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How to Choose a Dissertation Topic

Exploring Dissertation Ideas

Research shows some graduate students take over two years to choose their topic — this does not have to be you.

Don't wait until you are finished with your qualifying or comprehensive exams. Start gathering ideas for your dissertation right away during your graduate courses. You will throw your graduate career into gridlock if you procrastinate in selecting your dissertation topic. Without a topic, you can't begin writing or defending the proposal phase. And more importantly, you can't begin researching or writing your dissertation without a topic.

Tips to Selecting Dissertation Topics

1. Don’t Panic — Keep Things in Perspective
Let’s face it, not too many people will read a dissertation. A dissertation is not the type of document that piques the general public’s interest mainly because of its academic rigor and writing style. The topic is generally of interest only to the student, experts in the field and the student’s advisor and committee members.

2. Be Organized — Maximize
In order to maximize your research efforts, you must be organized and efficient in your search efforts. The more organized you are in the beginning, the more time you will have to write your dissertation. Be diligent about keeping track of your files in the early phases of your research to reduce your stress levels later on when your enthusiasm begins to wane. If you have to back track on your research efforts, being organized from the beginning will help make the process less painful.

3. Choose a Subject Area First — Then a Dissertation Topic
The more information you consume in your broad subject area, the more patterns will emerge. In your coursework readings, you may notice repeated results and conclusions by more than one source, or facts that favor one view more than another. Paying attention to these patterns should help you become more conversant with the relevant literature as well as help you to narrow your focus. Narrowing your topic should be done with help from your advisor and committee members.

4. Consider Expanding a Masters Thesis Into a Dissertation
If you’re working towards a PhD and you wrote a dissertation, consider expanding on that topic for your dissertation. You already are familiar with the topic and much of the research is done. This approach can accelerate your progress towards your goal: Completion!

5. Make Sure The Topic Is Interesting
It is imperative that both you and your advisor are interested in your dissertation topic. Some advisors are reluctant to suggest topics because of the implicit responsibilities associated with guiding a student through the process from start to completion. Your advisor’s enthusiasm for your topic will determine his or her willingness to read, support, fund, and provide timely feedback and direction to your work.

6. Choose a Solvable And Manageable Research Problem
It is important to select a problem that is narrow enough that you can address it or solve it in a reasonable period of time. You should select a topic that can be completed within a two-year time frame.

A longer time frame could allow many unexpected and competing events to occur. If you find yourself spending an exorbitant amount of time pursuing and identifying a research problem, it is possible that the problem is not solvable.

With a longer time frame, you also run the risk of someone else identifying and solving the problem before you do. Hence, the concept of “original” contribution to the field is lost and you might have to start over. Moreover, you run the risk of your enthusiasm diminishing.

7. The Research Problem Must Be Worthy Of Your Time
Finding a topic that is compelling enough to sustain further research is critical. Employers evaluate potential employees based on the student’s ability to not only finish the dissertation but also make future contributions to the field.

choosing dissertation topics8. Make Your Research Topic Is Original - Has It Been Done Before?
The prerequisite for finding a new research topic is to be informed because most things have been studied before. Staying on top of the current debates in your academic field puts you in a position to identify the gaps in knowledge. After identifying the gaps, all you need to figure out is what kinds of information will fill these gaps.

9. Hone Your Research Skills
One way to evaluate your research skills and make sure they are up to par is to pursue a potential topic in your Research Methods or Statistics courses where you can get immediate feedback from an instructor. You can use these courses to work out potential problems in your methodology or your review of the literature; thus allowing you to work out any kinks earlier in your academic career rather than later.

10. As You Read — Ask the Following Questions.

  • What is the Research Question in the Study?
  • Did the Researcher Focus on the Wrong Group/subjects?
  • Did the Research Leave Some Group/Something Out?
  • Is the Methodology Faulty?
  • Were the Findings Faulty?
  • Can I Pursue the Author’s Recommendation for Future Research?
  • What Are the Limitations of the Study?

Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.

Thesis and Dissertation Hellp