Choosing a topic for your thesis

Some advice from the Master's committee at the Department of Economics.

What kind of thesis to write

There are three main categories:

  1. Empirical
  2. Theoretical
  3. Surveys

A mixture of all three is often a good choice. The thesis could e.g. write something about what we currently know about this problem, add a theoretical discussion suited for the smaller specific problem in question and discuss this in light of existing empirical evidence, perhaps using econometric methods.

If you choose a survey it should not be purely descriptive. Define you own perspective for the survey (otherwise there may be dozens of similar surveys already). Discuss and compare the different results in the literature. If different papers reach different conclusions, discuss why. Do not be afraid to take a stand in a question where different papers reach different conclusions, but make sure to argue your point.

What can I write about?

You can write about almost anything (There are published economic papers on the deadweight loss of Christmas (that receivers’ willingness to pay for a gift is less than the price paid), football players’ skills as randomizers and why it is hard to find a taxi when it is raining.) It is a good idea to choose something exiting, but this should also be something that is within the supervisor’s expertise and where the supervisor can provide help. One rule of thumb is that you can write about anything that is written about in economic journals. Choose a problem from your preferred topic and solve it using your preferred method. As long as economic theory or methods can be used to analyze the problem, it is fine.

Big and small problems

There is at least 100 000 man-years of economic research each year, and a master thesis can only add a very tiny bit to our knowledge It is still fine to write about the big problems: Why do we still have poverty, do economic incentives have an effect and what has economics to say about morally motivated behavior? But you should reformulate it to a smaller manageable problem; If you want to write about poverty, you may choose a problem like: has poverty increased or decreased over the last 20 years. To study incentives, a more narrowly defined problem could be a survey on the effects of penalties to reduce crime.

How to find ideas for suitable problems

You may get ideas from courses. Do the lectures or textbook trigger your curiosity about some topic? You may discuss them with the teacher or contact people at the department. Today’s newspaper may also give plenty of ideas for a thesis. For example, when this was written, Aftenposten reported that small local radios may be unable to afford DAB-broadcasting and may close if the FM-radio net is closed. Looking at the economics of FM versus digital broadcasting may be a topic for a thesis. reports that Real Madrid has increased their bid for Mesut Özil; what determines the price of foot ballplayers? report that an increasing number of public services in municipalities are bought from private providers; The consequences both in terms of cost and quality of services is debated in a larger literature, but maybe there is a special case you know of that can be subject to analysis? report that 170.000 tonne fresh seafood is dumped in the sea; what is the economics behind this practice and what instrument would reduce waste? These examples are all from today’s (August 16th) issue, and for all papers there are other stories that could have been chosen. If you have few ideas for a thesis, make it a habit to browse through the newspapers daily with a potential topic in mind.

Other good Places to start

  • You can also use the university library's excellent library page with resources in economics.
  • The Journal of Economic Perspective has good surveys on most topic. These are usually accessible also for non-experts in the field. (This journal is available electronically on the Library’s web pages)
  • Google has an special search engine for academic papers. Most of the papers you find there are immediately available for download. See:  Google scholar

Once you have settled on a topic you need to think about how to analyze it, what data to use etc. Often this may be a parallel process, that is: One topic may be fine if you have the data, but impossible to pursue if you lack data. Issues of appropriate methods and data availability are therefore also important for your choice of topic.


For a given topic you need to think about how to analyze it. If you have data, you may use econometric methods. Or you may look at some general observations, and search for explanations for these. The trend in extent of dumping of seafood may be analyzed econometrically with data, alternatively, you may ask why a profit maximizing firm dumps fish that could have been sold on the market. In the first case you need econometric methods, in the latter case you need microeconomic theory, and most likely some models of moral hazard. If you have no course in asymmetric information and it is not within the specialty of your supervisor, you should perhaps look for another topic.
Thus, specify how you will analyze your topic and make sure that it does not require skill you do not possess.


If you want to look at the economics of digital broadcasting versus FM, then at least some information of costs are required, and most project requires some information about the phenomena you want to analyze. For most empirical project, however, you need much more data. Unless you have formulated the topic with a particular dataset in mind, the data you need is most likely not available in the form you need. Availability of data is a crucial issue in formulating a topic for your thesis.

Status of knowledge

As pointed out above, there exists a huge amount of economic research. One of the reasons why we suggest defining smaller problems is that the big ones are surely analyzed already. But even for a small problem there us a status of knowledge. If you want to consider your local clubs trade with football-players; what do we know about the market for football players?

Note that a survey of a field may be a possible master-project. A complete survey of the relevant literature is thus beyond the scope of the plan. But you should do some literature search to make sure that no-one has already written about exactly your topic and that there is a hole in our status of knowledge that you can fill.

Moving on to the project plan

Once you have decided on topic, methods, data, and gotten an overview of the status of knowledge within the field, it is time to go ahead and write the project plan.

Published May 27, 2016 12:56 PM - Last modified May 30, 2016 10:19 AM