As a doctoral candidate and a student nearing the end of your formal academic learning, you might perceive writing a dissertation as having to climb one last, cruel, monstrous mountain before attaining the credentials you’ve dedicated more than half of your young adulthood to. On the other hand, it might just be one more dance – the last dance before you get on with your life’s work in research, as a reader/lecturer at university or in some other venture that demands highly qualified candidates. Generally, people pursuing doctorate degrees have a specific study track in mind. They know what they want to research if their career aims take them in that direction. If it doesn’t, they have at least a keen idea of how their future professional life should unfold. It all starts with writing your dissertation. The only question is: what will you write about? That question stymies so many students. Of all the possible avenues to run down that relate to your field of study, how do you find that relatively unexplored niche that entices you; a vein rich enough to mine an entire thesis out of? You no doubt have advisers to talk things over with but maybe a word from your Superprof will help you settle on a topic.
Why Do Students Have to Write a Dissertation?
First, we should disabuse the public of the notion that writing a dissertation is a task solely for doctoral candidates. Some universities require undergraduates to write a thesis even if they may not called on to defend it. Some universities accept either a research paper or a capstone project before awarding undergraduates and graduate students their degree. Furthermore, if you do not intend to pursue your studies beyond a 3- or 4-year programme, you may get away with not facing a completion ordeal altogether. However, if you intend to progress through the educational ranks – undergraduate, graduate and doctoral, all of the writing that you do at the lower levels will condition to write your doctoral dissertation. Granted, the writing requirements are likely not as stringent and those results will probably not be quite so impactful. Nevertheless, getting into the practice of academic writing will serve you well come time to write your final farewell paper and beyond.
What does all of that writing, so early in your academic career do for you?
For one, you get a taste of the drive and passion required to research and write such a paper. You learn to see critical information from many different aspects rather than through the lens of your personal experiences and it proves that you are far more than a test-taking machine. Writing a thesis paper shows the depth of your reasoning and intellectual capability. It proves you have the motivation to work independent of any teacher’s instruction or mandate and it demonstrates that you have follow-through – a highly-prized characteristic in and out of academic circles. The constant stress, endless cups of coffee and persistent lack of sleep are a small price to pay for mastering the ability to educate yourself and communicate profound ideas effectively in writing. You only need to beware: whether at the undergraduate or doctoral level, you must know how to write your dissertation.
What Makes a Dissertation Topic ‘Good’?
In the film Dark Matter, the protagonist offers dark matter as his chosen topic in his dissertation proposal. His adviser rejects that proposal, claiming the topic is far too broad and counsels him to a less complicated, more narrow focus. The film, based on a true story, accurately depicts the competitiveness of academic writing as well as the process for choosing a dissertation subject. Few would argue that dark matter is not a fascinating topic; even Stephen Hawking entertained the premise. Still, it is a very broad subject and the research would be overwhelming – let alone trying to find an aspect that hasn’t yet been expounded on. For those reasons, dark matter would not make a good dissertation topic. However, a single aspect - its strange gravitation effects or it failure to interact electromagnetically, would. Good dissertation topics should be clear-cut and engaging. Writing about cancel culture – a social phenomenon relevant to our times may still be considered too broad but researching the effects of cancel culture on politics would work well. Another aspect all good topics share is that there is recent research material on them. You may be enthralled by medieval poetry and wish to write your paper on that subject but, if there is no literature younger than, say, 10 years old, your research proposal might not wash. Research and methodology are integral parts of any dissertation so any topic that lends itself to a comprehensive paper design where such can be illustrated would be considered good.
A dissertation topic’s most important qualities are the arguments one might make and the questions it might raise.
The logic is counter-intuitive: the broader the subject, the more arguments could be made and the more questions might be raised but Rule #1 for dissertation topics is a narrow focus. Finding your topic between those two extremes - quality arguments/questions and a narrow focus is ideal. If your topic has a strong thesis – a theory to be dis/proven or maintained; if there is specific terminology associated with it and can be narrated clearly, you may consider it a good dissertation topic.
Understand the Dissertation Process
Every institution has established dissertation guidelines for everything from formatting to time constraints and the type of example you may cite. To save yourself a lot of extra work and frustration, you should study your university’s guidelines before you undertake any dissertation research. You also need to know their research process expectations and you should understand the methodologies required. Once you know the fieldwork options open to you and the methods of analysis that make for a successful dissertation, you may start on your ideation process. If you aren’t fully aware of the qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods of research before you start exploring ideas, you will find yourself having to backtrack – and possibly discard the work you’ve already done. The takeaway: before putting pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard, you must know every necessary step of dissertation writing and what your institution’s requirements are.
Do Your Research
Unless your course of study is relatively new – say, the ethics of artificial intelligence, you will likely have a vast body of prior research to draw on in contemplating possible topics. Use it to your advantage!
Most likely, your school already has a trove of dissertations written by former students in the campus library.
To make your research most effective, narrow your reading to well-graded journals pertaining to your course of study. Keep in mind that your school’s guidelines may have changed since those documents were written but note the breadth of the topic, how they formulated their arguments and what questions they posed. Are those topics well-justified? Did they break new ground or dis/prove an already-established idea? Which research methods did they use? Did they rely on academic or applied literature? Conducting such a literature review will not only show you how to write your dissertation but it also gives you some idea of what you can write about. Towards the end of each journal article, you will likely find a section designated “Further Research”. That is where authors indicate that further research is needed (FRIN); in effect, they are leaving a door open for future scholars to take up their work by inviting the contribution of new ideas. Don’t reject their offer out of hand; within the questions they pose, might be the answer you’ve been dying to give. Once you’ve found three to five topics that have piqued your interest, discuss them with your adviser. Be prepared to mount a good defence for each one. It is your supervisor’s job to present contrasting ideas; such vigorous debate may help you refine your thoughts about your proposed topics, present different avenues to explore or cause you to abandon (most of) them altogether. Once you’ve narrowed your choices down, evaluate what you have leftover. If you only have one topic left, you may want to investigate others or, if you’re satisfied that you can make new contributions to advance that particular topic, feel free to delve deeper into the literature and start the writing process.
Final Tips for Choosing a Dissertation Topic
Ironically, junior academics think that the following tips, which have nothing to do with researching or writing a dissertation are the ones that will help them choose their topic.
- Select a topic that interests you and relates to your career goals
- Your topic ideas don’t have to be unique from at your search's outset
- Keep your premise simple even if your topic is far-reaching
- Establish achievable research goals
- Trust your dissertation supervisor/adviser
- Stick with your choice
- Present your findings impartially no matter how much you dis/favour your topic
In a sense, they are not wrong but, from the academic perspective, going with your gut is exactly the wrong way to choose a topic because it ignores all of the previous research and literature while favouring a personal interest. Of course, personal interest should weigh heavily on the topic you choose to research and write about but it should not be your primary concern. How to conduct research analysis and present your findings should be so, unless you possess a talent for picking and expounding on unique topics, you should follow these steps to picking your PhD dissertation’s theme. Good luck and happy writing!
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