How to select a thesis topic in wireless communications

Starting your degree 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. When pursuing a degree in wider telecoms or wireless communications, your thesis topic can play a crucial role in giving you a taste of your future jobs.

When choosing a thesis topic in wireless telecoms, start with the job market to understand the business problem, pick a topic aligned with your career goals, and do not choose a very mature topic. Think about the value the topic adds to your profile and vice versa, and manage your stakeholders well.

A thesis or dissertation is an essential milestone in pursuing your degree 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. A thesis provides you with a “provisional license” to practice working before your full-time job starts.

The topic needs to be aligned with your career goals

When the time comes for you to decide on a thesis topic, you are expected to have some knowledge of the industry specifics already through your degree programme. It is a good idea to have a view of what areas within your degree programme interest you more from a career perspective.

For example, suppose you find mobile wireless more enjoyable during your degree coursework than fixed wireless. In that case, you need a thesis topic that can help you get the opportunity to work with a mobile operator.

If you are doing a master’s degree, you are expected to be more specific because a master’s degree, i.e. MS or MSc, is a more specialised programme than a bachelor’s degree. Therefore, arguably, your master’s thesis topic is expected to be more specific than a bachelor’s thesis topic.

While you need to respect your passion and career goals, the thesis topic needs to be realistic enough so that you have a good chance of completing it in high quality. For example, if your passion is to become Head of Radio Networks at a mobile network operator (MNO), your realistic route to your career goals could be a topic that allows you to gain some entry-level experience within RF engineering.

Look at the job market to understand the business problem

The thesis topics that address practical business problems have the best chances of leading to potential job opportunities. The best way to identify business problems is through the job market in your field of study.

In wireless communications, the job opportunities within mobile and fixed wireless operators can help you identify what is in demand in the industry. As your first step, you can go to LinkedIn or any other job portal in your region and search for the ideal engineering jobs within the wireless and telecommunications industries.

Understanding the potential business challenges can take time if you are new to the job market, so do not rush. It may be good to do this in a relaxed way over a period of a few weeks if you have 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, suppose you’re doing a master’s degree in “Wireless Communications”. In addition, let’s assume that your job search concludes that the jobs that interest you the most within wireless communications are RF engineering jobs. In that case, you can look at the job descriptions to create a general list of responsibilities for RF engineering jobs.

When you look through the job descriptions in the RF engineering area, your list of responsibilities may include things like RF testing, antenna design, high-level system requirements, creating link budgets etc. You can also use the valuable input from your job search to note the business challenges the jobs you came across were addressing.

The business challenges or problems can help you think of the research areas, and the list of responsibilities can help you come up with a list of activities that can be carried out to address the business problems.

Do not choose a topic that is too mature or too futuristic

While you want to go for a research topic that deals with future challenges; you need to be careful not to select a topic that is too futuristic. On the other hand, if you choose a topic where a lot of research has already been done, the chances of you adding something new to the study may not be high.

If you choose an already mature topic, e.g. a research topic within 4G MIMO antennas in 2022, then it is likely that most of what you find may already be well documented. As a result, the research topic might help you learn about 4G MIMO, but it may not be beneficial to a telecom company expected to fund the research.

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 will be premature to select the antenna design for 6G networks as a thesis topic when 5G is still in its early days.

A research topic that deals with the short to mid-term future of an already-deployed technology can help you write a thesis that is more relevant to the job market. Using the same RF engineering example as earlier, a sensible thesis topic in 2022 may be one that deals with the evolution of 5G antenna technologies like Massive MIMO as opposed to a research area in 4G or 6G.

Think about the value you can add to the research

A thesis that solves a business problem is a valuable research topic for the company facilitating it. Within telecom companies, especially mobile operators, Research & Development (R&D) departments have allocated budgets to conduct technical or engineering research. These departments have engineering resources, and they have access to the research agencies that carry out the research for them.

As a student with little or no experience, you may find it a bit intimidating if a company already has a pool of resources to carry out the research for them. You may even have questions like, “Do they really need me?” or “Do I have enough knowledge to do the research?”. Of course, it is natural to have questions like these, but the good news is that companies need students.

The engineering teams within a telecom company are generally pretty busy, and the internal resources do not always have the spare capacity to focus on a research topic without some help. If the company looks for help from an external agency, it will always cost considerably more than hiring a student for a few months. As a student interested in doing research, that is your opportunity window.

Most research starts with desktop research or documentation review, where having a student with relevant background is helpful. The students work with internal resources who can provide the necessary guidance to ensure that the research is reliable and of high quality.

A passionate graduate student can use their intellectual prowess and learning skills to conduct a thorough study of the available research material, including whitepapers, online journals and manuals etc., to build the narrative in close collaboration with the experienced resources within the company.

Think about the value the topic can add to your profile

While it may be natural for you to think of the telecom company that acquires your research skills as the superior authority, it is vital that you also think about the value the research topic adds to your profile.

For example, if you are a student of wireless communications, a thesis topic on Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) may not be a great match, even if it is the quickest thesis opportunity you can find. Finding a relevant topic that matches your academic background gets the best out of you.

If you cannot find a thesis topic that matches your academic background perfectly, it is OK to broaden the scope of your search. Using the above example, a research topic on POTS may not be an excellent choice for a wireless communications student. However, since it is still part of the broader telecom industry, it can still be relevant.

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 only measure of success

Your thesis report is an important research paper that you need to complete your degree. However, the actual value of the research is based on your findings rather than how well-written your thesis report is. The completion of your degree relies on the thesis report, but your career after the degree benefits more from your research findings.

You need to follow your university guidelines to make sure you meet the criteria for the research, but it is important to focus more on the content than the cosmetics of the report. The real measure of success for a good thesis, like any research, is the value its outcome adds to the existing knowledge base.

For you professionally, a successful thesis needs to ensure that the outcome will be reusable while adding value to your profile (CV).

For example, suppose your thesis is on advanced antenna systems for 5G networks to determine whether a specific antenna configuration improves network throughput. In that case, the desired outcome for you may 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, 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 dissertation 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 applying theory within a lab or field environment.

Manage your stakeholders to your advantage

The final tip I have for you is to carefully manage your internal and external stakeholders. Internal stakeholders are people from your university, e.g. your advisor (teacher), while the external stakeholders are people from the company where you are conducting your research. If you are doing your thesis as a group of students, then the students in your group are also your internal stakeholders.

You want to avoid a situation where the decision-making for your thesis becomes more challenging due to any potential disagreements between internal and external stakeholders. For example, if the company wants you to spend a few days on field testing for an actual 5G antenna system, but your internal advisor is asking you to focus more on lab-based 5G antenna simulations for your report, you may find it hard to disagree with either of your stakeholders.

The best way to avoid any such conflicts is to plan the thesis well because most of the activities you carry out as part of your research will be based on the deadline for your thesis report. The lead times for the company will almost always be longer, so you need to plan as many useful professional activities within the available timeframe as possible.

If you have a choice, try to find an “easy-going” advisor from the university because you will have less flexibility at the company where things follow the norms of the business rather than what your university expects.

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 spread the workload, but there is a trade-off between that value and internal competition. If you cannot find a like-minded group of students, it is better to do it independently.

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