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Selecting a thesis topic: A postgraduate's dilemma

1 Department of Psychiatry, Command Hospital (EC) Kolkata, West Bengal, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
3 Department of Psychiatry, Military Hospital, Pathankot, Punjab, India
4 Department of Psychiatry, D. Y. Patil Medical College, Dr. D. Y. Patil Vidyapeeth, Pimpri, Pune, Maharashtra, India
5 Department of Psychiatry, Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, Maharashtra, India
6 Department of Psychiatry, Command Hospital, Panchkula, Haryana, India

Date of Submission06-Apr-2022
Date of Acceptance19-Apr-2022
Date of Web Publication14-Sep-2022

Correspondence Address:
Rajiv K Saini,
Prof & HoD (Psychiatry) Command Hospital (Eastern Command), Kolkata - 700 027, West Bengal
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ipj.ipj_62_22


It is said that well begun is half done. Choosing a thesis topic and submitting a research protocol is an essential step in the life cycle of a postgraduate resident. National Medical Commission of India mandates that all postgraduate trainees must submit at least one original research work (dissertation), one oral paper, one poster, and one publication to be eligible for final year examination. It is the duty of the faculty to ensure that trainees take active interest and submit their theses on time. However, their journey is often marred by multiple challenges and hurdles. The literature was searched from year 2000 onwards till 2011 using Pubmed, ResearchGate, MEDLINE, and the Education Resources Information Centre databases with terms related to residency training, selecting thesis topic, challenges or hurdles, and conversion of thesis into journal article. Existing literature on the subject matter is sparse. Current article advocates promotion of ethical and original research during postgraduation and proposes a checklist for residents before submission of their proposals.

Keywords: Challenges, postgraduate training, protocol, publication, thesis, topic

How to cite this URL:
Saini RK, Issac M, Kumar K, Chaudhury S, Sharma R, Dangi A, Chail A. Selecting a thesis topic: A postgraduate's dilemma. Ind Psychiatry J [Epub ahead of print] [cited 2022 Nov 29]. Available from: https://www.industrialpsychiatry.org/preprintarticle.asp?id=355952

   Introduction Top

Residency is an extremely important period in the life cycle of a modern medical graduate. During this period, a resident learns to practice and acquire proficiency in a subject under guidance of a teacher. Along with acquiring new skills, it is also expected that they learn to critically analyze clinical scenarios and reach a rational conclusion. They are also expected to formulate and conduct original research which is submitted in form of a dissertation or thesis. Research work by a postgraduate should eventually translate into a scientific publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal, which helps in dissemination of thesis findings to the community and scientists. It is essential toward furthering medical knowledge, clinical practice, and the progression of science.[1] The National Medical Commission has stated the aims of completing this task as “Writing the thesis is aimed at contributing to the development of a spirit of inquiry, besides exposing the candidate to the techniques of research, critical analysis, acquaintance with the latest advances in medical science and the manner of identifying and consulting available literature.”[2]

   Choosing the Topic Top

The most intriguing question while conducting research is “How do I choose the right topic and will I be able to find the right answer?” Starting off with fire in the belly gives the best chance of seeing one's work through. So, it is important to choose something that entices one's mind and promises a gratifying result. Existing literature on the topic suggests that the journey of choosing the right topic is often marred by multiple challenges and dilemmas at various stages of this tumultuous journey. There are constraints of time, availability of resources, and support network.[3]

Therefore, students must remain open to suggestions from within and outside their minds. It is also important to allow the research area to simmer inside their mind for some time so that they can analyze various facets of the chosen area. It is at deeper layer of learning where higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation reside. This then justifies the longer period it takes to arrive at a meaningful thesis title as it represents the highest order of cognitive reasoning referred to as “create” stage.[2] Short of this, novice researchers operate at lower order and remain “copy-paste” type of researchers.[4]

Lord “Dhanwantri” also known Physician of Gods brought “Amrit” elixir of life after “Samudra Manthan,” which was the result of intensive deliberations.[5] A systematic stepwise approach for answering any research question offers the best chance of finding the right answer. Succeeding paragraphs in this article shall delve into an enriching scientific journey toward zeroing onto a suitable thesis title.

Area of interest

A journey into an area of one's interest is bound to be fulfilling. It is a good idea to review one's past works and experiences, which may be intriguing. A frank and one-to-one discussion with the guide further helps in unravelling novel ideas. Starting with an open and fertile mind promises novel ideas and helps to sustain long-term interest and enthusiasm.[6] Tendency to merely replicate similar studies should be avoided as they fail to ignite the zest for newer information.[7] Think about why you got into your field of study. Consider what you like to read about in your free time, especially things related to your field.

From general to specific

A dissertation topic in medicine needs to be captivating and must intrigue the reader to look closer into the research work.[8] At the outset, it is a good strategy to just define a broad area and a dissertation topic need not be very specific or restrictive. The defined general area must be studied thoroughly and all its facets analyzed in detail. Look for gaps in knowledge which offer an avenue for research. For example, while studying factors responsible for relapse in alcohol dependence, doing a research on employment status of the spouse may be a good idea as it may not have been studied as extensively as other factors. It is needless to say that the student must first be familiar with the disease and all the variables which define its long-term trajectory. Medical science is an evolving field. There are factors of significance that can crop up during course of the study. Therefore, some scope for minor modifications must be kept for unexpected spinoffs. Most of the institutional review board permit minor revision of the protocols though they adhere to their own standards to safeguard interests of the patients. Authors conducted a survey and found that out of 184 submitted, 96 (52%) received requests for minor revision of research protocols. The acceptance resulted in further refinements in research methodology and outcomes.[9] Therefore, while submitting any protocol, some scope for minor change with probable reasons must be endorsed so that there are no complications while submitting final draft. After discussion with the guide, a suitable title can be given to the research proposal. Selection of the title should be such that it reflects the gist of the whole research and must attract attention of the reader. The title has a long shelf life and may be the first (and many a times, also the only) part of an article that readers see or read. Based on their understanding of the title, readers decide if the article is relevant to them or not.[8]

Do not bite more than you can chew

The average time allotted for completion of the MD/MS/DNB thesis is 2 years. It may be further reduced due to administrative delays like allotment of thesis guides and selection of topic. It is safe to assume that it takes around 1 month to finalize and submit the protocol and 2 months to write, print, and submit the complete thesis. That leaves just around year and nine months for actual and adequate data collection. All these facts must be kept in mind to ensure genuineness of data.[10]

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush

Modern medical science thrives on multispecialty approach, and it is not uncommon that students may end up with a research topic involving more than one department or more than one facility of the institution. Studies conducted during Covid pandemic are perfect examples owing to multiple facets of the illness in terms of prevention, pathophysiology, and long-term sequele.[11] A realistic check for the available resources in terms of infrastructure, availability of study materials, and support from affiliated departments must be done before finalizing the research topic. It is highly unlikely that your thesis is the first or the last research work in a particular area. Negotiating with other department/institution to regularly avail their facilities is often challenging. It is because of the difference in timing, priorities, work culture, and administrative barriers. One way to deal with it is to have a co-guide from that facility/institution. Dissertation reviewers have noticed that students often select topics that become unmanageable during course of their study. It can lead to development of stress and uncertainty about findings at the time of analysis. It was found that institutional support in terms of guidance, access to other departments, and statistical guidance improved overall performance of students and led to timely submission of thesis for publication in journals.[12]

Avoid controversy

Getting into controversy during initial years of residency is bound to raise stress levels and may dissuade the worker from continuing the research work. Field of medicine is fast evolving on the wheels of technology. Moral and ethical boundaries are slowly getting blurred. Many a times, laws are not revised and many laws are land specific. Therefore, it is a sound practice to familiarize oneself with existing laws and to take care that they are not violated. Central Drug Standard and Control Organization is the regulatory authority responsible for clinical trial oversight, approval, and inspections in India. It functions under Director General of Health Servicesand part of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The information is available online on their website and it is updated regularly. It is a good idea to visit the website and familiarize oneself about the existing laws before undertaking any research work. The website also gives information about National Ethical Guidelines for biomedical and health research involving human participants. Similarly, informed consent needs to be spelt out quite clearly and should be devoid of incomplete information or concealment of vital health related information. It is now mandatory that all research proposals be vetted by institutional ethical committee prior to submission to the university.[13],[14],[15]

Conformation with national health policy

Young medical professionals can contribute immensely by their research designs and valuable inputs in ratifying existing health-related measures or to suggest further refinements. This concept must always be kept in mind while formulating any research designs. Researchers of today are planners for tomorrow and their work is reflection of their goal toward health of the nation. In a comprehensive report, it was found that merely 0.5% of the 4230 thesis citations were quoted in policy decision.[16] The figures may be even lower for this country. The figures are abysmal compared to the magnitude of the research undertaken in centers of higher learning. The success of National Iodine Deficiency Disorder Control Program in India owes credit to sound scientific inquiries beginning in 1956. Despite stiff opposition and cultural bias, the program gained strength and helped in significantly reducing burden of iodine deficiency disorders.[17] The findings led to significant policy change and legislation supporting sale of only iodized salt in the country.

Scope for publication

Any research work is considered futile if it does not reach the stage of publication in a reputed journal. A genuine research must eventually translate into a research article. It has become increasingly difficult to translate thesis into a scientific publication in an indexed journal due to stringent standards and peer review. In a retrospective analysis of 85 theses, it was found that the conversion rate to peer-reviewed publication was 32.5%. The most common reasons for not publishing were a lack of originality and poor design. The authors further encouraged publication of full length articles as it helped residents in long term.[18] Originality of research, sound methodology, and analysis of data besides cogency in manuscript writing have been defining factors that promote acceptance of an article in a reputed journal.[19] Lure of quick publishing in a predatory journal can be damaging in the long run. Young and inexperienced authors publishing in a predatory journal must be aware of the damage of their reputation, of inadequate peer-review processes and that these journals might get closed any time for variety of reasons. Such publishing harms the scientific community in the long run, and hence such an approach is best avoided.[20] It is prudent practice to check whether an intended journal is predatory or not from the https://predatoryjournals.com/journals/or Beall's list (https://beallslist.net/). Similarly, increasing the score by “salami” publication is unethical and should be avoided.

Familiarization with research methodology

Imagine you are gifted a do-it-yourself kit to build a plane which can fly. It is meant for an age group of 18 years or more and should take 1 h to assemble. It has all the wheels, gears, levers, motors, wires, motherboard, etc., required to assemble it into a functioning plane. The kit also has a manual. How long should it take to assemble? 60 min? Now imagine trying to assemble without the manual. It may be extremely difficult if not impossible to assemble the plane and is surely bound to take much longer. Research methodology is exactly like a manual for research. A major confounding factor in medical research is student's conceptual understanding and comfort level with research methodology.[21] Findings indicate that there were noticeable differences in perspectives regarding what constitutes research methodology and its utility at least during the first year of residency.[21] Familiarizing with basic research methods is now mandated for all the medical postgraduates before they submit their research proposals, and free certificate online courses are available on their website. Writing a thesis during MD/MS and DNB courses, without having a correct research methodology planning, is practically impossible. Some of the prominent causes of rejection of submitted manuscripts are poor methodology, small sample size, and poor statistical analysis.[22] Furthermore, postgraduate students choose research methodology based on a number of factors such as familiarity with a method, methodological orientation of the primary supervisor, the domain of study, and the nature of research problems pursued. Participants reported key challenges that they faced in understanding research methodology include framing research questions, understanding the theory or literature and its role in shaping research outcomes, and difficulties in performing data analysis.[23]

Motivation level of the researcher

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, former president of India, quoted that “Dream is not that you see in sleep but it is something that doesn't let you sleep.” No research work will reach its logical conclusion till the time a researcher has strong motivation to pursue it. Another factor that defines sustained interest in thesis topic is motivation. As described by David Langford, there exists a continuum from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.[24] Extrinsic motivation basically refers to a situation wherein the students are ordered (to study). As we move along this continuum, the quality of learning improves consistently with the maturing of the relationship between teacher and student. The culmination of the relationship occurs when the teacher becomes an enabler while the student becomes an active self-learner (intrinsic motivation). The process involves a definitive element of mentorship. In traditional Indian context, Gurukul envisages a firm and enduring relationship between “Guru” (teacher) and “Shishya” (student). Vedas in ancient times were combined with prepared commentaries in the form of “Upanisads.” The term upanisad refers to “Sitting down near a teacher in order to learn.” Though many students have inherent intrinsic motivation, a dynamic “Guru” can really shape the “Shishya.” Though the concept is old, it still remains relevant in modern times because learning medical practice is both art and science and best habits are still passed on to the next generation by trained and experienced teachers.[25]

   What can Help Postgraduate Thesis Selection? Top

The authors of this article put their minds together to devise a questionnaire that can act as a checklist for the residents before they actually submit their draft proposal for submission [Table 1]. The checklist contains 10 questions and the responses can be marked from strongly disagree to strongly agree on a five-point likert scale. The checklist can be self-administered and the responses will give an insight into the lacunae. The residents can gradually work on these lacunae so that they feel at ease during the fantastic journey of scientific research and publication.
Table 1: Postgraduate thesis topic selection questionnaire

Click here to view

   Conclusion Top

Choosing thesis topic and submitting the protocols is an important milestone in the career of a postgraduate resident. However, its importance cannot be undermined from the fact that it is usually the first scientific pursuit of a medical graduate. Challenges and hurdles are expected but can be overcome with sustained and systematic effort. The authors of this article reviewed the literature concerning this topic and found some key areas which a resident must familiarize with before finalizing their research topic. The postgraduate thesis selection questionnaire can further act as a checklist to facilitate the process.


Minds United for Health Sciences & Humanity Trust, IToP STEPS program grant for financial support and motivation.

Financial support and sponsorship

Minds United for Health Sciences & Humanity Trust, IToP STEPS program grant.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

   References Top

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