7 things to consider when choosing a topic for your dissertation or thesis


As the postgraduate coordinator in the Physiotherapy Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, one question I often get from prospective postgraduate students is, “how do I decide on a topic for my master’s or doctoral dissertation or thesis?”

This blog post will highlight a few things to consider when it comes to deciding on a topic for your dissertation or thesis (if you prefer the video above text, scroll down). I’m using examples within my own experience and scope, and I hope you’ll be able to relate, even if you are doing your research in a different area. Let’s go.

#1 What are you interested in?

This is a good place to start. What makes you excited? One of the PhD students whose research project I’m supervising developed an interest in temporomandibular disorders (conditions of the jaw) early in her career and decided to do a PhD in this area. She now has a physiotherapy practice specialising in patients with jaw-related problems.

#2 What are you good at (or striving to become good at)?

We are often good at those things that interest us, as they give us some form of reward, like that warm and fuzzy feeling when we get it right. If you are interested in something but are not so good at it (yet), that is also a good reason to choose this area as your research topic because through your postgraduate studies, you will learn a great deal.

#3 What will create an impact? Where is the need?

Will the findings of your research project help the world out there to solve a problem? Will it bust a myth? Will it inform further research? A few days ago, a prospective postgraduate student called me to ask about the feasibility of a research question exploring the predictors of bowling speed in cricket. Cricket is the fourth biggest sport in the world and is responsible for great entertainment, and has an associated economic impact. So, yes, we need to find ways to improve the performance of our fast bowlers. The answer to a research question exploring specific aspects that influence bowling speed will add to the evidence base and to our quest to improve bowling performance. Even if this question has been explored before, there is so much that we still don’t know. So, yes, the answer to this research question can create an impact, and there is a need to find this answer.

#4 What do you want to do with the knowledge (or degree)?

Think of where you would like to be in life once you qualify. If you love sports physiotherapy and see yourself working with a sports team, a master’s or a PhD in this area will move you closer to your goal. Your motivation for doing a postgraduate degree will also determine in which area you focus your research project.

#5 Is there a supervisor available in your niche area?

If you are fortunate to choose a supervisor, great, then make the most of this opportunity. Is there someone you know with expertise in your area of interest at your ideal university? Google a bit to find experts and ask alumni from the school in your target university. If it happens that you don’t find the expertise in shoulder muscle activity (for example) at your ideal university, consider enrolling at another university; if that is not an option, then you can approach a supervisor with more general knowledge in musculoskeletal physiotherapy (physiotherapists dealing with muscle and joint conditions) at your target university. You can then suggest that you invite an expert consultant onto the project either as a co-supervisor or as a contributor in exchange for co-authorship on any papers that get published. In this way, your one supervisor will ensure that you comply with the standards and requirements of the university while applying their research methodology expertise to the project, while your other supervisor will be able to give support, in this case, to the technical aspects of assessing muscle activity using fine wire electromyography.

If you don’t have the privilege to choose your own supervisor, then you just need to deal with what you get and make it work, which is not impossible. One of the Live Workshops in the Research Masterminds Success Academy members was about the Student-Supervisor Relationship (aka dealing with your supervisor). 

#6 Can your research form part of a research group or existing project?

Slotting into an existing research group or project often makes the journey much less isolated. One of our projects, the Fearless Fast Bowling project, is a project that postgraduate students have joined since its inception in 2017. The fact that it is an established project means that we have access to potential participants and a database containing years’ worth of bowling biomechanics data. Joining an existing research group or project is not a must; it is totally possible to complete your postgraduate research project without being part of a group or project. I completed my MSc and PhD without this privilege, so if you can’t find a group or project, don’t let it hold you back.

#7 Is there funding available for your topic?

If you are planning to do research in an area which depends on lots of funding, do consider this beforehand. Find out if the university where you would like to enrol has access to expensive equipment, for example, fine wire electromyography (to measure muscle activity) or if funding is available for expensive consumables. I’m not referring to your tuition fees but to the costs of carrying out the research. The cost of doing interviews with participants will be much less than needing to do blood tests on athletes who sustained a concussion. Funding, or rather the lack thereof, can leave you with your hands in your hair.

You now have a few aspects to consider when choosing a topic for your research project. I must say, sometimes we over analyse things, especially those things that we do not have any control over. My advice? Control what you can control and trust that everything else will work out the way it should. It is an exciting journey; enjoy every moment of it.

The Research Masterminds website and YouTube channel are useful resources to get going. Please, share this post with someone who will find value in it.

If you are a (post)graduate student working on a master’s or doctoral research project, and you are passionate about life, adamant about completing your studies successfully and ready to get a head-start on your academic career, this opportunity is for you! Join our awesome membership site - a safe haven offering you coaching, community and content to boost your research experience and productivity. Check it out! https://www.researchmasterminds.com/academy

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