Once you have a rough idea of the topic that you want to research and started thinking about what you want to know during the process of completing your thesis, the next thing you need to do is narrow down your ideas. Having a focused topic will help you to:
- Search for resources
- Select resources that are more useful
- Organise and write your literature review
And crucially, having a focused topic will mean that your research is meaningful for you and your audience. Richards (Qualitative Inquiry in TESOL, 2003) tells us that meaningful research is to discover something about the world that has a clear purpose, and the findings are useful. If your topic is too general, it will be harder for you to find your thesis: your argument, your message to your audience, your answer to the problem you want to solve. Plus, if your topic is not focused enough, you might accidentally end up writing a book about it rather than just paper because there was too much to include!
This article is to show you some ways to start narrowing down your topic. It is based on the post Mind the Gap by Associate Professor Martin Davies; Principal Fellow in Higher Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and a Senior Learning Advisor working with HDRs and staff at Federation University featured on The Thesis Whisperer blog: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2019/03/20/10010/. Do take a look at the original post, as well as the other excellent posts on this blog for research students.
Start simple: Drawing for focus
I recommend starting with a simple brainstorm to focus your topic. Going through the 5 Ws and How questions can help you to think of focused situations for you to research your communication-based topic. You might not be able to choose all of them at first, but knowing ‘who’ you want to research: who is communicating, and ‘where’: which type of place you want to research, and ‘why’ you have chosen them, can sufficiently narrow down your ideas.
Another way is a Venn Diagram. Draw your interests as a series of overlapping circles. Each circle represents focussed points of your ideas. Use as many circles as you need. Look at where the circles overlap and see if that is an interesting topic to do.
To create a focused topic, try thinking about your idea as a series of narrowing “conversations”:
- The general area is a particular conversation among your audience and other researchers
- The specific area is your focus on a particular part of the general conversation
- Your topic is what you notice needs to be discussed in the conversation in more detail
- Your research question asks something to get these details
- Your thesis statement is your proposed answer to this question (what you think the answer might be)
This can be represented as an increasingly narrowing triangle moving from the general topic to the specific issue.
Advanced: Writing for focus
Another technique is the Page 98 Paper technique (so described as it is on this page of Rowena Murray’s 2002 book: How to Write a Thesis). The idea is to write your thoughts down by completing these sentences:
- My general topic is … (25 words)
- My research question is … (50 words)
- Researchers who have looked at this subject are … (50 words)
- ‘Researcher X’ argues that … (25 words)
- ‘Researcher Y’ argues that … (25 words)
- My argument is … (50 words)
Depending on where you are with deciding your topic (starting or more advanced) and how you like to think – I’m a visual learner so I like drawing diagrams, choose the best method for you. If you are at the start, perhaps the brainstorm is good as it is a familiar technique. If you are further into deciding, try writing about your topic as this will help you to review your ideas and confirm what your thesis is.