Choosing a dissertation topic is the first yet a one of the crucial dissertation writing step. Doing this well will help you obtain greater knowledge and build strong research skills while also laying down one of the foundations for your future career. It may seem like a daunting task, but if approached correctly it can be very rewarding.
A good starting point is to consider what drives you;
- what topics interest you enough that you could see yourself spending months on end working on them?
- What books do you read;
- what websites do you visit?
- Is it biographies of scientists, perhaps something more computational or technical like machine learning, or maybe Artificial Intelligence (AI) in general
- Maybe it’s an area like education or psychology that drives your passion.
Check whether you may have already conducted some research on a topic by reading articles and papers on the subject when doing your coursework.
Once you have decided on a potential dissertation topic there are three key factors to consider before committing yourself to conducting research in that particular field:
- the current state of knowledge within the discipline;
- whether the work is still open,
- how widely this is published;
It may be extremely exciting, to find out that no one has done the work in an area before, but it is important to realize that there may be very good reasons for this. Either because it is extremely difficult or perhaps not too many people are interested in the topic. It could also mean that you will need to undertake more preliminary research than usual.
Is the proposed dissertation topic is still open? If there are already several publications on the topic then you might consider working on something else, especially if it’s published by prominent professors or people who have been doing research in this field for a long time. Even though their publications might appear better than yours at first glance, remember that they can also contain mistakes and it is very difficult to prove something conclusively without fresh ideas and new approaches. It does not necessarily mean that you will definitely make a breakthrough, but the chances are higher. You may be able to make improvements or provide original contributions to their work based upon your own views of the subject.
How widely has proposed thesis topic been published?; is there a plethora of publications available or just a handful? While this in itself is not an indication that there’s anything wrong with your topic, if many people have done similar research then it can be extremely difficult to get papers published in journals and conferences because they don’t want multiple submissions on the same topic. Another indicator could be that when you look for sources on a particular topic, you find a limited number of papers and books that are often cited. This may mean that there’s a lack of new research being conducted within the field or that researchers have moved on to different topics.
With these three factors in mind, you can narrow down your list of potential dissertation topics until you find one that is exciting for both personal and scientific reasons. In some cases it will be difficult to obtain funding for projects on certain topics because even though they may seem interesting from a scientific point of view, their perceived practicality can be very low. It is important to bear this in mind as well. Running a marathon might sound extremely fun but unless you’re a professional athlete it would also require a huge amount of sacrifice not only for yourself but also your family and friends, who would have to give up time with you.
Once you have settled on the topic of your dissertation, it is of course important to commit yourself completely to conducting high quality research within that field.
However do not lose sight of the fact that life is more than just work; keep reading broadly, meet new people and maintain your relationships with those close to you. Your dissertation is not everything so enjoy this wonderful time in your life!
Why should I make my own choice?
The primary benefit is that you are less likely to leave out things which would have been included if you had made the decision yourself.
This is because your ideas and thoughts about what is interesting, relevant or important in your field are likely to be very different from those of other people. It also puts responsibility for the work squarely with you.
You can play an active role in developing the topic rather than just reacting to suggestions made by supervisors or by reading about research which others have done.
It allows you to produce a piece of work that reflects your interests and capabilities, rather than doing something because it has already been written up by someone else (which may not necessarily be within your main area of expertise).
How do I choose a topic for my dissertation?
There are several broad areas that you can consider when thinking about the topic of your dissertation:
- What interests me most at the moment?
- What has been neglected in my area of speciality or what needs further investigation?
- What will be important for future research in my field?
- Is there a gap between what is being done and what ought to be done next according to current knowledge, theories and practices. For example, could someone find it interesting that women have been forgotten or ignored entirely from studies into language learning strategies used by business people because this makes a good point for discussion? This also relates to questions such as, “what ought we to be asking at this point in time?”
- What do I want to know about the particular topic? The main thing is that you will be working on it for a long period of time. If there are aspects which interest you, even if others might not consider them significant, then write about them.
- Have I got sufficient knowledge or expertise to conduct research in this area? You don’t have to be an expert in every aspect but you should have enough specialist knowledge so that your study will add something new to existing knowledge rather than just being a review of what has already been written.
- How well developed are my research skills in terms of designing and carrying out studies? If they are not strong then it may be better to choose a topic that does not require collecting data and to concentrate on developing these skills.
- Do I know of any good sources of information about the topic? For example, it can be difficult to find out much about women in language learning strategies used by business people but people who have studied blogging will probably already know something about this because it is a relatively new phenomenon which has received increasing attention from researchers. If you are uncertain what your source materials might be like, ask friends and colleagues for their opinion.
- What would my supervisor or tutor think of the topic if I asked them? If they say that they don’t really understand it or that there isn’t enough literature available then you may need to think again. It is better to ask them at an early stage so that you can change or revise your topic if necessary.
- Is the topic of sufficient interest to others? Some people choose a topic because they find it interesting, personally relevant and manageable without being too time consuming. Other people take a more commercial approach and think about what is going to sell when they submit their dissertation for publication or discuss it at conferences. The advantage of taking this latter perspective is that you are less likely to overlook something important because it doesn’t fit in with your ideas about how things should be. The disadvantage is that other researchers may have already covered the ground which you would have been interested in exploring yourself. You will also need to consider whether there is an adequate number of journals who might be interested in publishing your work so you may have to think about cross-publication or wait until a new journal is launched which has an appropriate remit.
- How much time do I have available for the work? It would be pointless deciding to write on something that will take years of research unless you are planning on being unemployed for the foreseeable future! Even then it might not be possible because many institutions have deadlines by which dissertations must be completed. These can vary from 6 months to 3 years but some people don’t even manage to complete their dissertation within 4 years.
- Is there sufficient funding available? Almost everyone thinks that they can get financial support somewhere but this is frequently not the case especially if your department does not engage in consultancy activities or receive any funding from companies or government. If you are a good salesperson then it may be possible to persuade the finance department to allow you some money for travelling expenses but don’t count on this! Far better is to choose a topic which does not require extensive visits away from home.
- What do I want my supervisor’s reaction to be? In other words, is your topic likely to be of interest to them? You should try and find out what they have been doing recently and how long it will take them before they can start helping you with your dissertation. It doesn’t mean that there has to be a lot of overlap between their interests and yours but you should at least feel confident that they would not mind supervising your work. If your topic is not directly related to your supervisor’s research then you should discuss it with them beforehand. Many supervisors are happy to agree that their students can choose a different topic if they wish because this means that the student will be more committed to completing it successfully rather than abandoning it half way through when things get difficult.
- Look at the literature available on the subject, both for and against your idea; make sure you know who these people are. This will give you an idea of whether others may have similar ideas to yourself – if so, take note of any work done by these people, as well as by those who disagree with them/are critical of aspects of their work. Always read secondary sources carefully – primary researchers generally only refer back to other work in passing, concentrating instead on what they are saying themselves. Secondary sources will make you aware of the broad pattern of arguments and debates, often showing where there is consensus or controversy, as well as making you aware of slightly different arguments/shades of meaning; these subtle differences may be made clearer if you read both primary and secondary literature together (this will also help show the bias in any studies – e.g., What questions were asked? Who was interviewed?).
- Where do you want to work when you leave university? If you wish to be in academia (successful) or the media/civil service/helping professions (less successful), it may be better to choose a topic which will fit both these areas and industry. Industry PhDs seem to attract slightly less interest than those in academia – this may well change though as the number of academic vacancies decreases because of early retirement, etc.. However, industry jobs can be very well paid compared to academic posts, especially for postdocs who are not on permanent contracts. In addition, working for industry can give you a much wider range of skills, so it is worth thinking about this in advance.
- How much time and money do you want to spend on your PhD? It is usually easiest and cheapest to work in your university department – many universities still provide office space free or at reduced rates. Working in industry will probably involve buying your own computer and paying for all travel costs yourself, which by the end of a three-year project could add up to thousands! This may be worthwhile if you were going to buy such equipment anyway (e.g., when starting a new job) but not otherwise. Of course, there are hidden costs too: the whole process of applying for jobs and interviews takes up an enormous amount of time and emotional energy; many people find this difficult to cope with. It may be better therefore to leave such plans until after you have your PhD (this is certainly the advice you get from anyone who has been through it), or at least make sure that the topic is interesting enough for you to keep going even when there are no more interviews left to attend!
- Is it possible/easy for you to travel and work away from the university? If so, then working abroad, especially in a different country/culture can really give your project an extra dimension: you will see how other countries approach their problems differently, realise that other approaches are just as valid as yours, etc.. Working in industry overseas can also be very rewarding – you may have access to better facilities, or at least equipment which you would not be allowed to use in the university (e.g., mass spectrometers, centrifuges). On the other hand, if you are attached to your local pub/friends/family then working overseas might not be so good for you!
- Is there a research group that could help you with your work? This is especially important if your topic is interdisciplinary – it may well be that no one in your department does research on this area; it will save time and effort finding out if there are groups who do this kind of work already in another part of the university. It is also critical when writing up your project because you will need extra statistical or methodological help if your research is more difficult than usual. One useful way of finding such groups, or people who might be interested in your topic already is to go along and discuss it with current postgrads – they may know someone who can assist you, or at least point you towards the right person.
Tips when choosing a good dissertation topic
Stop wondering where to begin and check out these 12 tips of writing an interesting dissertation on any topic.
- First, narrow your topic down to your field of expertise. If you’re not sure what it is yet, be open-minded but set expectations for yourself by narrowing the scope of your research as much as possible (e.g., “I want to conduct research on this topic in general” vs “I want to focus on how this particular cultural group interprets this phenomenon.”) For example, let’s say I’m looking at second language acquisition; my first dissertation would probably look very different than someone who studies second language acquisition among Deaf students or immersion programs in Japan. I need a specific audience in mind because most degrees require a thesis that relates directly back to that sought-after degree.
- Be original. Don’t just rehash or replicate something already done by other researchers, especially if you want to make an impression on your first go around with research questions and methodologies! Steer clear of anything cliché like “time management” or “procrastination.” Keep in mind also that dissertation topics need not be very broad either (i.e., “sex roles” vs “the ways in which sex roles are perpetuated via technology”).
- Take advantage of expertise within the department to find out what professors are working on before coming up with a topic for yourself. Ask around about recent dissertations completed as well as research currently underway, looking for patterns throughout the range of options. Visit the faculty page and related departmental pages on your university’s site to see what lines of research are happening in the program. This is a good way to get an idea of what you could add value to or distinguish yourself from.
- Mind your methodology! As much as possible, your dissertation should relate back to your chosen field so do some research beforehand if you can’t remember which methodologies fall under which fields (e.g., when I think “qualitative” or “quantitative” I think methodologies not fields). As long as it fits with the topic, of course. “Methodology” encompasses everything from levels of measurement (i.e., qualitative vs quantitative) to data collection tools (observation vs interview) to the type of analysis (descriptive vs interpretive).
- After selecting your topic, check out related research in journals, books and dissertations for an idea of the literature. This is helpful to get a feel for not just what topics are currently being studied but also how you might contribute to this body of knowledge even further. If you’re feeling intimidated at any point then that’s probably a good sign it might be too broad! Start narrowing 😉
- Review dissertations completed within your department over the last few years so you can see if anyone has already done something similar or complementary to your own project. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when all roads lead back to Rome.
- Talk to your professors about possible dissertation topics. Get their input and ask what you might do to make the topic more unique before settling on it. If someone has done something similar in the past, chances are they can tell you honestly whether or not it’s worth pursuing given your resources (time, money, other students’ interests). While this approach may take longer than simply thinking up something on your own, you will save yourself a lot of time later on down the road if any red flags pop up through conversations with faculty who know the field better than anyone else.
- You don’t need to find just one answer! There could be multiple themes running throughout the thesis that hopefully come together in some way by the end of it all. Your thesis might also have one main overarching question with sub questions throughout the process. This is especially important if you’re planning to go on for further studies or research since it will allow you to investigate these topics more in-depth without having to turn your thesis into a book.
- Think of possible titles for your project beforehand so you can get an idea of what might represent it most accurately/effectively via words alone, even before doing any actual writing. This may not be necessary but I found that thinking about different possibilities helped me decide upon something I was actually happy with eventually, so why not give yourself lots of extra time? Titles should be catchy and interesting but also informative about the content involved…the name should stick out while at the same time describing all of the exciting things you will be doing.
- Check with your professor about their preferred length for a dissertation so you can gauge how much writing might be involved. Most professors prefer something between 80-200 pages but it varies according to research field, institution and instructor preference. As long as your dissertation truly fills the standards of the program itself then there’s no need to follow anyone else’s guidelines exactly since grad programs are all different! Be aware that dissertations written in languages other than English might have specific requirements involving font size, page numbering etc. My research is not in English so I had some trouble finding this info online but my university does have clear guidelines on its site regarding formatting expectations (submitted work must be done on A4 paper and have a certain number of lines per page etc).
- Think about who your dissertation will be targeted towards as well as what type of language might be appropriate for that demographic. Not all dissertations are written for general audiences outside the university so you may need to change the way in which you speak accordingly (and hopefully not dumb anything down too much). Consider your readership when writing any project, not just the dissertation.
- Review structure and formatting: Review successful dissertations written by others in your department or other faculty members at your university to see how they were formatted and structured, then ask if it’s okay to replicate their layout/style/tone etc. Generally you’ll want completely unique but there’s nothing wrong with mimicking styles if it means you’ll save time for other important matters (like writing the actual content!).
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