Choosing a topic

Selecting a topic is the first and perhaps most important step in writing a research paper.

One of the better ways to choose a topic is to review material you have already studied to discover what unanswered questions you are interested in pursuing. Your professor can help you develop sound topics, ones that are sufficiently narrow so they can be tackled and sufficiently broad so that they are interesting. A list of past economics theses is available from your advisor. You may get ideas of what constitutes a successful thesis by looking at some of them. They can be borrowed by asking your advisor.

For a thesis, a good starting point might be found in a term paper or project you have completed in an upper level course. Most theses fall into one of the following categories: empirical research, library research, and an original theoretical presentation.

  1. Empirical research focuses on testing one or more specific hypotheses. You may want to pursue a topic you have written about for a 300-level course. There may be many issues, both theoretical and empirical which could be explored more fully. Alternatively, you may be interested in determining whether the empirical results found in one of your 300-level course readings can be supported using more recent data. For example, one article reported that in the 1970s investment was significantly related to changes in sales, but not profits; did this relationship still hold after 1980?
  2. Library research involves a review and creative integration of available literature, directed towards a specific question you are trying to answer on the basis of published materials. The focus should be on the present state of knowledge in a particular area, any apparent contradictions in empirical findings, and areas where more work is needed. For this type of thesis, review articles in the Journal of Economic Literature and the Journal of Economic Perspectives are most useful.
  3. An original theoretical presentation is a well-reasoned set of propositions which provides a more accurate description of economic relationships than is available from existing theories. You may find it useful to draw upon courses in other departments for ideas that might make economic theories more useful and timely.


Seniors sometimes wish to write on a topic that, although interesting and important, is in an area in which they have not taken any courses (e.g., economics of the arts). Consequently, they must spend a considerable amount of time learning about the field before they can begin to apply analytical skills acquired in economics courses to the question at hand. If you choose to undertake research in an unfamiliar area, preparatory work during the preceding summer or semester is essential.

A term paper topic is normally more modest than a thesis topic. Nevertheless, it should have economic substance, a unifying hypothesis and analytical content. It should not just be a collection of loosely related ideas and facts.