Claiming Your Expertise: How to Choose a Dissertation Topic

This topic is close to my heart, because as a Ph.D. Candidate these are the crossroads that I currently find myself at. I’ve done a little research to save you the time, dear reader, and help you on your journey. However, lest I remind you that I am but a lowly Ph.D. Candidate, my unsolicited advice is best taken with a dash of salt and a hearty conversation with your advisor/reading committee members. Below, please find information broken down into three main categories: 1) things to know upfront before starting, 2) potential sources for “free” dissertation topics, and 3) criteria to evaluate topics selected. blog_zenith.png


Things to Know BEFORE Selecting a Topic 

  • Writing a good dissertation (so I’ve heard) will take longer than you expect. Always. Yes, seriously. Pick something you and your committee members are interested in!
  • For future academics, think of your dissertation as your stake in the ground, what do you want to be known for? What work could you build a career from?
  • A dissertation topic need-not be an earth-shattering contribution, but must be original and demonstrate a skill in research and argument
  • Consider categories of research such as conducting a replication study (changing a few variables or testing with new assumptions), conducting a meta-analysis, or literature synthesis
  • Be prepared to write about your topic to help crystallize and organize your thinking
  • For creatives, thrill-seekers, and strong-willed folks, seriously consider the potential for radically new intellectual directions. This path is not for the meek.

Potential Sources for Dissertation Topics 

  • Professional Interests – What energizes you? What are the career prospects for that topic?
  • Faculty/Colleagues/Ph.D. Students – Pay attention to what comes up in your conversations when you discuss your research? When is their interest piqued? What questions do they ask? What suggestions do they give?
  • Professional Journals – The “Future Work” section in these important journals are goldmines for up and coming research topics!
  • Librarians – Stanford has subject-matter specialists that can help you with unique and individual searches. Schedule a meeting with your school/department’s librarian and discover better ways to scan through online resources and determine good sources.
  • Previous Dissertations – Look into the dissertations and theses of former students’ from your advisor. Their “Future Work” section and experimental set-ups may be good places to consider. This can also be a source for a replication study. And at the very least, learn what a finished dissertation looks like so you can cast bounds around the project for yourself.
  • Oral Defenses – I have yet to attend one of these, but I’ve been to several practice defenses. Oral research presentations, in general, are a good for ideas about the types of questions that get asked of scholars and nuances to consider in your topic.
  • Conferences/Seminars/Course Syllabi – Conferences are an aggregate of experts, they’ll give talks, ask other scholars questions, and offer a good starting point for people to follow and sources to view. Syllabi for classes you really liked can also be great for references for books and articles to read. Also, consider talking to the professor about your research interests and asking for extra readings related to certain topics in the course material.

Criteria for Evaluating a Dissertation Topic

  • Will this hold your interest for a long time?
  • Is this project manageable in size?
  • Does it have the potential to make an original and significant contribution?
  • Is it doable within the timeframe and budget?
  • Can you get obtainable data?
  • Is there evidence that it has not yet been “significantly researched?”
  • Is it acceptable to your advisors and committee members? (more on selecting committee members later)

References:

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