From a student perspective, finding a topic for the dissertation is a critical step. One of the key strengths of the dissertation is its capacity to engage the student by arousing interest and motivating through a sense of discovery. However, it can also be a stressful part of the process, especially for some weaker students who may not have strong ideas about topics that might inspire interest, and who may be daunted by the prospect of undertaking the task. Failure to find the right topic can be a recipe for a weak dissertation that does not fulfil the intended outcomes.
When the numbers of students looking for dissertation topics are relatively small, then it may be that students can be left to choose their own topics – probably subject to the availability of an appropriate supervisor or the submission of a coherent research proposal. With large numbers of students, this laissez-faire approach may not be feasible.
An alternative approach is to provide students with a list of topics from which they can choose. These topics may be closely circumscribed, or may simply offer a general topic area, leaving the student to focus on a specific research question within that topic area.
The advantage of providing very general topics is that that it leaves the responsibility of formulating a specific research question with the student. This is a key part of research in economics, of course, so it is good (albeit challenging) for the student to have to think about how to go about it. It also has the benefit of giving the student ownership of the question to be investigated, which helps to provide motivation.
One sample list of topics is available through the Appendices. This list was issued at a university at which there were about 150 students looking for topics. Each member of academic staff was asked to provide a number of topics. As you can see from the list, some provided very specific topics, such as ‘Does the Mexican anti-poverty programme Progresa have an impact on secondary school enrolment?’ However, most topics are defined in such a way as to allow a range of possible research questions. For example, ‘Child labour in LDCs’, ‘Corporate governance’ or ‘Oligopoly’ each allows a wide variety of possible approaches to be used and issues to be explored.
Where there are large numbers of students, topic choice can be handled online.
In the university represented by the sample list above, students can submit their preferences through a webpage, and are asked to specify their top four choices and rank them. Students are then allocated to topics and supervisors, with no guarantee that they will get their first choice – depending on whether certain topics are over-subscribed.
It may be important to ensure that topics on offer are regularly refreshed, especially where past dissertations are made available to current students. If the same topics appear for too many successive years, there may be the obvious danger of plagiarism. Even where this does not extend to actual copying, there is the danger that students will simply adopt the same dissertation structure as used by previous students rather than working through this part of the process on their own.