Choosing a Topic

Choosing a topic poses a major obstacle for many students in the dissertation writing process. Some proactive ways to select a topic follow.

1. Develop a topic that has interested you throughout your graduate or undergraduate career.

For some people this is obvious. Some graduate students come to graduate school knowing exactly whom they want to work with and what they want to write about. For others, graduate school is part of the process of exploring. Many graduate students do not know their precise dissertation topic until after qualifying exams. It may help to look for your patterns of interest. Make a list of classes you have taken as an undergraduate and graduate student. Look at the seminar papers you have written. Make a list of your favorite texts and authors. Make a list of things you like to read or think about. What patterns emerge? What topics and questions have continually interested you? Look for ways to connect seemingly disparate topics.

Start a file of topics that interest you. If you begin early in your graduate career, you’ll have a jump-start on choosing a dissertation topic. If you’re reading this because you are now at the dissertation stage of your graduate career, a file can still be useful if you include ideas for later projects.

Most importantly, think about where you want to enter the conversation in your field. Few dissertations actually shift paradigms in their field. What you are looking for is a way to join and contribute to the conversation. You must decide with whom and around which topics you want to enter the scholarly conversation. (Thank you, Carol Ellis, Ph.D., for this bit of wisdom.)

2. Think about the top three issues you want to study and turn them into questions.

Sometimes we know the broad topic we want to write about, but need help getting an angle or determining the research questions we want to assess. Conduct brainstorming or free-writing exercises. Write as much as you can for ten to fifteen minutes on a topic. Include all questions and comments you can think of. Don’t worry about grammar and word choice. What you are aiming for is output of ideas. Do this several days in a row on one topic or on many. Then, go back and see what you’ve created. Do any of your ideas seem like promising topics? Discuss them with colleagues, professors, or writing consultants. Can any be turned into workable research questions for a dissertation proposal?

Similarly, you may think about your top three issues and search for intersections between two or all three of those issues. This is often a fruitful path for dissertation writers to pursue.

3. Look for what other scholars say needs more study and conduct preliminary research.

Preliminary research has probably been crucial to all the projects you have conducted in graduate school. You must of course find out what other scholars have said on a topic. Then, you can begin to determine if the topic is exciting enough to you to grab your attention for a few years. Then, decide where you can enter the conversation. A colleague of mine found that she had to narrow her topic because she had selected two nineteenth-century women authors to write about, but found herself engrossed by one and avoiding the other. Preliminary reading can, thus, awaken you to your own passions and interests. As they say in the work world, “Work at a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Look at class notes; professors may have pointed out potential research topics or commented on unanswered questions in the field.

Similarly, scholars often comment on areas that have not been sufficiently researched in their own monographs. They deflect criticism from their study at hand by noting that certain research ought to be completed. This is often a signal that research on a given idea is ripe for study.

Talk with professors or advisors about possible topics. Many professors are forthcoming with ideas for entire dissertations or for angles on a given issue. Talk to your professors early in your graduate career so that they know your interests. As you are making your final selection of a topic, talk to as many scholars as you can and you will get needed input into framing your research questions.

Pay attention to calls for papers. The issues that conference committees ask presenters to address can often key you into trends in the field. So read these for potential topics or an angle on one you’re considering.

Similarly, peruse grant offers. Be sure you are still focusing on something that interests you, but grant offers can key you into fields with interested audiences.

Finally, become acquainted with what’s available in special collections in your area. Your professors may be able to guide you to material that a previous scholar came upon but didn’t investigate as thoroughly as one might.

4. Replicate somebody else's study.

Sometimes older, classic studies can be reexamined in a new context or with a more current methodology. But be careful not to enter into a debate that has long been resolved.

Tales of Caution


Keep the following cautions in mind as you seek the dissertation topic that will spark your passion for scholarship in the years to come:

1. Choose a topic you are passionate about, but also keep in mind your viability in the job market. 

Get feedback on potential topics from your advisor; your topic may not interest others in the field as much as it interests you. This matters because if you are trying to enter the scholarly conversation, you need people with whom to converse. You probably also want a job when you graduate. Think about whether journals and academic presses publish work similar to yours and whether like topics are receiving attention at conferences. Don’t burden yourself with thinking of your project as a book right now, but do pay attention to trends in scholarship, to what fields are hiring, and to what key issues are being developed.

2. Do research to discover why your topic has not been studied before. 

It is possible that the topic you’ve chosen hasn’t been researched because no sources are available or potential interviewees are inaccessible. Although these issues may not stop a determined scholar from getting to the bottom of an academic mystery, realistically, if renowned scholars have attempted and been unsuccessful with a given topic, you may want to wait a few years before undertaking your masterpiece.

3. Choose a do-able topic. 

Be honest with yourself about the scope of your project. If you do not have ten years to dedicate to a given project, make sure you choose one that will take less time.

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