- By Jason Bacot
- Published 12/28/2010
At some point in your doctoral studies you’ll have to choose a topic for your dissertation, and the thought of doing that – pinning your hopes and possibly your future career on a major writing project – can be daunting. If you’re just starting your studies and only have the vaguest of notions how to choose a topic for your dissertation, here are some guidelines. Are you in a discipline where your topic may influence whether you’re considered by certain employers? Or do you plan to choose a topic based on your passion and what you can get funding for? Even if you think you may be tailoring your topic toward certain employment goals by pursuing a “hot” research sector, choose a topic that you can get excited about. After all, you’re going to be in the trenches with that topic for a couple of years, and you don’t want every day of graduate school to be a chore. Plus, when you’re genuinely interested in your topic, you’ll put in the extra effort required to make your dissertation stand out. The dissertation advisor you choose should have some knowledge about the topic you’re interested in pursuing, and can help you fine tune your research as you progress. If you are passionately committed to a topic that isn’t unreasonable for your field of study, and your advisor is only lukewarm to the topic, it may be best for all concerned if you tactfully and politely choose another advisor.
Ideally, you should choose a topic that can be modified into a book, journal article, or a
cademic presentation at a major scientific conference in your field. This is particularly important if you are pursuing a career in academia. If your goal is to rise high within a particular industry, then you’ll have to tailor your topic so that it showcases your marketable skills. Your dissertation topic should establish where in your field you plan to specialize. It should represent new and rigorous work and should build upon existing theory and literature in that specialty. Search the academic literature thoroughly to be sure that your topic is not one that’s already been done. There is nothing wrong with bringing some creativity to your topic, as long as your research is sound and your documentation is correct and logical. If you plan to work in academics, you may want to avoid a hot button issue if it is sure to alienate a substantial portion of the specialists in your field. Then again, if you’re up for dealing with the intellectual controversy that your topic might provoke, then go for it. But keep in mind that even people with PhDs can get totally bent out of shape when presented with research that flies in the face of their pet theories.
Finally, pick a topic that is manageable. Your dissertation will likely be the biggest project you’ve ever worked on, but it isn’t meant to represent a lifetime of academic achievement. A clearly defined, narrow topic is often better than a broad, unwieldy topic where you can’t go into as much depth. Choose your dissertation topic wisely, and you’ll enter the world with the foundation you need to become an influential player in your chosen field.