Where do thesis topics come from, anyway?

Last May, when I finished the last assignment of my junior year, only one thing was on my mind — and it wasn’t summer. I couldn’t help thinking ahead to the assignment that would dominate my next and final year: my senior thesis. But intense brainstorming sessions and frequent “what should I study?” conversations did little to help me find a topic. After all, when you’re looking for a thesis topic, where do you even start?

I’d heard that a fruitful strategy was to start with your recreational interests, and build them into academic pursuits. I’d also heard that it’s best to decide your topic and adviser before summer break so that you can begin research over the summer. These are probably valuable pieces of advice. However, most professors felt I’d taken such advice too seriously when I proposed an early topic about professional sports, Twitter, and President Obama.

Guess where?

As you might imagine, that topic wasn’t a viable option for a public policy thesis (although it was a legitimately academic question, with heavy roots in sociology). Nevertheless, I resigned the idea to my iPhone notes and left campus with no idea of what my thesis would be about.

Then I started a summer internship in a really cool place.

That place was Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, New York — a two hour commute from my central NJ home. Working as an intern in the Correspondence and Briefings department, I was immersed in a non-stop rush of political ideas. I took advantage of opportunities to talk to campaign staffers about the ideas I found particularly fascinating. I benefited from seeing what concepts are most relevant to modern politics and public policy. And then, almost by accident, it happened: Sitting on my couch after a day at the office (and enjoying a cookies and cream ice cream cone), I asked myself, “In this unprecedented election cycle, where marginalized groups have been the subject of identity-based attacks, what would actually motivate groups to become more politically engaged? Is it true that rhetoric against a particular group inherently spurs greater engagement by that group?”

In that moment — in which I hadn’t even been consciously thinking about my thesis — I happened to find a really exciting topic. It still needed some polishing and developing, but it was there. So where do thesis topics come from? Real-life experience in a fast-paced, innovative professional environment is certainly one answer. What you absorb on the job will translate into your everyday thinking and ultimately inform your academic pursuits.

If I could go back and talk to the junior who left Princeton last May, I’d tell her not to worry about everyone else’s advice. I’d remind her that some of her best insights come from outside the classroom. And I’d argue that she lucked out by not fitting sports and Twitter into her thesis, because what else would she use for entertainment as she works to turn her thesis topic into a finished product?

— Melissa Parnagian, Social Sciences Correspondent