Choosing the topic for your thesis or dissertation can be stressful. Many students begin wondering what sort of topic will appeal to a review committee, and more importantly, to future hiring committees. Some panic; others feel stress. Many simply sit back, scratch their heads, and express confusion over the whole process.
“Most students have a difficult time visualizing a doctoral dissertation (or master’s thesis),” write Gordon Bitter Davis and Clyde Alvin Parker in Writing the Doctoral Dissertation. “The discussion of contribution to knowledge and scope of topic seems abstract at first.”
However, there are several useful tips to keep in mind to help you choose an engaging thesis or dissertation topic with a minimum of stress, sweat, and pain.
TIP 1: Read others’ dissertations (or theses)
Nothing succeeds like success. Go to your university library (in person or via the online database), and read recent theses or dissertations in your field. This will give you a feel for the type of work that’s been done as well as the types of topics that are successful. Inspiration may strike you as you review previous work and start generating ideas about what you can do better. Your selection of readings should include award-winning dissertations from your own and other universities, and any that your faculty advisor suggests as being of special relevance.
TIP 2: Choose a topic you are passionate about!
The thesis or dissertation is the largest and most complex document you will write in your academic career. You will spend months, or possibly years working on it. You will live, breathe, eat, and sleep it. You don’t want to spend that much time and effort working on a topic you hate. Not only will you become disgruntled and resentful, you also won’t put in your best effort if you don’t feel passionately for the work you are doing. You should work to choose a topic that is both interesting to you and also of scholarly significance.
“When people choose a dissertation topic that is related in some way to their personal experience, they are more likely to finish the job,” writes Jacob Bacot on Read Articles Now. “A surprising number of doctoral students never actually finish their dissertation and therefore do not get their PhD.”
TIP 3: Pick a topic that will aid your career
This tip requires a little bit of forethought. After you receive your degree, you will be moving into the world of academia where the rule is to publish or perish. If you choose a topic that can be easily revised into a book or journal articles, you’ve made your transition to academic employment that much easier. If you are pursuing a path in teaching, choosing a topic that is relevant to the area you want to teach in is always helpful. If academia isn’t your chosen profession, then you should select a topic that is relevant to the industry you hope to work in, making you more marketable as an emerging expert in the field.
TIP 4: Be unique—but not too unique!
Your topic should be an original contribution to scholarly knowledge, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a completely brand new idea. Instead, you should work to build on and expand upon previously established theory, and carve out a unique niche for yourself in the scholarly community. The goal here isn’t to revolutionize the world in a dissertation but instead to establish that you are a careful and thorough researcher with strong analytical skills.
In addition to these tips, there are also a few things to avoid in order to make sure your thesis or dissertation topic doesn’t end up hurting more than helping.
- AVOID controversial topics unless you are truly prepared
A controversial topic might seem like an easy ticket to an engaging dissertation; however, controversial topics are controversial because a large number of people will disagree with whichever position you defend. Be extremely careful in choosing controversial issues, since your position might negatively impact future publishing, tenure, or employment opportunities.
- AVOID completely new (to you) topics
While original research is the lifeblood of academia, you should select a thesis or dissertation topic in an area in which you already have significant knowledge and expertise. Striking out on a new path now might seem exciting, but it will only slow you down as you retrace your steps researching and developing background knowledge. An area you already know, on the other hand, will help you jump ahead with your research, saving time and brainpower as you work on your document.
- AVOID doing something that’s already been done
You have a brilliant idea? Great! Before you spend hours and hours researching and developing a proposal, do a literature search of books, journal articles, and dissertation abstracts to make sure your topic hasn’t already been done before. Don’t get caught in a situation where you’ve worked for months on a proposal only to find out that a grad student at another school turned in a dissertation on the same topic two years ago.
With these handy tips in mind, you’ll be prepared to strike out and develop the original, engaging, and substantive thesis or dissertation topic that you can proudly call your own.