Start Your Thesis or Dissertation

It is never too early to begin developing your ideas about your thesis or dissertation topic. The wise graduate student begins to examine potential research topics during the first term of graduate study.

In some programs, the research supervisor will assign your general research topic, although you may have some opportunity to choose specific projects within the topic area. Other programs expect students to determine their own research topic in consultation with the research supervisor.

The graduate thesis or dissertation is shaped by the procedures, requirements and timelines of the student's individual program, however, here are some general principles you can follow.


Think about research topics as soon as you begin your graduate studies

Determine early in your program the appropriate process and timelines for research topic assignment or selection.

Discuss your research objectives with your research supervisor and other faculty within your program.

Use each course or lab assignment as an opportunity to examine various facets of research and inquiry in your field of study.

If your program expects students to choose their own research topics, be sure to select a topic that is both interesting to you and realistic in terms of the amount of time and resources it will require for completion.

Record your research ideas in a diary or other reference source when you think of them.

Become familiar with the important research issues and topics in your discipline as evidenced by review of recent publications in the major journals in your field.

Carefully review any research that has been recently published by your research supervisor or others from your department.

Set up regular times to talk with your supervisor about your research topic and program

Your research supervisor and supervisory committee members will be major sources of support and guidance for you as you pursue your graduate research. Plan to consult regularly with them in order to answer key questions about your topic, methodology, data collection, proposal development, and other facets of your evolving thesis or dissertation.

Keep in mind that as you continue to develop your research, you will begin to develop a mastery of subject matter in your area of specialization. Your supervisor will not always be able to answer every question that you have about your topic, but should be able to guide you in a proper direction as you write your proposal.

Review recently completed theses and dissertations directed by your supervisor

A valuable source of guidance is recently completed theses or dissertations produced by students who have completed your program. Ask your research supervisor to recommend particular theses and dissertations from students he or she has supervised. Learn from those who have gone before you.

Develop networks with graduate students in your program who are nearing completion of their graduate degrees, and seek their permission to attend their final thesis or dissertation defense presentations in order to learn more about the process.

Create a draft timeline for the major stages of development and completion of your thesis or dissertation

Although the actual timeline for completion of your graduate thesis or dissertation will be shaped, in part, by your progress and your program's formal requirements, you should begin to think about the process and contents of your thesis or dissertation as early as possible.

After determining the topic for your research, there will be a number of stages of subsequent work to:

(a) prepare your proposal;

(b) conduct your research;

(c) write the thesis/dissertation document;

(d) share the research outcomes with others; and

(e) revise the thesis/dissertation.

Try to estimate the amount of time and resources you will need to move through each stage. Keep your proposed timeline sufficiently flexible in order to allow for uncertainties that may influence your progress toward completion.

Thoroughly review the G+PS guidelines for preparing, formatting and submitting your approved master's thesis or doctoral dissertation.

Conduct a comprehensive literature search before you write your proposal

A literature review should serve as a major summary of scholarly and scientific publications on your research topic.

The literature review should enable you to demonstrate mastery of skills in two areas: information selection and critical review/appraisal of available literature. A good literature review synthesizes the results of your reading of the literature and critical appraisal into a summary of what is and is not yet known about a topic.

Through a careful literature review, you should ultimately be able to generate new questions or issues that merit further research, thus justifying the focus of your thesis or dissertation study.

Follow your program's timelines and procedures for development and presentation of your research proposal

Become thoroughly familiar with the formal procedures and requirements in your program for making timely progress toward development and completion of your thesis or dissertation. Be sure that you understand the standard formats for development and presentation of a thesis or dissertation in your program.

Carefully review the latest edition of your program's graduate student handbook, identifying all deadlines, names and locations of program personnel who are involved in getting the thesis or dissertation approved.

For a more complete overview of strategies for developing your thesis or dissertation, view the section on the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies website that talks about Thesis Preparation.