Choosing a masters topic: Initial thoughts

At the beginning of 2009 I will be starting my MSc research project and dissertation. By then I need to have decided on, applied for, and been accepted for a project topic. Even now the choice is becoming quite tricky.

I am studying with The Open University, and the research project and dissertation is module M801. The university provides a selection of pre-approved topics, each of which has a limited number of student places, or I may propose a research topic of my own. In past years I have taken a look at the pre-approved topics, and not found any of them very exciting or interesting. In the back of my mind I had a small collection of ideas, one of which I planned to select and propose.

Now, however, I find that one of the university-proposed topics is nicely aligned with my background skills and experience, and looks like it might even be fun to do. This leaves me with a dilemma – apply for the pre-approved topic (and do it quick, as there are only a very small number of places available), or continue with my original plan.

For interest, the pre-approved proposal is titled Improved user interfaces for private family wikis and would nicely build on both my work with my open-source Wiki (“Friki“) and one of the two OU modules I studied (and enjoyed) most recently, M873 (“User interface design and evaluation”).

My top contender for a proposal was probably something along the lines of deriving an ontology of mechanisms for populating dynamic web pages, although other I have also considered some other ideas such as trying to determine the effect of educational assessment instruments and techniques on the development of implicit software development practices.

Choices, choices. What to do?


  1. I’m going through the same process. One of the pre-approved topics is “Software development for scientific applications”. I’ve just spent the last 6 years doing exactly that, working with scientists to make coherent applications out of bits and pieces of research material.

    I’m “redundant” now, but I’ve got a new thing starting at L’pool uni in a couple of weeks – processing data from CERN, so it’s in the same area, roughly. I’ll have plenty of scientists around to bounce ideas off. I spoke to my brother, who is a lecturer and went through the same process back in ’94. He advised to go with the pre-approved option; I think he said to me “make it easy for yourself”.

  2. I can certainly see the logic in making it easy. One (imaginary?) downside is the risk of being caught up on some supervisor’s hobby horse rather than being fully able to drive my own research.

    Perhaps that’s an acceptable risk, though. Save the real thinking for the PhD, later 🙂

  3. Well, I made a proposal for a pre-approved topic and got it accepted. So I’m doing “Software development for scientific applications”, which is a huge topic.

    The thing is, I had to write up two papers and fill out a long form, so I’ve written two thousands words just to get to the start line. 10 to 15K words doesn’t seem much. Heck, this comment is worth almost 1% of that! So what’s the catch? Hm…. I expect they’ll be throwing all manner of obstacles down on me!

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