Finding a Topic for Your MA Thesis – Where to Begin?

Finding a Topic for Your MA Thesis – Where to Begin?

Writing a master thesis is hard - spending a considerable amount of time researching and writing one piece of research is bound to come with its difficulties, the very first being the choice of topic. But where to begin?

Writing a master thesis is hard - spending a considerable amount of time researching and writing one piece of research is bound to come with its difficulties, the very first being the choice of topic. Choosing a topic is the first step in ensuring that your writing process goes smoothly and therefore requires a lot of thought. But where to begin? In the following article, I delve into my own process for finding my thesis topic and asked two other staff members from the Leiden Art History Blog, Emma, and Chiara, to share their experiences.

Cassandra – MA Museums and Collections

My thesis explores how the portrait collection of Margaret of Austria (1480-1530) was used to legitimate her position as the first female regent of the Netherlands.

Did you have a particular method for finding and choosing your topic?

I came to my current topic by chance; I had taken a course on early modern European collections, which had fascinated me, and found that we had only focused on male collectors. I, therefore, had a starting point: early modern collections and female patrons. I looked at previous research and academic literature on prominent female patrons, such as Isabellad’Este and Catherine de’ Medici, and found one article describing Margaret of Austria’s collection at her court in Mechelen. I liked that she was relatively under-represented in the literature on female collectors; I felt as if I had more than enough academic literature to support my claims as well as the opportunity to contribute something of my own.

How did you develop your idea into a thesis topic?

After I had chosen my subject, I did a lot of research into what had already been written about Margaret and her collection to determine what my own angle would be. I also read previous master theses by students at Leiden to get a feeling of what was required from us in terms of structure, argumentation, and methodology. For me, it was also important to think about relevance; how would my thesis about a 16th-century collection contribute to academic discourse? This came from framing my research as an investigation into the differences between men’s and women’s collections and what purpose(s) they served their collector. Finally, a meeting with my supervisor at an early stage of the process helped me to define my research question and focus my attention to a topic that was both interesting and doable in the timeframe that we were given.

Did you experience any problems when choosing your topic?

Yes, quite a few, the main one being that I am writing about a Dutch historical figure, meaning that a lot of key literature is in Dutch (and I am not). Moreover, a lot of primary resources are in medieval French, such as inventories, letters, and court accounts. Any translation app can help you and you can often find dictionaries that help you translate older versions of a word online. Getting access to these documents in a time where archives and museums are closed, however, is extremely difficult and requires great Googling abilities. However, many professionals who work at these archives are often eager to help and your supervisor can also be a key resource in these situations.

Emma – MA Museums and Collections

My thesis topic is “Ethics and etiquette concerning human remains in the Dutch museum collections.”

My method for finding my topic was research and discussions with my peers in lectures. This specific topic came to me through a prolonged interest in human remains in the museum space, specifically those with a colonial history. That all started with a class assignment and accompanying literature. So, it's hard to say if there is a specific method as I enjoy finding research subjects through academic interactions.

How did I develop the idea into a topic? Through reading academic literature & opinions available and looking into what is available about it. Furthermore, my development included museum visits, looking into collections online, reading the mainstream news and opinion articles on the topic. I’m in luck that there are fellow academics with morbid interests that publish academic lectures on related topics online. To further develop it, I asked myself, close peers, and my supervisor specific questions on where to limit my research (I’m prone to go overboard). I have plenty of books filled with post-it notes to myself talking about if I should delve deeper into this topic in my thesis.

Were there problems when developing my topic? Most certainly! Foremost, I chose a taboo topic. Death and treating human remains are awkward subjects for many people, especially in Western cultures. So, I’m having to work with this and around it. This is a fun, but sometimes exhausting, challenge. The second issue is the restrictions due to COVID-19. My original plan to discuss my topic in connection to European collections got scaled back to just the Netherlands. That’s disappointing, as you can expect.

Chiara - MA Contemporary Art in a Global Perspective 

The title of my thesis is “Revisiting the relationship of humans and nature through biotech architecture". So, I look at the aesthetic, performative, and ethical characteristics of biotechnology as a design practice for architecture.

Did you have a particular method for finding and choosing your topic?

I already knew in which direction I wanted to go – which is biotechnology and environment – but I had no clue what really interests me. In the seminar, we were told to keep it very specific, so I thought a good way to do that was to first look for artworks that I like. I had a look at different museums I like online and looked through their current exhibitions. I found one that really intrigued me, which was about biodegradable objects with an environmental aesthetics. My advice would be to always stick to things that fascinate you, even if you have no idea where it could lead you; you can figure that out later.

How did you develop your idea into a thesis topic?

To be honest, it just sort of did on its own. I didn’t really look into a lot of research. Rather, Ilistened to interviews with and talks by the artists I picked my case study from and tried to find out what they want to convey with their art. Talking to my supervisor also really helped to bring my ideas into a more academic setting.

My problem was that I was so emotionally attached to the topic that I tended to generalise too much. I am all in favour of emotionality; I don’t regard it as a weakness of academic writing, but still, a differentiated perspective to your own opinion is very important and gives your topic a lot of depth. So, I had to really sit down again and rethink the statements I wanted to pose. Lastly, I had some difficulties with my case study. Because I found those two artists that really intrigued me, I was too focused on them but realised that to make a good argumentation, I needed more examples. So, even though departing from a case study, which really helped focus my topic, I think you should always think a little bit outside of this at the same time. It is a challenging balance between taking everything into consideration and focusing on the most important things.

Finally, a few other tips for master-thesis-writers-to-be:

  • Use a course or class that interested you as a starting point; what was something new you learned or something that you wished you had learned about?
  • Check the arts and culture sections in local, national, and international news; the news can be a great source to find current events influencing the art world and beyond.
  • Attend lectures or presentations about topics you have an interest in.
  • Your very first idea is unlikely to be your final idea, so try to branch out into other areas or read about subjects connected to your initial topic.

Hopefully, these testimonies help and inspire you to find your own topic and give you some ideas about how to go about it. Good luck!


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