3.2 Topic selection

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.

Top tips: dissertation topics

There are several ways in which students can find (or be allocated) the topic for their research.

Students find their own topic, and then look for a supervisor

This may work where the number of students is limited, but may be more difficult to manage when numbers increase. Some staff members are likely to be overwhelmed with requests, especially if they happen to have taught popular second year modules.

Students may also congregate around topics of recent interest – the financial crisis, the impact of migration, or the economics of Brexit…

Others may delay thinking about their topic until it is too late, or may choose topics that prove to be impracticable.

Staff declare topic areas in which they are prepared to supervise projects

This seems to work for a number of institutions. Topics here may be defined broadly – labour economics, development economics, or monetary economics. This may also produce bunching around some staff members.

A list of topic areas is provided

This entails listing key areas of economics – public economics, behavioural economics etc. Students are then allocated a supervisor, where possible a supervisor with a specific interest in that area. Bunching can be ameliorated by not guaranteeing that the allocated supervisor will be an expert in that field. After all, at undergraduate level, detailed knowledge of the topic area may not be crucial.

A list of topics is provided

More specific titles could be provided, rather than general areas. Some staff may prefer this, but others may not. Too specific a topic may attract no students at all (there are only so many undergraduates burning to undertake research into theoretical issues in econometrics).

For example, a topic such as ‘Child labour in less developed countries’ offers wide scope for tackling the issue in different ways and different contexts. A more specific topic such as “Are household members altruistically linked? an examination based on the Mexican anti-poverty programme Progresa’ is much more prescriptive, and may deter students.

There will always be students with fixed ideas about what they wish to research, and these should be accommodated where possible and plausible.

Top Tip

Where there are large numbers of students, topic choice can be handled online.

Students can submit their preferences through a webpage, and asked to specify their top four choices and rank them. Students can then be allocated to topics and supervisors, with no guarantee that they will get their first choice – depending on whether certain topics are over-subscribed.

It is helpful for students if a selection of past dissertations is made available to current students to provide some guidance on what is expected of them. However, 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.