Graduate students write dissertations in order to graduate as doctors in their fields. Dissertations are both an early research project designed to produce a book-length monograph, as well as a sort of rehearsal for your future research projects. Choosing a topic for your dissertation requires you to pay close attention to your adviser, your field and most importantly yourself.
Consider Your Long-Term Goals
Get comfortable with the idea that whatever topic you choose is going to be with you for a long time. Minimally, your dissertation will take one to two years to complete, including countless research hours dedicated to developing expertise of your chosen topic. By the end of the process, you will be one of a handful of experts on whatever topic your dissertation focuses on. Consequently, your dissertation topic should be one that excites you and will continue to excite you for upwards of five to 10 years. It also should be a research topic with which you should be proud to be considered an expert.
Follow Your Adviser's Lead
In some situations, your dissertation adviser may present you with a choice of several different research topics. This typically happens in the hard sciences such as biology and chemistry in which doctoral students help conduct research on topics close to the advising professor’s interests. For example, if your adviser researches the effect of diet on people with diabetes, she might recommend that you write a dissertation focusing on different types of diets, how diabetes patients cope with the disease, or some other related topic.
Follow the Field's Lead
Scholars often point to different potential research projects in their research publications. This happens when a scholar recognizes the limitations of their own research project, but can see how that project could be extended. For example, in his book "The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935" James D. Anderson states that historians should complete a detailed examination of slave literacy. In her book "Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom" Heather Williams responds to Anderson's call and provides just such an examination. These potential research extension projects often can make excellent dissertation topics, as they simultaneously build on prior research in your field and push the research in that field into new and uncharted territory.
Turn Interests into Questions
Many dissertations begin as a simple desire to know more about an interesting topic. Make a note of all different topics in your field that interest you, starting with the ones that inspired you to enter the field in the first place. For example, famed biologist EO Wilson claims that when he was a boy he loved to collect ants in his backyard. This juvenile interest eventually caused Wilson to wonder how ants communicate with each other. This simple question prompted Wilson's dissertation research at Harvard which led to him discovering that ants communicate using pheromones. When you write freely on these topics, asking questions and making connections, you can slowly but surely winnow down your thinking from general interest to specific research program.
- Stanford University: Center for Teaching and Learning: How Does One Choose a Dissertation Topic
- Claremont Graduate University Writing Center: Choosing a Topic
- Academic Coaching & Writing: How to Choose a Dissertation Topic
- University of North Carolina Press: The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935: James D. Anderson
- University of North Carolina Press: Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom: Heather Andrea Williams
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