I'm currently 2 units into my MSc degree (6 units over 2 semesters left).I know this is rather early, But I would like to start work on my dissertation as soon as I can, to give myself enough time and preparation to do "distinction level" work.

How do I come up with a topic I'll stick with? I've had tons of advise from different sources telling me to choose from an area of interest. Considering I still have the bulk of my degree work ahead, this wasn't too useful for me. Do I read all areas ahead of the units to "fast forward" the process?. Any advice is welcome.

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    Gee, a down vote with no reason attached. That's useful.
    – Josh
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 16:48
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    It's tough to pick a good dissertation topic if you don't yet know what areas researchers are actively working in, and why certain questions merit attention. A good way to speed up the process of learning this is to attend lots of seminar and colloquium talks (even before you think you're ready). Don't worry about understanding all the details of the talks. Instead, focus on grasping the main question being investigated and why it's important, and try to internalize a 3-point outline (say) of the methodology. This should help you to identify an "area of interest".
    – Dan C
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 19:04
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    @JoshuaAreogun +1 for an important question, my PhD followed from my MSc, so it was relatively easy for me.
    – user7130
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 22:15
  • Half-serious answer: First do the research, then write the thesis. When all that's done, the topic should be obvious!
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 22:49

2 Answers 2


This is a classic example where talking to your advisor is of the utmost importance. Some advisors want their students to choose a topic as early as possible, and others don't mind if their students take their time. As for the topic, hopefully, your advisor should be able to point you in a direction if you don't already have one.

While I understand the rush to get started on something concrete, you really don't want to do a lot of work on a topic that ends up being (1) uninteresting, and (2) unfruitful. Talk to as many other faculty and students as you'd like, and there isn't anything wrong with reading ahead, with the exception that you might not understand something well enough to make a good decision about whether you should do research in the subject.

My bottom-line suggestion is to take your time picking a topic, because you really do want it to be a good one.

  • You might not have an advisor during the coursework phase of a master's or PhD program. In my field (chemical engineering), you don't pick up an advisor until after you've picked the project you want to work on. . . .
    – aeismail
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 15:31

Whether you have a formal advisor or not, you can approach faculty for advice and for suggestions. It is almost impossible for a novice to pick a really good Ph.D. topic (while working alone in a vacuum). Go by various professor's office hours and talk with them about their work. Tell them you are seeking good problems to work on. Ask good questions, and engage them intellectually. Something good is bound to happen. Talk with other grad students who are further along in their program. Try collaborating with other students: this is a great way to get hands on experience with problems, and if things work out, you may get a publication out of it.

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