How do I approach faculty for help to find a topic? (B. Zakarin 2011)

Contributor: B. Zakarin (History and Fellowships),
Posted 2011 -- Advice is linked to the History Dept's timeline for thesis proposals.

How to Approach Faculty for Help in Finding a Research Topic

You should feel both empowered to avail yourself of professors’ guidance and responsible for using their time constructively.

As a History major at Northwestern, you have access to faculty who are leaders in their fields of research and dedicated teachers and advisors.  Professors are eager to work with you on developing a thesis topic that will be the culmination of your education in the major.  This section offers tips for helping professors help you.  Keep this fundamental principle in mind: you should feel both empowered to avail yourself of professors’ guidance and responsible for using their time constructively.


Your goal for January-February is to identify a topic to research.  Students seeking admission to the Senior Thesis Program must exhibit the same entrepreneurial drive as professional historians: they are on a mission to locate sources that will shape their answers to burning questions.

The more independent effort you invest upfront, the more a professor can do to advance your cause.  Seeking advice is not the same thing as getting answers.  You have an independently defined goal so no one can give you the “right” answer and no one can dictate the precise steps required to achieve it.  Instead, professors (and librarians, archivists, etc.) will respond to what you present to them.  While professors have a list of paper assignments for their courses, they do not have a menu of thesis topics for potential advisees.  This is the main difference between a regular course and the Senior Thesis Program: you are engaging faculty as an independent scholar; there is no syllabus or paper prompt mediating the interaction.  Once you have taken the initiative to explore possible topics to research, seek guidance on possible next steps and new directions.

First, think about who can help you.  Make a list of faculty you know from coursework, major advising, or a research assistantship.  Also, look at the faculty page on the History Department website.  Review the teaching and research of faculty in your area of specialty.  Finally, browse the backgrounds of faculty who study different eras and places than you but perhaps share a thematic interest (e.g., women’s history, religion, law).  Who is knowledgeable about subjects that are related to a possible aspect of your thesis?

Second, set up a meeting.  In an e-mail, summarize the library legwork you have done and the most recent version of your research questions.  (The results of a self-diagnostic test will help if you are stuck.)  Before hitting “send,” think about the impression you want to make.  Even if you have taken a course with a professor, you are now reintroducing yourself as an independent researcher: indicate what you already know (perhaps in the easily readable format of a bibliography) and what you hope to learn (such as a set of research questions); and, ask if there is anything you should do in preparation for the meeting.  Do not be discouraged if a professor tells you to check out a book, dissertation, or journal article before coming to talk.  He/She does not expect you to be familiar with everything written on your emerging thesis topic—after all, you are still exploring options.

Third, prepare for the meeting.  “I want to do a thesis on early America” is not a good opening line for a productive exchange with a professor.  You should be able to offer far more specificity—that is why you do library legwork.  Even if you are not more committed to studying culture than politics, you can run database searches for “early America” and browse through results.  Use titles to get ideas for potential topics within the expansive category of “early America.”  Furthermore, you will feel more confident heading into a meeting if you have done some legwork and begun to consider fundamental questions: Why is this topic interesting to you?  What kinds of primary sources do you want to use?

Finally, remember that you have ample time to secure an advisor by March-April.  You do not need to end an initial conversation with, “So, will you be my advisor?”  Instead, follow up immediately on any advice, such as contacting an archive or checking out a book.  Doing so will advance the development of your research project, perhaps taking you in new directions that lead toward a different faculty member as a potential resource and prospective advisor.  Or, you may realize that this professor would be the best possible advisor and you can go back with a progress report to get more guidance and, perhaps, seal the deal.