Getting started on selecting a master’s degree thesis

Airport art installation

My N512 class, Trends in Informatics, centers around the question: What do you want to be working on for the next 20-30 years? It’s a novel but necessary idea that RIGHT NOW, we have to identify our deep interests to avoid any wasteful false starts on the career for which, in pursuit of this master’s degree, we have committed two years of our lives and thousands of dollars. Let’s get our money’s worth!

But what are MY deep interests? Where’s my research going to focus? What can I sustain the energy and enthusiasm to work on well into the year 2035? How can I start laying the foundations for a productive and satisfying career?

Judging from my conversations with classmates, I’m not alone in wondering how to go about finding my master’s degree thesis topic … or perhaps, topics for my dissertation and topics that will lead to getting a job as a young faculty member.

But Prof. Steve Mannheimer, Prof. Sara Anne Hook, Prof. Edgar Huang and other faculty at IUPUI have given me some ideas. Based on my talks with them and my own thinking, here are some suggestions:

  • Your personal statement. C’mon, you had to say SOMETHING in your application for admission to graduate school about why you want to be here and what’s driving your need for the degree. That might still hold true.
  • Your early life. What did your parents do? What are your most profound memories of childhood and of school? Who were the three adults who you remember having the greatest impact on your life, and why? What’s the event that had the biggest impact on your life? It’s no coincidence to me, for instance, that I try to look for ways to combine communication and logistics technology, given that I’m the child of an English teacher and a CPA who specializes in process management.
  • Your reading. Flip through periodicals, surf the Web, browse interesting social media accounts. Something will grab your eye. What’s the kernel of that idea, that you can expand in your chosen discipline?
  • Google “topic you enjoyed working on in the past” OR “topic I’m just crazy-fascinated by” AND “your newly chosen field of study.” Several teachers have told me that by combining different search terms, some of which you’re well-versed in but others which you want to know more about, you might hit on an area for research that not many have worked on before you. To identify your deep interests, you could try looking for intersections between what you already have worked on or something that’s really sparked your fancy and your new academic area — or even related fields you’re not studying per se but which have affinities with your chosen field. Identifying something even as fanciful as “pet telepathy” could spool out many fruitful lines of inquiry upon which to base a research career on.
  • Career counseling. A few years back, I consulted a psychologist who specializes in helping people (usually, teenagers) figure out what jobs they’d like best and do best at. For a few hundred dollars, he gave me a battery of multiple-choice tests and surveys to fill out, and then met me (for the first time) for a one-hour session in which he delivered his idea based on my unique answers for what I might enjoy most. Now, I’m not exactly studying “human geography,” which was his specific recommendation for me, but it started my brain thinking about more ideas for what exactly THAT can mean based on my resume and life skills to this point.

For my part, here’s where my thinking is at right now:

Our discussion in class about whether we have a sense of vocation or calling — and I do; though mine was to be a print journalist originally and that’s no longer an option — harkened me back to the first line of my Personal Statement: “My fascination with how people and technology connect is a life passion.”

Thinking back to how I was brought up, in what surroundings, with my parents and friends and teachers, I can see the early events and people in my life who helped shape this life passion of mine. I was lucky to grow up among the first generation to enjoy personal computers at home and school: playing Oregon Trail, programming in BASIC, firing up my neighbors’ first-generation Macintosh.

This culminated with a moment I’ll always remember in the mid-1990s. I vividly recall my first weekend as an undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, when I encountered the Internet in a computer lab and phoned back to my parents: “I’ve seen something that’s going to change everything.”

It really did. Today, I’ve evolved into a completely Internet-focused journalist. My work as a blogger, social media editor and engagement producer was certainly something that neither I nor my print journalism professors during undergraduate work envisioned, nor was it on the radar of any deep thinker about media in the age of the then-emerging World Wide Web — well, maybe with the exception of MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte.

But if I’ve learned anything from the last 20 years, it’s that even my current skills and expertise could prove to have a short shelf life. Here’s what I’m interested in exploring for the next 20 and beyond:

  • What new technologies are coming online that will (further) disrupt the industry of digital media and how we share information in our democracy? And what older, physical, traditional forms of communication, journalism, research and learning are worth ensuring survive?
  • What’s the next virtual communication space or territory beyond the Internet and the “Internet of Things”?
  • How do we help people better weigh and protect the accuracy, fairness and context of what’s spewing out of the information firehose? What new types of personal information, such as biometrics, will challenge our standards?
  • How do we foster a creative and learning environment for participants in digital media? Thinking of educational strategies in particular in this testing-mad age, but also taking lessons from my experience of meditation practice about how to concentrate focus and encouraging the skill of thinking about a dilemma without falling back to dry cognition. There may be a technological intervention that can help reinforce personal habits and practices.
  • Corollary: How do we protect individual rights to intellectual property as our learning, sharing and collaborating environments become increasingly networked and “mashed up”? Does the concept of copyright, intellectual property, privacy morph or die out? How do our legal frameworks keep pace with our changing values in a digital age?
  • We’ve grown proficient at video, image memes, documentary photography. What about for audiences who are blind or visually impaired? What does journalistic communication and education mean for those who can’t see? What does the future of auditory communication involve? What new semantic forms evolve? Are there differences in perception and cognition to take into account? What is the optimal platform or platforms for flexible use and wide adoption? What about engaging other senses – touch journalism? Smell journalism?

This is a lot to mull over, but a good starting point. I’ve got a whole semester to think about it!



Author: Cori

Cori Faklaris (aka "HeyCori") is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Department of Software and Information Systems, College of Computing. Faklaris received her PhD in human-computer interaction in 2022 from Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, School of Computer Science, in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. She also is a social media expert and longtime journalist, and/or "Doer of Things No One Else Wants to Do."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.