Topic Selection

After 22 years of consulting with graduate students about dissertation topic selection, I have never met a student who simply has no idea of the topic they want to study.  In fact, many students have too many ideas—let’s call them unformed topics—but, in my experience, they always have at least one unformed topic in mind that we can then work from.

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Now, let’s get a few things handled straightaway.  Firstly, you do not have to have an abiding interest in your dissertation topic.  Yes, you should have some interest in the topic, but the study does not have to represent your magnum opus.  In fact, for those who contend that they must be in love with their topic, you may be spending far too long perfecting the topic and, therefore, holding up your own graduation!

Additionally, dissertation topics are always feasible on the face of it.  In other words, your research certainly needs to fill a gap in the literature, but when forming your set of potential topics, your driving motivation should be identifying ones that you know are doable; trust that, for at least one of the brainstormed topics, you will find a gap to justify your research in the end.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but recognize that once you select a topic, you can pretty much always find a rationale for conducting your study (e.g., by using a different sample, a different instrument, or a different location).  In short, pick the topic and justify it later.

Yet another recommendation I find myself making is that it’s sometimes easier to work backwards from the data in selecting a topic.  A question I like to ask students is, “Can you get data from your work?” or “What other readily available primary or secondary data sources are available to you?”  From there, we then can figure out a set of research questions to flesh out a methodology section, all of which is based on that identified data.

Now, if I can provide just one more piece of advice when it comes to developing a dissertation topic, it’s that students should not be too picky.  This piece of advice, in one way or another, encompasses the previous three points, yet that’s because I have heard from student after student that their primary goal is to get finished and back to working, without this monkey on their back.  Considering we all have lives we want to get back to—i.e., you don’t want to feel married to your dissertation— I simply suggest spending 6 months of your life selecting a topic is not the best use of your time.  Most of our clients are between ages 35 and 55, so spending an extra year in the dissertation wheel certainly looks less attractive from their vantage point, especially when we all have family, work, and other pressing issues to attend to.

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