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How to Choose a Thesis Topic? Advice to Environmental Studies Students

When I was applying to be a student in my current master’s degree program here at UBC, one of the most challenging portions of the application was the submission of a detailed thesis proposal. Indeed, I think it is likely a daunting task for many students looking to attend graduate school.

The three-to-five page proposal had a few required components: issue/problem outline, significance, research objectives, and proposed research methods. At the time, it was a daunting task, not only in terms of the time (while writing applications, I had a full undergraduate course load, as well as a couple of part-time jobs), but in terms of process – deciding upon an issue that not only I wanted to study, but to formulate specific tasks, or the methods, that would lead to some sort of meaningful contribution to the problem at hand.  For that particular application, I ended up pulling together a proposal about national sustainable development strategies – a topic on which I had already done some research, but which actually now bears little resemblance to my current research work today.

It’s not an uncommon transition. The majority of students in my program, as well as my other friends in other disciplines, have undergone some pretty significant changes in their thesis or dissertation topics from when they were first accepted.   The process of clarifying one’s interests, reviewing papers and other literature to see which questions have been asked and answered, and addressing the literal feasibility of some projects: all generally lead to a great deal of stress-inducing, hair-thinning, emotionally wrought inner turmoil, at the end of which generally emerges some viable thesis topic. It’s not an easy process.

All of which leads me to propose some early advice for those students thinking about potential thesis topics.  While there are undoubtedly several contextual factors for each student, I might suggest two broad areas to consider:


By interest, I refer to personal interest, as well as academic interest, or significance.  The topic which you choose will become your partner, a constant companion and something to which you will need to devote your intellectual energies on a daily basis for the better part of a year (or several years, for doctoral students!).  Make sure that this is something you find compelling and you enjoy working on. For many, the topic may seem preordained, as part of a larger research group or a funded study. In any given topic area, however, there may be dozens of frames and questions which may be asked from it. One of my greatest challenges have been finding a way to narrow a grander area of interest (urban agriculture) to a project scale sufficiently small for a masters’ thesis.

Your preferred research topic, of course, must not only be of interest to you, but to the broader academic community. To what extent has your topic been looked at in the broader academic literature?  In what way has it been treated? Are you going to be providing something relevant to what other people are studying? Research needs to be able to contribute to the greater academic enterprise of which we are a part.


Fortunately (or unfortunately) one must think of not only interest, but feasibility as well, in the context of thesis questions. One must find a topic with a question that is personally and academically interesting and can be answered within the scope of your resources–primarily, your time, money, and accessibility.

Some of the concerns one must think about include: Are the questions you are asking, for starters, answerable? That is – what kind of data is required? Is it already available–-and if not–-will you be able to find, access, or collect it in a timely manner? Even where data already exists, retrieving it might be a challenge. I’ve had friends wait months to get access to data, effectively delaying progress on their theses by a significant amount of time.

Time, particularly in a master’s degree, is of the essence. With most programs a maximum of two years – and some a single one – finding a topic that works within your own timeframe is essential. Not only that, but if you are interested in work in a remote location, or in using more costly research techniques, having the appropriate funding is also a question.  Not only does travel and accommodation cost money, but things such as translation, and even printing and mailing costs for something like a mail-out survey, may prove prohibitive.


Please do not misunderstand. I say these things not to warn any prospective students off a research-intensive program, but to encourage students to think about all the pragmatic factors one must consider in choice of topic. There is no such thing as a single perfect topic. As for myself, I’m happy to report I’ve found something both of interest, and (hopefully) feasible.  I’ll report on the outcomes of my own work in more detail in the weeks ahead.
Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.

Posted on: February 24, 2011, 10:00 am Category: The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , ,

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