Research topics and dissertation topics

How to generate ideas for topics for your dissertation or research proposal

In a world where it seems like everything you think of has already been done, creating new research topics or dissertation topics can seem like a daunting process.  But don't stress, there are a number of techniques that can help banish your creativity block and get the ideas flowing.

When you're using any technique, keep in mind these rules:

  • Generate the ideas, but don't then critique them
  • Write everything down, even if it seems silly
  • Aim for quantity, not quality
  • Get others involved
  • Try and think 'outside the box' – sometimes being a little silly or outlandish can help the creative process.

Here's a true story that demonstrates the importance of this process: pile-o-platesA business was struggling with part of its production line which wrapped plates for transportation in newspaper.  Although the packing material was cheap, the workers were slow - because they read the newspapers!

During a brainstorming session, one contributor suggested as a joke that the solution was to poke all of their eyes out.  Of course, they couldn't do that! But this idea in fact turned out to be a winner – the business reassigned the production line workers to a different department, employed a new team of blind workers, the work rate went up and the problem was solved.  At the same time, they created valuable jobs for people with a disability.  A win-win!

The moral of this is that there are no silly ideas so don't go critiquing too early.

Initial ideas for research topics and dissertation topics

Before you get started, you'll need a list of the rough areas that you're interested in.  To get this initial list, answer these questions:

  • What did you study at college/university? What niche areas interest you?
  • What publications do you read or have you read relating to your study area? What are the latest 'hot topics' in those publications right now?
  • When did you last hear about your area of interest in the news? What are people saying about it?
  • Have there been any films or tv shows about your area of interest? What were they about? Can you think of any ideas or storylines that stood out to you as interesting?
  • What are your hobbies/what do you enjoy doing? Do any of them relate to what you studied? Can you make them relate?

On to the techniques:

Keeping a journal

Keeping a journal around your area of interest is a great way to generate ideas for research topics and dissertation topics.  Why not create a free blog and put your thoughts online for others to see too? Wordpress is a great free blog platform and you can have your blog up and running in minutes:

What to put in your journal:

  • Review books, magazine articles, films, TV shows, art etc on your chosen topic that you read and have an opinion on
  • Whenever your topic is mentioned in the news, you can give your opinion on what's been discussed.  A great way to keep track of this is Google alerts.  You can set these to send you an email every time there's a mention of your area of interest:
  • Add any photos, video clips or other media that you discover from day to day that you found interesting or humourous.

The idea of the journal is a scrapbook of ideas relating to your topic, and over time you will see links between the material that help you generate research ideas.  With an online blog, others' comments may also assist you in new lines of thought on the subject.

Background reading

Background reading involves reading and/or researching around the general topics you've thought of. It's the less fun but probably the most important way to flesh out ideas for your research or dissertation. You could start in a more general reference medium that you may not be able to utilise in your final paper i.e. a source such as Wikipedia which whilst valuable, is not considered credible due to the fact that anyone can edit it. This should give you basic ideas that you may want to pursue further.

When you've settled on one or two ideas for your research later on, you'll start looking for usable sources such as books and journals to gather information that could actually be used for the paper.  But for now, just concentrate on the idea generation process.


Brainstorming is a process where ideas are thrown onto paper usually within a limited time. This is either performed individually or part of a group. Getting others to help you brainstorm ideas is a good idea, as it brings a fresh perspective to the topics you're considering.

There are several different variations of the brainstorming technique that can be utilised.  These variations include:

  • nominal group technique
  • group passing
  • team idea mapping
  • electronic brainstorming
  • directed brainstorming
  • guided brainstorming
  • individual brainstorming
  • question brainstorming

These are explained here:

The end result has no set format – many group sessions utilise a whiteboard or flip chart – if you do this, take a good photo of it afterwards on your phone camera so you can email it out to the whole group, like this:


Image source:

Brainstorming can be done at any stage in the research process – whether for generating ideas at the start of a project or looking for ways to take the project forward when some progress has already been made.  Brainstorming is sometimes performed with mind mapping.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping is about creating a visual brainstorm. You create a map of ideas that branches off from the general topics that you're interested in. This technique can be very useful to use after free writing is performed to assist you in visually conceiving where an idea might be heading.

The end result will look something like this:


Image source:

But you're not limited to paper – use a whiteboard, blackboard or flipchart if you prefer.  As for brainstorming sessions, just take a pic on your camera of the end result.

Another idea is to use Xmind, an excellent tool for mind mapping, allowing you to make digital copies of your mind maps that you can share and edit later -  There is a free version too which has all the features you need.


Cubing is simply looking at a topic from six unique perspectives. These six unique perspectives are:

  • describe the topic
  • compare the topic to other things or topics
  • associate the topic
  • analyze the topic
  • apply the topic; and
  • argue the topic.

The cubing technique can be used either to generate ideas for the research or dissertation itself, or to help mid-way through writing your paper to assist you in deciding what to keep in the paper and what to discard in the paper.  It's helpful to do this with others.

Here's a handy worksheet you can use for cubing.

Cubing 2 (1)

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Talking to others

Discussing possible ideas with friends or family can help you better understand your topic of interest and generate ideas for research topics or dissertation topics in the process.  You can use cubing to give you cues to get you started.  The questions asked by friends and family often help you question your topic and uncover areas you took for granted.   This is a great technique for creativity block and because you have fresh perspectives on the topic, you'll likely come across ideas or even a situation that is not related to what the writer is writing about but could make for interesting research.  Talking with others allows you to take a step outside the typical confines of writing the paper and have some fun with it.

Free writing

Free writing describes the process of sitting down for a set amount of time and continuously writing until the time is up. The idea is not to necessarily stay on topic but to let the writing flow.

Write down a general topic at the top of that empty page. It can be either a one-word topic or phrase such as "Schrödinger's cat", or a brief statement of the topic you're thinking about, such as "When exactly does superposition end and reality collapses into one possibility or the other?"

Set the clock for five to ten minutes and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and go at it. Write as fast as you can; the faster the better. You are not allowed to stop writing! If you can't think of anything to say, write down that you can't think of anything to say, something like: "I'm stuck but I'll think of something soon." Don't stop. Don't worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation and don't worry about going off topic.

Journalist's questions

You may have heard these questions at school: what, who, where, when, why, and how.  Used by journalists to ensure their stories are complete, they are also useful for fleshing out topics and ensuring you haven't missed anything.  Think about recent developments in your area of interest and ask:

  • Who was involved?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

Image source:


Listing is a popular technique which is very useful for topics generation, particularly for finding niche areas in your chosen area of interest. You create a list of ideas and topics that are related to the general topic being considered. Short sentences are used. You then list sub-ideas or sub-topics underneath the list of ideas and topics that you first thought of.

A handy tool to help with finding closely related topics is Google's keyword tool: - type in a few keywords and Google will suggest related keywords based on what other people are looking for.  You can check the box that says "Only show ideas closely related to my search terms" for more refined results.


Similar to listing, outlining is typically performed after you have completed another, "less organised" technique.

Here is the outlining process:

  • Gather notes, ideas, quotes and other material around your chosen topic.  Using index cards or post it notes can be useful.
  • Consider each individual piece of information that you've collected and assign it to a general category (as if you were filing it).  You will have general categories and then smaller more specific categories, and these in turn may have sub categories.
  • Try and reduce your categories by grouping any that really aren't that different.  Look for common themes.
  • Looking at your most general categories first, try to convert the labels into a sentence or two that supports an argument.
  • With your most general categories in order, you now must order the smaller categories. To do so, arrange each smaller category into a sentence or two that will support the more general sentence you've just devised.
  • The final step of the outlining process is to repeat this procedure on the smallest level, with the original material that you collected.
  • With these sentences, you have essentially constructed an outline for your research.

Further reading: