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Topic selection

Choosing a topic has huge significance for the rest of your project. It determines the field you are working in, the type of activity that you will need to undertake, the methods and technologies to be used, and so on. Often, however, identifying a viable topic is the hardest decision of the whole enterprise because the range of choices is so broad, and you have no frame of reference in which to make your selection.

Luck may be on your side: you may have a clear ambition for where you want the project to take you, and you have access to the appropriate facilities to follow that direction. The situation is rarely so simple, however, and most people struggle with this first step in the project process.

The nature of a student project

Any project, academic or otherwise, is defined by its aim. The point of doing the project is to achieve the aim - to deliver a piece of software, successfully stage an event, answer a theoretical question, etc. The project is judged on how successfully it achieves its stated aim.

What makes a student project different is that there is a second aim, and that is to attain the maximum possible mark for your work. This implicit aim is independent of the explicit one: just delivering a successful technical outcome does not guarantee a successful academic outcome. In fact, the two aims may sometimes be in conflict. For example, your subject area may have confidentiality restrictions which limit the amount of evidence you can present to support your findings. Without evidence, academic conclusions are weakened, and a great many questions may arise over the validity of your conclusions. A common error is for students to focus too narrowly on the explcit, technical aim and to overlook the academic one.

You can think of your prject as actually two related projects running in parallel. Both need to be taken into account when there is a major decision to be made such as the selection of the topic. The next section suggests a few criteria to apply which help to balance up the two perspectives.

What makes a good topic?

Like any other part of conducting a project, the best approach to selecting your topic is to be systematic. It is a good idea to consider a range of options and to choose the one that is likely to yield the best result.

Is it interesting to you personally?

It is always a good idea to start with the simple questions. Some people feel a sense of obligation to select a topic that is somehow considered worthy in someone else's opinion rather than their own. This is faulty thinking: if you have an intrinsic enthusiasm for the topic, you will be motivated to do your best work simply because you find the subject interesting. The work becomes its own reward. On the other hand, if you choose a topic because it is important to someone else, it is very likely to become a burden very quickly. Think about how long you will need to maintain motivation for the topic - typically, projects last a relatively long time. Will you staty motivated to pursue the topic until the project finishes?

Where do you want the project to take you?

If you can a clear vision of the kind of position you want to be in at some future point in time, the project may be a useful tool to help you get there. For example, it may be an opportunity to demonstrate your abilities in the area that you want to work in. The project then becomes an opportunity to extend your existing skills in that area, and also to generate some example results that you could present to a potential employer. Alternatively, you may have an entrepreneurial idea that you want to develop in the future. The project gives you a chance to test the idea out in a safe environment.

A project can also be an opportunity to learn something about an unfamiliar technology or field of activity. However, you must remember the two parallel aims of the project. Choosing a topic in an area that you are already familiar with allows you to make informed decisions from the start. This is likely to contribute to a better technical outcome in the end. If you choose an unfamiliar area, you must factor in more time simply to learn about the basics. Your decision-making will be less confident, and simple things will take longer because you are learning as you go. If you will rewarded in the marking scheme for this type of self-directed learning, then you can make this option work for you. Despite the reduced quality of the technical outcome, you will gain extra recognition on the academic side. Be careful to consider the consequences of your topic choice from both points of view.

What resources are at your disposal?

Every person's context is unique, and it is worth making a list of the assets that you have. For example, you may be in contact with people who have a particular expertise, you may have access to equipment or software licences because of your personal situation or you may have some previous personal experience that could be incorporated into the project. Each asset represents an opportunity, but you should also assess them objectively. Will the experts be able to give you any of their time in practice? Will learning to use the equipment or software take too long? Is your personal experience genuinely applicable, or are you imagining a connection that is not really there? Something that may appear to be an opportunity may turn out to be a drawback unless you actively consider its associated risks.

Is a project in this area feasible?

Related to the previous criterion, this question is all about risk analysis. Sometimes, personal motivation for a topic is not sufficient, and it would be a poor choice because of practical factors. One of the most common errors is related to data access. A topic might be of real significance and the results might have the potential to make a great contribution to knowledge in the field. If you cannot get access to the data you need to carry out your analysis however, it does not matter how important the project appears to be, or how well you apply methods and technologies, it will not deliver a successful outcome. One example of where this is a problem would be working with children or other vulnerable groups. If you want to do a project of that kind, you need to be sure in advance that you will be allowed the access that you need. Otherwise, the project is not feasible.

Is the topic related to a recognised field of study?

If you cannot relate the topic to a recognised area, it is probably not a good choice. As a student, your job is to learn about the state of the art in your field of study. Eventually, the aim is to become an accepted and respected member of a particular community of practice (Wenger, 2011). A community of practice consists of people who share common interests and goals. They also share conceptual and practical knowledge about their area of interest, and that is mediated by a shared linguistic terminology. Every student project that you do takes place in that context and should move you a step closer to full membership of that community. If you ignore established knowledge and make up your own methods with little reference to the context, it does not matter how clever you are, the work will be of little value. Even at PhD level, you need to demonstrate that an appropriate precendent does not already exist in the research literature before inventing your own approach. At undergraduate level, you simply do not have sufficient experience yet to do that.

Capturing the topic in your title

A good rule of thumb is to try to capture the theoretical and practical aspects of your project in the title. This will act as a guide for you as you make further decisions about the project. One of the ways it can do this is to help identify a feasible scope. It is important not to cast the net too widely or too narrowly. If the topic area is too wide (e.g. “Cyber security”), the body of literature will be far too large to explore in a meaningful way, and it is likely that much of the literature review and later critical analysis will have to resort to vague generalities. On the other hand, too narrow a focus (e.g. “Detecting network intrusions with Snort”) is likely to limit the literature available and encourage superficial, descriptive content. The Goldilocks zone will involve the identification of a specify body of theory and its application context.

Example titles might take the following forms:

  • The application of XXX theory in a YYY context
  • A comparison of approaches for XXX
  • Exploring solutions to the XXX problem
  • Iterative refinement of an XXX application

As an alternative to focussing primarily on technical issues, the project could be built around the professional working context. The requirements in terms of theoretical background would be the same, and so example titles in this area could include:

  • Managing the XXX requirement in a YYY organisation
  • An analysis of methods to ensure XXX compliance
  • Integrating XXX into the project management process
  • Identifying critical success factors for XXX

When considering possible topics, it is informative to make use of services such as Google Scholar to test their quality. With a good topic, there should be evidence of active research in the area with at least four or five high-quality academic studies within the last 12 months. Often, these papers will report on limitations of current knowledge or areas for future research in their conclusion sections. These can make good starting points for defining project topics. A poor topic choice would reveal few academic studies in the area, or only ones which are more than a couple of years old.