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How to Identify a Thesis Topic

Although a few students begin the concentration with a clear focus and plans for their thesis direction, many at first seem overwhelmed by the task of narrowing their interests enough to select a topic. Successful topics have been discovered in an amazing variety of ways. Early in the second semester, representatives of community groups will attend the Center 's Thesis Fair, and will suggest topics of interest to their groups. Working on a topic suggested by a community group usually provides a broader audience for your thesis. Also, after you have defined your general area of interest, ES faculty are often able to suggest a contemporary problems in their areas of interest. Regular and careful reading of the Providence Journal or the New York Times, conversations with professionals or volunteers actively working on environmental problems, further investigation of issues encountered in course work, scanning environmental journals, regular attendance at seminars or other environmental meetings and conversations with colleagues and faculty members have proven to be productive ways to identify possible thesis topics. Environmental Science theses must have a primary science focus involving laboratory or field work or quantitative modeling and it must have environmental policy implications or a broad environmental relevance.

Perhaps most importantly, plan to assist a current thesis writer as a thesis buddy during the semester before you must file your thesis proposal (i.e. buddy-up in your fifth semester if you will file your plan in the sixth). You will observe how a thesis topic is refined and attend meetings of your thesis buddy with her/his faculty advisor. You will notice that there are different approaches to thesis definition (e.g. focus on a Central Question, or identify a Burning Issue). This is a valuable and relatively painless introduction to the thesis process.

When you have been able, in one manner or another to identify a tentative topic (or topics), discussions with your peers and potential thesis advisors may help you to clarify your ideas. You may, in addition, wish to look at the theses that we have in the Center Library but you should keep in mind that many of the authors of these works, before beginning research, would not have thought themselves capable of the final result. Abstracts of theses produced in the past several years can be found on the Center's Webpage.

The process of selection and focus may take several weeks or months and to allow time for thoughtful contemplation, preparation should begin well before thesis work is to start. Recent graduates offer two pieces of advice: that the thesis should be begun at the earliest possible moment and that every effort should be made to attend the thesis seminars. You should propose a thesis topic no later than the third week of your sixth semester. In order to do this, you should begin informal discussions with ES faculty in your fifth semester.