Your first decision is to choose
the sub-area of your discipline that you want to focus on. What really
interests you? Is it Gupta India,
Ashikaga Japan, or modern Korea? Are you interested in political,
This doesn’t mean a vague, lukewarm interest. It means
what are you passionate about? If you are going to spend up to a year
something, you had better be really
interested in it. For some students,
this is an easy decision—it’s the area covered by the courses you could
wait to get into and loved the whole way through.
Once you’ve settled on a general
area of interest, you can start to narrow it down. What fascinates you most about the Chinese
Revolution? What sources can you locate
and use for a study of Neolithic pottery in Taiwan? You need to be very practical here. To take
an extreme case, no matter how interested you are in studying the political
machinations of the Meiji court, it’s probably not a smart choice if you are
located in Pennsylvania and don’t already know Japanese. Access to sources and
the ability to use them are important limits to what you can do.
The boundaries for acceptable
thesis topics vary, but some common principles apply. A thesis topic should
raise a question or questions for which answers are not readily apparent. It
should allow you to demonstrate your ability to use primary sources, and to
tackle creatively a problem considered significant in the field. It has to be
feasible given the time you have, and given the library and other resources
that are available.
Don’t try to come up with one
perfect, well-defined idea all by yourself. A better approach at this stage is
to make a list of several ideas that seem plausible to you, and then identify a
professor who might be willing to direct your thesis. Once you’ve found a
faculty member to work with, he or she will be able to help you evaluate and
choose among the ideas you’ve generated. As an expert in the field, he or she
might see possibilities and obstacles that you have missed. Most good thesis
topics emerge out of conversations between students and their thesis directors,
just as many good topics for the smaller papers you wrote in regular courses
grew out of conversations you had with your professors.
If you are having trouble thinking
of a topic, it can be useful to remind yourself that you sometimes struggled to
come up with a good topic for other papers—and yet somehow, after talking with
other students and the professor, it all came together in the end.
Don’t give up too easily or think you have to
plan your thesis alone. You are expected to seek help and guidance.