Choosing a Thesis Topic

Next week is registration for fall semester, which means Economics majors planning on graduating will be signing up for thesis seminar! This year the economics thesis will become an “In Progress” course, which will allow thesis students to have two semesters to write their theses, and students can choose between three professors.

The economic thesis professors are Kate Stirling, Matt Warning, and Bruce Mann, and the structure of the classes are designed to be similar. They all, however, have different research backgrounds and foci as economics professors. It is recommended that thesis students choose a professor that focuses what you want to study. Professor Stirling has a strong research background in poverty and gender economics, Professor Warning has a good deal of experience in international and development economics, and Professor Mann focuses on labor and urban economics, to very briefly generalize their research. Follow the links to get a little bit more information on each one specifically and check out their publications. Students are not limited to the scope of their thesis advisor’s specific background, but it’s helpful to know what you’re interested in. The process can be difficult to get started though so this article is intended to help you find a place to start.

Choose something you like

For most people, this will be the longest economics paper you write as an undergraduate, so you’ll want to choose something you are genuinely interested. Don’t choose a topic because you “should” do, or choose something because it’ll be easy. You’ll get tired and burnt out. Take the time to choose something that you enjoy. It’ll fuel your energy to keep writing and rewriting in the long run, help you get started, and help you power through the final months.

Start by thinking about classes you’ve been in. Did you enjoy taking Behavior Economics? Or did you write a paper you’re particularly proud of in Gender Economics? Pull out some of your old work that you’ve done and see if it reignites interest in something you have worked on before. Expanding on a previous paper or research project is highly encouraged by the professors for the thesis and puts you ahead of the game.

Look at examples

Reading examples of previous theses can be very helpful for getting ideas on how broad or specific your idea will end up being. Many theses from previous Economics majors at Puget Sound are posted online. Realize that these papers are much farther along than you need to be, but it can be helpful to see the end point and work with that in mind. They can also be helpful in thinking about what kind of paper you’ll write. You’ll notice that there are several types of papers you can write. Mainly these are categorized as theoretical, empirical, or case studies. You don’t have to decide which kind of paper you want to write right now, but it can help ground you to think about which kind you’d like to do. [Editor’s Note: Also see Thesis Corner for in-depth interviews with thesis writers themselves!]

Think about potential sources

Depending on the type of paper some research projects will learn more heavily on citations or data sets and often times, students find their biggest challenge is lack of relevant sources or data. Having an econometric section is not required, but having at least some data to rely on is a great way to support your thesis, and thus it can be helpful for some people to work backwards. Take a minute and do some basic searches in relevant data sources to see if your topic generally has data.

For example, you might be interested in looking into illegal trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but not be able to find enough economic research to do a paper, short of doing research on the ground yourself. In contrast however, writing about something local can bridge this gap. Doing your own research in Tacoma or the Northwest could  give you access to datasets and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to email local organizations for potential datasets.

Keep at it

Don’t go too long without thinking about your topic. Keep it fresh in your mind and ask new questions. Do a Google search to see what’s out there, or check out a book.

The moral of this story is, start thinking about your thesis topic now. The thesis professors are all available to talk over the summer, by email to give advice. Start thinking about what you want to write about now, you will thank yourself later.

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