Choosing a Topic
At times your professor will provide you with a topic for your writing assignment. This can be a very specific topic (i.e., "Write a Sample Collection Development Policy for the Johnson City Archives"), or it can be more general, only requiring you to stick to a broad subject field (i.e., "Write about a Records Management Issue"). Other times, however, your mission is to complete a certain type of paper, such as an argumentative essay in a research methods course like MALS 5400.
Except for those cases in which your research and writing are steered in a very specific direction, choosing a topic can be challenging for writers. Whenever you're having trouble choosing a paper topic, keep the following suggestions in mind:
Tips For Choosing A Seminar Paper Topic
- Reflect on the overall goals of the seminar course. Typically, your paper must fit into an overarching theme suggested by the course itself. Think about the material you have read for class and look back at your notes. Just reminding yourself of the goal of the course might help you generate some ideas.
- Choose a topic that interests you. You will spend a lot of time and energy on this paper, and you'll be far more likely to put effort into something that you like to study. If you are not remotely interested in "Issues in Office Politics," and regret having signed up for the class since day one, get creative. There is almost always a way to put a fresh twist on a dull subject. If you are into ancient Roman history, maybe you could demonstrate how the workplace is similar to Caesar's government. Is cooking your passion? What about a paper studying the politics of the office refrigerator, the break room mystery donuts, or those frequent yet always mediocre office parties? A creative paper like this is not only more interesting for you to write, but is probably more interesting for your audience to read. You just have to do a little thinking.
- Choose a topic narrow enough that you can adequately develop your argument in the required number of pages and in the amount of time you have to work on it. For example, it is probably unrealistic to think that you can complete a paper about the role of women in World War II in one semester and in only 15 pages. At this point, you will have to focus on just one aspect of this broad subject, such as the women who worked at a particular aircraft factory during the war, or how clothing fashions were affected by real and perceived material shortages.
- Choose a topic that is relevant to your course and to your program of study. Remember, in MALS, each course you take serves a purpose for your larger theme of scholarship. Make every research paper count—maybe even as a lead for your thesis or capstone project. (If you can't see how your course is relevant to your program of study, you have bigger problems than choosing a topic, and you should see your advisor.)
Choosing A Thesis Or Capstone Project Topic
You may be among the MALS students who come into the program knowing their focus for their thesis or project, and building a program of study around that topic. Or, you might have a general idea of the subjects that interest you, but without a solid thesis or project topic. Whichever camp you fall into, the reality is that your thesis/project topic should remain a priority throughout your graduate school career. This does not mean you need to choose your topic during your first meeting of MALS 5000, nor does it mean you should stubbornly adhere to your first topic idea even if your perspective or interests change or if practical matters (e.g., you couldn't secure funding to study ski culture in the Austrian Alps) prevent you from following your original plan. However, you should be planning your subject-field courses and seminar paper topics with respect to your final culminating experience in MALS.
That said, choosing a thesis or project topic can be intimidating even if you have designed an excellent, cohesive program of study. By definition, this is a big project—you'll be writing anywhere from 25 to 100 pages, conducting extensive research, and defending the last 2+ years of coursework to your committee. Take a deep breath, and consider the following tips to help you stay grounded as you develop a thesis or project topic:
- Spend some time reflecting on one of your favorite seminar papers. We all have a paper that makes us feel like we just "got it." Think of the feeling of confidence and purpose you got while writing that paper. What inspired that confidence? What got you excited? Is there a particular theory that you feel you mastered particularly well or a person, event, or problem that you just don't want to stop learning about? If you remain undecided on a thesis topic, these standout papers often give clues as to what makes you "tick."
- Always look for those unaddressed questions in the subjects you are studying.One of the main goals of your thesis or project is to contribute to the "scholarly conversation" about your chosen field. As you progress through MALS, keep a log of those questions or problems that you cannot seem to find satisfactory literature about. One of these "holes" in the scholarly discourse might become a great focus for your capstone project or thesis.
- Follow the tips for choosing a seminar paper topic. In many ways, your MALS program of study is like a very long, interdisciplinary course, and your thesis or project is the "seminar paper" for this "course." The tips above, adjusted for the added length and complexity of your thesis or project, provide important guidelines for choosing your topic.