How to find a topic for your thesis – (tips for Economics and Business Students)

Towards the end of your degree writing a thesis is one of the major challenges that still await you. Before getting started with researching and writing your thesis the first important step is to find a topic to write about. This step often proves not only to be one of the most decisive steps in the process of producing a first-class thesis. It also tends to be one that students tend to struggle with. After all, there are so many potential topics!

It goes without saying that, of course, the topic you choose needs to be relevant to your course or major. Within the realm of your subject, though, you are usually very free to choose a topic that just interests you. Ideally, there are some modules in your degree that you found particularly interesting and about which you already have a profound general understanding. Maybe you are also aware of some topical research that you would like to study more thoroughly.

Spotting your interests may not be too hard, but coming up with a sufficiently concrete, relevant research question may prove to be much harder. This article is, therefore, dedicated to guiding you through the process of finding a suitable and exciting topic for your thesis.

How to find interesting subject areas

  1. Your course

The most obvious way of going about finding a thesis topic is to reflect on past topics in your course. By now, you will have attended many lectures, seminars, labs, or tutorials. Ask yourself: Which module did I enjoy most? Which essay did I find the most interesting to write? If there is a module/ essay you particularly liked it is worth thinking about which further, in-depth questions you might have about the topic. A long-term strategy to find an exciting thesis topic would also be to listen attentively to which topical research your tutors mention in lectures. Beyond, you can, of course, always walk up to your tutor after a lecture or seminar and ask them about more niche topics in the broader subject area which they would recommend writing a thesis about.

  1. Current publications

Looking into some recent publications in your subject area is a further source of inspiration. You will find a plethora of recent research topics that are highly relevant in the modern world. Often times you will also find literature reviews that summarise the state-of-the-art research and suggest further questions to be asked. If there are no literature reviews to a certain topic yet, you might also want to consider dedicating your thesis to doing one yourself. In his paper, State-of-the-Art dynamischer Methoden zur multikriteriellen Entscheidungsunterstützung JUMS-author Sebastian Schär did exactly that.

Literature reviews are not only helpful for gaining a good overview of state-of-the-art research. Oftentimes, researchers often include an entire “Future Research”-section at the end of their article/ paper which can serve as a direct source of inspiration for you.

  1. Personal Interests

You may also want to ask yourself whether there are any hobbies which you can somehow connect to your course. Maybe your sport has some hidden relevance to game theory? Maybe your family’s history is a good starting point for an enquiry into a certain historical period? You get the gist. There are plenty of opportunities to connect your interests and identity to a thesis topic if you want. Many of our JUMS-authors have done exactly that. Niklas T. Bretschneider, for instance wrote about Revenue Sharing in European Football: An Assessment of the Bundesliga’s New Four-Pillar Model, combining his interest in the German Soccer League with his Business studies.

  1. Brainstorming

Sometimes it is a good idea to let your thoughts flow. Just take a piece of paper and write everything down that comes to your mind. You can also choose a specific word such as “digitalisation”, “new work” or “Industry 4.0.” and brainstorm about it. Mind-mapping may help you with it.

  1. Fellow students and friends

Talking to fellow students and friends who are also looking for a thesis topic at the moment can be a helpful approach, too. Conversations often lead to new ideas and hearing other people’s thoughts on your ideas will assist you in sharpening your plans and thoughts.

  1. Work experience

Have you gained work experience or interned? Have you witnessed or heard about issues that are relevant to your field of study? Have you become aware of practical topics that   could use some theoretical investigation? In these cases, your work experience or internship may prove helpful in formulating a concrete and highly relevant thesis topic.

Alternatively, if you have a clear idea of what kind of career you want to work in after graduating, you could choose your topic according to your career plans and impress a potential future employer with your apposite thesis. A thesis that proves your theoretical expertise in your preferred area of work might give you that necessary edge over other candidates.

  1. Tenders

If you don’t have any ideas yourself or feel overwhelmed by the breadth of choice, you can also check whether the departments at your university are currently offering topics for theses. This will save you the trouble of looking for a topic and, in many cases, you will already have a supervisor. With advertised topics, you are usually contributing to larger research projects. Your thesis will therefore become part of a greater scientific puzzle. Benefits of taking up thesis-tenders do not only include the satisfaction derived from helping a bigger, more influential project succeed but also the highly intense supervision you will profit from. By the way: Not all departments are communicating digitally yet. Thus, it is sometimes also worth looking at the noticeboards at the departments.

  1. Companies

You can also write your thesis as part of work experience at a company. Usually, you will be working for the company for three to six months as an intern. During this time, you can simultaneously gain professional experience and write your thesis. Sometimes the topics are already specified in the job advertisement whereas in other cases it is only the subject area that is specified in which case you have more room for making a personal topic choice. If you want to write your thesis in a company, you can combine theory and practice, but you have to satisfy both the university and the company with your work. This is usually much more time-consuming than writing your thesis at university, but in many cases, you also get paid by the company.

General Tip: Choose a topic that genuinely interests you rather than the one the first that comes to your mind! You will have to work on the thesis topic for several weeks or months, so it is imperative to be passionate about the subject you are researching and writing about! Choosing an exciting and relevant topic will pave your path to receiving the distinction you are aiming for!

My personal tip: If you can’t find a topic that you really “burn” for, take a look at what your potential supervisor is specialising in. Maybe you can choose a topic that is interesting for both of you!

Prof. Dr. Dominik van Aaken, JUMS-Editor and Professor for Strategic Management and Organisation, University of Salzburg

Narrowing Down the Topic

As you have seen, there are many ways to find a suitable topic for your thesis. What is worth keeping in mind is that your thesis will not be meant to explain the whole world. Usually, you have a very limited timeframe to complete your work. Therefore, it is important to narrow down your topic.

These steps will help you narrow down your research question:

  1. Narrow down the topic area – Which subject area does the topic you want to deal with originate from? Can your topic be allocated to a specific sub-area? If your topic is still too broad, you can make it more specific by picking particular periods in time, geographical circumstances, schools of thought, or other relevant factors.
  2. Objective – What do you want to achieve with your thesis? Do you want to apply a theory to a new area, confirm or falsify a hypothesis or summarise state-of-the-art research?
  3. What knowledge and insights have already been achieved in your area of interest? Can you enrich the state-of-the-art research with your reflections or by applying theories to the real world? What is your potential contribution to the current state of knowledge?
  4. Research question – In this crucial step, try to formulate a research question that you find stimulating and exciting to answer with your thesis. At this step, always bear in mind your objective and how you narrowed down the topic.
  5. Hypotheses – Now your aim is to formulate hypotheses about your thesis’s topic. Do you aim to falsify or is there something you want to confirm with your work? It is sensible to formulate more hypotheses than you will eventually address in your thesis. This will be helpful insofar as you might realise how some of your ideas work together or how they contradict one another. If you want to explore a phenomenon in a methodologically novel way, you do not need hypotheses derived from the literature.
  6. Working methods – How do you want to approach your work methodically? Do you already have an idea of what data might be useful for substantiating your case? Do you want to conduct interviews, make a survey or use previous data sets? Are you planning to base your work on broad reading? Are experiments or observations suitable? The (relevant) choice of methods also further narrows down your thesis.

If you are not yet able to formulate a research question, you can go through the individual steps again and try to narrow them down further.

Tip: If you are not yet able to sufficiently narrow down your topic, but have a rough idea, schedule an appointment with your professor or supervisor. Together with them, you can talk through your interests and chances are that with the help of your tutor you will find a suitable research question. The same applies if you are not yet able to formulate a research question but have an idea for your thesis. In any way, make sure to take your notes about the “narrowing down process” with you when you meet with your supervisor. Also, bear in mind that it is better to talk to your supervisor about your topic in a timely manner rather than tinker with your research question for a long time without a result. You can benefit from your supervisor’s advanced knowledge of the topic and their expertise in formulating excellent research questions.
As soon as the research question has been chosen, you dedicate your work to creating a preliminary outline for your paper. Of course, this outline can and will change during the writing process, but it is the first point of reference for you. It will support you in keeping in mind your goal while researching the topic.


An appointment with your supervisor

As soon as you have finalised your research question and created an outline, make an appointment with your supervisor to determine your next steps. At this stage, some lecturers require an exposé, clearly explicating the objectives of your thesis. Therefore, it makes sense to be well-prepared for your appointment.

During the appointment, you will present your research question and outline your plans to your supervisor who will then go on to consult you. Please don’t be unsettled if your research question and outline change after the first meeting. Your supervisor has a completely different perspective and more experience. They will help give your research question the last edge so that your topic is ready for approval and you can start working!

We hope that our tips for finding a topic have helped you. We wish you every success in writing your thesis!


Tip for all Masters candidates:

Are you already thinking about doing a doctorate after your Master’s degree? If so, it could be a good and time-saving idea to use your Master’s thesis as preparation and groundwork for a possible doctoral dissertation. Further, you can also test whether you are passionate enough about your Master’s thesis’ topic to commit yourself to it over several years. If you are considering using your Master’s thesis, make sure to talk to your supervisor or professor about this early on so that they can give you their best advice.


about the author:

Prof. Dr. Dominik van Aaken

JUMS-Editor and Professor for Strategic Management and Organisation, University of Salzburg.