure you have them. No one is going to pity you if you did not bother to research your field prior to taking and completing a Masters degree.
5. Go forth! And conquer your Masters fears.
In summary, do yourself a favor by giving yourself a trajectory. You don’t have to know where you want to be in five years, but if you have a rough idea then enable that possibility by choosing a thesis leading in that direction. Have absolutely no clue where you want go after graduate school? Pick the most successful, highest paid, or most respected individual in your field and find out the steps they took to get their job (PhD, work experience, hot subjects/research areas, etc.). Choose a thesis that allows for a similar trajectory.
A thesis can be a big choice, so don’t be afraid to speak with faculty and friends. Similarly, don’t become paralyzed by overthinking- just get your degree done and get out into the real world. It’s just one step in your long career.
Please comment if you have suggestions to add to this article! Articles on finding jobs, preparing for interviews, and creating an online presence will be added in the future for readers of MaritimeArchaeology.com.