How to choose a master’s thesis topic in telecom?

Starting your master’s programme is a big step irrespective of which field you are in, and it is easy to think that you are already on track for success because you have started your degree. But in the grand scheme of things, the start of your MS or MSc is just the beginning of a very long journey ahead. A master’s thesis or dissertation is an essential milestone in your master’s programme because it provides you with the opportunity to get as close to the industry as possible while still being a student. Once the student life is over, every day you spend between finishing your degree and finding a job adds to the pressure if you don’t have a job lined up. An MSc/MS thesis or dissertation provides you with a “provisional license” to practice working before your real job starts.

When choosing your telecom master’s thesis topic, start with the job market to understand demand, do not choose a very futuristic or very mature topic, pick a topic aligned with your career goals, think about the value the topic adds to your profile and vice versa, and manage your stakeholders well.

Topic needs to be aligned with your career goals

When you start your master’s programme in telecom engineering or an inter-related field, you are expected to have some experience or knowledge of the specifics of the industry. With that in mind, when your time comes to decide on a thesis topic, you need to have a clear view of how you see your career progression. For example, if you aspire to work for a satellite company in the RF department, choose a topic in satellite communications that allows you to learn that area. A master’s degree is a very specialised area, so do not be afraid to choose a very specific topic. Respect your passion, and do not underestimate yourself. However, make sure to have a realistic plan to achieve your passion. For example, if your passion is to become Head of Radio Networks at a mobile operator, your realistic route to your passion could be to look for a thesis topic that allows you to enter the radio department of a mobile operator.

Look at the job market to help you choose

Once you are clear on your career aspirations, it is time to get busy. Note down the date when you finish your master’s degree and do some market research to find out what the job market might be like when you complete your MS or MSc. As the first critical step, go on LinkedIn or any job portal and search for the ideal jobs you would like to do when you finish your degree. Do not rush and take your time because it is likely that every available job may interest you at first. It may be good to do this in a more casual and relaxed way over a period of a few weeks if you have the time. Once you have identified some relevant jobs that can potentially be your dream jobs for the future, it’s time to reverse engineer your plan of action.

For example, let’s suppose you’re doing a master’s degree in “Wireless Communications”, which is expected to complete by the end of 2022. Say you do your job search to get a feel for the job market, and you conclude that the ideal job for you may be an RF Engineer at a mobile operator. In that case, you can create a summary of the requirements for RF engineering jobs based on the job descriptions, which may include things like RF testing, antenna design, high-level system requirements, creating link budget etc. Then, you can use this valuable input to think of multiple research topics that allow you to perform as many of these tasks as possible but for a technology that will either be new or developing at the time when you finish your master’s degree (end of 2022). At this point, you want some candidate topics before you finalise so that you have some level of flexibility.

Do not choose a mature topic or technology

It is good to choose a topic that allows you to do as much new research as possible. If you select a topic that is already mature, then the likelihood of a telecommunications company investing their time and money into that topic will be very low. Using the same RF Engineer example as above, you could possibly choose a topic in antenna design for the 5G technology, e.g. Advanced Antenna Systems, for the end of 2022 timeframe. That would be sensible because 5G only launched in 2019, so it is expected that it may achieve a good penetration by 2022, which can lead to future enhancements, e.g. antenna configuration improvements (example only). It may not be wise to choose a 4G topic because 4G LTE technology is already mature and even though it is expected to grow, the potential employers may already have access to the necessary knowledge. On the other hand, you also want to avoid choosing a topic that is too futuristic. For example, if you are doing your research in 2022, it may be premature to choose the antenna design for 6G networks as a thesis topic.

Think about the value you can add to the research

A telecom master’s thesis is a technical research topic for telecom companies and can generally be funded by the Research and Development (R&D) budget, which is part of the Technology organisation. They have access to research teams as well as engineering resources which can be a bit intimidating for a master’s student who doesn’t possess much/any experience. It is natural to have questions like “Do they really need me?” or “Can they really not finish the job without me?”. If you have these questions, it’s OK because these are good questions. A telecom company is generally pretty busy, and it usually hires people for very specific tasks which keep the people occupied. The cost a company pays for an employee is at least 2.5 to 3 times their annual salary which they need to utilise well by making sure the resources are productive in their day-to-day job. When a new research topic comes, it is easier and cheaper for a company to hire a graduate or an intern who can spend some time doing the majority of the work with support from other company resources. When the work becomes substantial enough, the company can then allocate their main resources to proceed with the next steps. Since the engineering practices in the telecom industry are based on core telecommunications principles, academic knowledge plays a pivotal role in any new research. A passionate graduate student can use their intellectual prowess and learning skills to conduct a proper study of the existing research material, e.g. whitepapers, manuals, etc., to build new hypotheses by working together with the company’s experienced workforce. The gap between theory and reality can then be filed to conclude the research objectively.

Think about the value the topic can add to your profile

While it is crucial for you to be valuable to the company, you also need to think about what you get out of the research. Completing your thesis report is important, but that is not the only goal of the thesis. A master’s thesis is your license to enter a company in your field of study that can potentially become your future employer. Therefore, the aim of the game is for you to be able to use the gained experience to either explore opportunities within the company where you are doing your research or elsewhere. Either way, you need reusable experience that can help you find your next job. A thesis is also a great opportunity for you to work with many like-minded people who operate in the same industry as you and who can provide you with the guidance and support you need in progressing with your career.

Your thesis report is not the measure of success

Your master’s thesis report is an important research paper that you need for completing your master’s degree successfully. However, the real value of the research depends on your findings rather than just how well-written your thesis report is. While you need to follow the university guidelines to make sure you meet the criteria for the research, it is important to focus more on the content than the cosmetics of the report. The measure of success for a good thesis is if the outcome adds something to the knowledge that already exists. For you professionally, a successful thesis needs to ensure that the outcome will be reusable and will add value to your profile. For example, suppose your thesis is on advanced antenna systems for 5G networks to determine whether a specific antenna configuration can improve the data rates. In that case, the desired outcome for you can be the possibility to test different 5G antenna configurations within a lab or field environment on an actual 5G network. If your research achieves the desired results, then it’s a successful thesis, even if the report is not written in the best possible way. On the other hand, if your research thesis did not achieve the desired outcome, then even a very well-written thesis may not be of great value to you at a professional level. There is a clear difference between a theoretical thesis based on online research and a thesis that relies on the application of theory within a lab or field environment.

Manage your stakeholders to your advantage

The last tip I have for you is to manage your internal and external stakeholders carefully and adequately. Your stakeholders in a thesis are people like your university thesis advisor, the advisor/manager within the company where you do the thesis, any classmates who are part of your team for the thesis. You want to avoid a situation where you find it hard to manage these two crucial stakeholders in decision-making positions on your thesis. If, for whatever reason, there is a disagreement on any specific points between the two advisors, it can be hard as a student to decide on which direction to take. If you have a choice, try to find an advisor from the university you are comfortable with and who is most aligned with what you want to achieve in the thesis. This is an important step because if the research objectives are not aligned with what your university expects and what the company expects, there is room for potential disagreements. Also, if you are doing your thesis as a group rather than as an individual student, be mindful of any potential competition. There is value in doing a thesis project as a group to get multiple ideas, but there is a trade-off between that value and competition.

Conclusion

In summary, when choosing a master’s thesis topic in the telecom industry, follow the principles below:

  • The topic needs to be aligned with your career goals or aspirations
  • Look at the job market to help you choose
  • Do not choose a mature topic where there is little room for new research
  • Think about the tangible value you can add to the research
  • Think about the value the topic can add to your professional profile
  • Your thesis report is not the measure of success for your research
  • Manage your stakeholders to your advantage

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