How to find a research topic

When it comes to choosing a thesis topic, laboratory science students have the easiest task. Since their funding comes from their advisor’s laboratory, their theses will generally be excluded from the professor’s research program. This practice has its problems. The most obvious: these graduate students have only a limited contribution to their own thesis topic. They are failing to learn and practice an important skill that all researchers need once they are on their own – the skill of determining what to study.

Navigating an easy path to a thesis topic defers an important part of doctoral training in science. But what about everyone else? All graduate students must learn to identify and develop a topic and formulate a research agenda. And it’s not an easy skill to teach, especially if the instructor isn’t quite sure how to do it either.

I have long wanted to highlight this subject in The Chronicle’s one-off dissertation series (earlier essays focused on introductory writing and the value of writing groups). But I hesitated because I didn’t know what to say. When I was a graduate student, I was lucky: my subject escaped me. It comes from a course I designed at the time. (The course was called “The Literature of the Bizarre, the Grotesque, and the Macabre,” and it led to a dissertation on the grotesque in prewar American literature.)

The best I can say for myself is that when I came across a thesis topic, I had the good sense to notice it. However, my experience is not exactly teachable. I have advised many student dissertations over the years, and I confess that topic design has never been one of my strengths.

For better or for worse, I’ve been cautious before offering advice on this front. The sciences aren’t the only areas where students end up with a subject that mirrors their advisor’s work. I’ve seen this happen more than once in the humanist compound I inhabit, with decidedly mixed results.

And I don’t want to dictate thesis topics to my students. After all, they must live two or three years with their subject. I do not know. On the other hand, if I stand too far away from their thought process, I’m not helping them – or doing my job.

So how can students – and professors like me – learn the art and craft of subject design?

Fortunately, a great new book from the University of Chicago Press came to the rescue. Thomas S. Mullaney and Christopher Rea Where does the search begin, is a revelation. Unlike previous books in the field (such as the valuable and oft-revised The Research Profession, published in 1995), Mullaney and Rea focus on how to unleash and develop your own analytical creativity, and then how to turn it into what they call “a research project that matters to you (and the world )”.

Where does the search begin is basically a workbook, and it’s filled with exercises. The book has two parts. The first section describes what Mullaney and Rea call “self-centered” research, which they define as discovering what matters to you and framing it as a problem that can be investigated.

Too often, the book says, academics try to “please an imaginary external judge.” Or maybe this judge is not imaginary at all. I have seen many graduate students – including some under my own supervision – try to please the teacher before they please themselves. Perhaps the book’s greatest virtue is its emphasis on the importance of finding out what matters to you and separating it from everything else, including what you think your thesis supervisor wanna.

Through a series of exercises, the book gradually moves the reader from a topic to questions and then to a research problem. Repeatedly while framing a subject, Mullaney and Rea encourage the researcher to look for “the effect on you”. The emphasis on a step-by-step process for turning a personal interest into a viable research topic is the second cardinal virtue of the book.

Where does the search begin shows how a subject will enter both a field of study and a “problem collective” composed of researchers who may belong to different fields, but who work on similar questions. For example, someone trying to figure out why bourbon has become so popular in the United States might identify their field with American food studies. But she could share her problem with a researcher tracing the emergence of religious denominations in Europe, or someone studying fashions in Japan.

The passage from egocentrism to intellectual community constitutes the second part of the book. Mullaney and Rea call this second step “Getting over yourself”.

Moving from exercise to exercise, the book advises the reader to “write as you go”. If you do, the end result will be what the authors cleverly call “zero draft,” one step away from a first draft.

Such formulations led one of my former students to remark that Mullaney and Rea “have the best metaphors”. Where does the search begin is indeed filled with witty analogies that make reading the book a pleasure. Instead of just encouraging the reader to ask rigorous questions, they write, “Think of a question as if it were a car” and “stress test” the steering and brakes.

To move from sources to arguments, Mullaney and Rea ask the researcher to “connect the dots”. In real life, unlike dot to dot coloring books, you have to find the dots to connect. What happens when there are only a few? When you don’t know what image they form? “Determine which points belong to your image,” they advise. This extended metaphor offers a powerful and memorable lesson in how to identify and probe an archive.

Playful metaphors do more than make the reader smile. Metaphors, as linguist George Lakoff reminds us, shape thought.

The authors recommend a method that I would describe (to offer my own metaphor) as quarrying. They ask the researcher to dig, examine and reflect, then repeat the procedure. Discover things, study them, understand what they tell you (including about your personal interests), and then use that knowledge to discover more things. The exercises in the book use this recursive method again and again.

Where does the search begin is a rewarding student-centered book, but it will help experienced researchers as well as beginners, teachers as well as students. For faculty members advising graduate students, it especially helps to expose the assumptions embedded in our own ways of thinking. I will be a better teacher for this, and my students will come up with better research topics.

This is a valuable lesson for everyone involved, but good thesis topics are especially important for students from underrepresented groups. Many of them want to do research that reflects their personal commitments – and they are more likely to leave graduate school if they are discouraged from pursuing these interests. This subject deserves special attention, and I will talk about it in my next column.

Jessica C. Bell