Choosing a dissertation topic often poses many challenges for postgraduate students. It could require more than simply selecting subject matter that intrigues you or that you think might impress your supervisor; rather, it may involve finding an area of research that could aligns with your abilities, research goals, and the state of the art in your field. As such, the selection process may be a critical part of writing a dissertation and could impact the success of your entire dissertation project.
An important key to choosing a dissertation topic that is both feasible and engaging is to understand that a topic isn’t so much an idea as a question. The goal of your dissertation isn’t to create a scholarly work about existing knowledge, it is to answer a question that is timely and relevant. Keep this in mind as you work through the steps that follow.
This comprehensive guide outlines steps for choosing a researchable and interesting doctoral dissertation topic and provides you with insights and factors to consider when choosing your dissertation topic. So, if you are ready to unlock the secrets of choosing a great dissertation topic, read on!
Overview of the steps for selecting a dissertation topic
Your first thought in choosing a research subject might be: I need to start brainstorming! But brainstorming without structure may not yield the types of topics that, ultimately, could lead to a quality dissertation. Instead, try implementing a more systematic approach to selecting your dissertation topic:
- Get a handle on the basics.
- Review previous dissertations.
- Identify your areas of interest.
- Conduct a literature review.
- Narrow down your topic options.
- Submit a proposal and receive approval of your dissertation topic.
Getting a Handle on the Basics
Before you start the ideation process, you take time to understand the requirements of your program. You also need to ensure that you have a firm grasp of the types of research and data analysis methodologies you may be implementing in your dissertation.
You are typically given a list of requirements to guide your dissertation writing. At a minimum, the requirements may provide minimum and maximum word count and deadline. But stricter requirements might also specify methodological conditions, tone (academic or professional), types of sources you may use, and whether you need to conduct fieldwork. You might save yourself lots of time and a boatload of frustration if you understand the dissertation guidelines of your department before you embark on your search for a topic.
If you feel unclear about any aspects of these requirements, now is the time to speak with your dissertation advisor.
Understanding the research process
You might think this step is unnecessary—after all, you may have worked on research projects in the past and taken extensive coursework in research practices. However, you might have stronger command of one practice over the other; or, your dissertation requirements might specify methodologies that you may not be as familiar with.
You wouldn’t start building a bridge if you were fuzzy on engineering protocols; and you shouldn’t dive into your dissertation without having command of the methodologies you may be using. At the least, you should understand the differences between quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods of research and have a firm grasp of data analysis methods.
Reviewing Past Dissertations
You’ll find a myriad of quality dissertations out there that could guide you in writing your own dissertation.
Past dissertations might serve as helpful examples and may give you a sense of what your own dissertation should look like. As you review other dissertations, pay attention to things such as extent of the bibliography, depth of the literature review, the types of research and data analysis methodologies, and salience of the results.
You might also use findings in those dissertations to spark your own questions. Check out the bibliography section for articles that might inspire further ideas of the types of topic you may want to write about.
Identifying Your Areas of Interest
It might seem obvious that your dissertation topic should be about something that interests you—after all, dissertations typically take time to complete, and you want to be engaged through the process. However, sometimes students may be tempted to choose a topic that is their supervisor’s passion and not their own. Writing about a topic you are lukewarm about could erode your motivation and might make a challenging process even more difficult.
When it comes to identifying your interests, think broadly. There may be subsets within a general area that you had little knowledge of or wouldn’t have thought of. In addition, limiting the breadth of your ideas could box you into a topic that has insufficient depth or opportunities for research.
Also consider past work you may have done. Were there any projects that particularly piqued your interest and that you excelled in? Were there some that you found tedious and unmotivating? Use these experiences to guide your exploration of topics.
Conducting a Literature Review
In a sense, you may have already started your literature review by exploring dissertations. Now, however, you could step it up a notch by focusing on journal articles and other scholarly works.
Importance of a literature review in dissertation topic selection
Conducting a literature review could be helpful in nailing down a feasible and relevant dissertation topic. In exploring the literature, you are not only looking for topic ideas—you are looking to understand two things: the current state of knowledge in a field and the “gap.”
The current state of knowledge refers to what is already known. What are the latest important discoveries? What kinds of questions are being asked? What types of research are being conducted? If you aren’t aware of the current state of the topics you have identified so far, your dissertation could wind up being outdated and unoriginal.
The “gap,” then, refers to what isn’t known. These are the kinds of things you may want to think about in selecting your dissertation focus. What research still needs to be done? What direction is the research going in? What questions still need to be answered? By focusing on the gap, you may help ensure that your dissertation is timely and worthwhile.
Where to start
Your literature review should be based on material that is timely and scholarly. Where do you find such material? Start with your college library. Academic librarians could assist you in crafting effective searches and help you tap into the interlibrary loan service (ILL), which allows libraries to borrow journal articles they don’t own.
Another good source could be reading lists from previous courses. Literature chosen by your professors is likely to be timely and informative. Review the lists and choose articles that may relate to the areas you want to explore.
In addition, there are a number of search engines that are geared toward finding scholarly articles. Some of these include:
- Google Scholar
- Google Books
- Microsoft Academic Search
- Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC)
- Virtual Learning Resources Center (VLRC)
- PubMed Central
Finally, once you find articles that align with your topics and standards, check the bibliography to discover further sources that could benefit your efforts.
Identifying topics from your literature review
As you review the literature, remember: You are looking to answer a question in your dissertation. Focus not only on the area of research in the literature but also on the questions the author was asking.
As you explore, organize the results of your search. When you find ideas that intrigue you, make a note of them—the topic area they fall into, the questions you might ask, and what the answers might contribute to the field. Make sure to cite the original source so you could go back again if you need to.
Check bibliographies for other articles that cover topics you are interested in. Many journal articles include a “Further Research” section, which could be a goldmine in providing you with ideas that are relevant and timely.
Take time to be thorough. Read carefully to ensure that you fully comprehend the information and are able to formulate questions to ask based on it. Consolidate any ideas that overlap or might be redundant.
Once you generate a list of questions, go back to the literature to make sure those questions haven’t already been answered.
Narrowing Down Your Topic Options
Narrowing down topics generally involves more than just choosing a few that might be more interesting than others. It’s time to assess the topics you identified as to whether they are plausible.
Evaluating the feasibility of a topic
Although the timeline for completing your dissertation may sometimes seem almost interminable, the reality is there is an end date, a deadline. Consider each topic you’ve made note of. How complex is it—would you have enough time to adequately discuss it and stay within your word count? How extensive would the research and data analysis have to be? Would you be delving into areas that you have little or no familiarity with?
Also take time to assess whether you might have the resources—and skills—to research and analyze data for each topic. What facilities are available to you? What types of research have you effectively done before? What types of research methods are of interest to you?
In sum, you could set yourself up for failure by being overly ambitious or not staying within your comfort zone and time constraints.
Identifying a researchable dissertation topic
Some topics may lend themselves to being researched—or to being researched further—while others may not. For each topic you are considering, ask yourself: Are the questions answerable through research—or even answerable at all?
Examine the scope and depth of each topic. Is there enough literature to draw from and enough existing data to build on? What types of research have already been conducted? Do the results of that research open up further questions?
Also consider the potential for research that could make an original contribution . This doesn’t necessarily mean that your results need to be groundbreaking—rather, they might clarify or put a new spin on previous findings.
Go back to the literature you noted during your review and revisit it with this question in mind: Does the research in this article contribute to an understanding of the field? Does the bibliography contain other research articles pertaining to the field? Are there questions that still need to be answered?
With all that you have gleaned in mind, bite the bullet and select a topic that covers the bases: feasible, researchable, engaging, and original.
Receiving Approval for Your Dissertation Topic
You typically will need to write a proposal for your topic and submit it to your supervisor. Then, assuming the proposal isn’t rejected point-blank, sit down with them and thoroughly discuss it. The feedback you receive could be important.
Discuss the criteria from the previous section. Does your advisor think your proposal is feasible? Is your topic researchable? Be open to criticism and try to learn from it.
You may need to revise your proposal based on your advisor’s feedback. If so, don’t feel discouraged—your goal is to generate a proposal that is robust, feasible, and original.
If there is one message you could take away from reading this article, it might be this: Don’t rush the process of working toward finding a dissertation topic. Take time to use the work of others to guide your search. Give yourself room to be thoughtful and creative. Anticipate the time the selection process might take and build it into your dissertation schedule. Remember that building on the work of others is not “cheating”—it may be one of the important components to guiding exploration and making new discoveries.
While writing a dissertation may seem daunting, using a rigorous approach to selecting a topic could make the process easier, help you avoid pitfalls, and contribute to your overall success.
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