Selecting the Right Dissertation Topic

Last week I discussed strategies to conserve your most precious and scarce resources: energy, time and money. This week’s theme builds on that foundation because identifying your ideal research topic is key to designing a dissertation journey where your progress will be most meaningful.  The ideal topic is not necessarily the one everyone else thinks you should pursue, or the one that seems “popular.” However, it is finding a topic that aligns with your own values, interests and strengths. When you feel a deep sense of commitment to your research topic and answering that research question makes a significant contribution to a community of real people and stakeholders, it’s much easier to summon energy to work through the barriers that will surely come. Also, the sacrifice that are eventually required to finish on schedule will be more palatable.

The goal of this article is to discuss the criteria for selecting a topic that will keep you on schedule.

There are lots of strategies on selecting a research topic, and these resources are all worthwhile and easily searchable. However, this series is dedicated to teaching strategies that will simplify the design and implementation of the project so that it can be defended successfully and on schedule.

As mentioned earlier, the ideal research topic is one that is aligned with your own interests and values. However, this innate passion must be weighed against the resources in your department and the interests of the dissertation committee that you have already (or will soon) be accountable to satisfying.  Therefore, the best way to begin this process is to research a short list of “passion projects” based on a streamlined review of the peer reviewed journal articles you have already consumed.

Ultimately, you are driver and owner of this project for the next few years, the dissertation year and the early post-doctoral years as well. After you defend the dissertation, you will publish a peer reviewed journal article, book chapter or create a conference presentation (or all the above) based in some part on this initial of research or an extension of the project. My recommendation is to develop a short list of 2 or 3 research topics along with an research question that answers or responds to a problem or gap in the current literature. 

This short list can and should be discussed with your committee members and trusted academic mentors. Ultimately, you are gaining their input on the feasibility of each of the short list projects since your experience in conducting independent research is likely to be limited. It is challenging to adequately refine a good question on your own, and the next step after the selection of the topic is to plan for the design of the actual methodology. 

You are simultaneously creating support for your

project before it is conceived.

After a brainstorm of all the possible things you are interested in, you will survey the literature to identify what exists making careful notes on titles, key words and methodologies being used. As some point, you will find yourself coming back to certain key words or theories or authors (and their descendants) which is a great sign. There are two ways that I proceed after a list of commonalities is outlined. As a visual thinker, I like to use a dry erase board (or notebook pad) to list the terms or variables, on one side and then draw a mind map that links ideas and concepts together. This can also be done with post it notes (in a pinch). The next step is to overlay the literature that links to each branch of the mind map onto the diagram. There are several good software programs (free and subscription based) to create electronic mind maps to examine these relationships and lay the citation notes in comment fields. 

Remember one of our primary goals at this stage is to understand how the research problem is connected to other systems and theories (new or classic) as well as the quantity of research already done within this sub field. For the linear thinkers, I have had students do this exercise within an excel table just as easily and also with spiral bound notebooks. The key is to use what will work for you now and when you are in the next phase so that wheel reinvention does not slow you down. In fact, you can try both methods to start, and base the decision after a day or so in each format.

In the end, the process of creating this network of relationships allows you to then evaluate project ideas within the network of opportunity. For each research topic on your short list, ask yourself the following questions?

  • Is this a topic that “should be done”? What is the compelling need to address this topic? Are there ethical reasons that this type of study should or should NOT be conducted?
  • Can I briefly explain a problem that this research project would address or solve?
  • What bodies of knowledge will I need to learn in reviewing the literature and to come up with a good design? What existing studies address this research topic or question?
  • Will my dissertation advisor and/or committee members have expertise in this area?
  • How many times has this study been done and in what populations?  Do I have access to stakeholders or access the desired population? Can I achieve the desired sample size?
  • Is this a topic that aligns with my own talents, experiences, and strengths? Is this project manageable in the time that I have to collect the data?
  • Is this a topic that I can put my passion and energy into for the next 12-24 months?

The conclusion of this process is to start a set of dissertation topic files and begin a closer look at the published literature. As you get ideas about how to refine these topics, take notes on how you might improve on the methodologies. Make a list of studies that you need to examine more closely in the literature review phase. Also identify the “big names that are publishing in this subfield. I would give each topic on the short list a few days research effort until that topic is either ruled out or your excitement or interest has waned completely.

When you find yourself dreaming about this problem or the studies that you are reading or eager to discuss them with your peers, then you are achieving the momentum you need to definitively say… “this is the ONE!”

The next step is to schedule a meeting with your advisor or mentor, it is helpful to present at least two research project ideas (and not more than 3). Together with your adviser share your evaluation of the merits and limitations of each of your research topic ideas and list of citations that you collected notating which ones you have already read. This step demonstrates to your advisor that you put some “skin” in the game. This is not an idea on a whim, but a decision based on at least a cursory review of actual studies or theories. Don’t be surprised on dismayed if your adviser presents new evidence that completely sways your view of what the project should and will be. Not because you have not done due diligence, but hopefully they have an ability to see merit or limitations beyond what is already published. So be flexible and willing to listen and also to negotiate a bit to stand by the project you are most passionate about. 

Here is a quick example of this latter point from my work with a student who designed a study that required access to a prison population. She met with me as a potential committee member, and so presumably the chair was already on board with this topic idea. My own experience and instincts were that IRB approval requirements alone would take months, and she had already spent months developing this idea. In short, it was a great project idea that needed to be done and would clearly impact the body of knowledge with her field. She had done her homework sufficiently in that even the design and survey questions could have led to compelling results. Additionally, the topic was outside my research expertise so I could only provide methodological support. In conclusion, the deal breaker for me was she didn’t know anyone who could provide timely access to incarcerated individuals. None of her other committee members could help with this step either. Access to social capital is key to timely completion! Fortunately, she came up with a new project involving high school students because she did have access to that population. Ironically, public school students can be another challenging population to access for qualitative research. However, with the right social capital, you can find creative ways to jump through the required hurdles. 

Affirmation: I have what it takes to finish my dissertation on time!

 Reference

Roberts, C. M. (2010). The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation. Corwin.

Before you apply: Can you be vulnerable? (4 of 5)

This week I am continuing the theme of questions to ask yourself before you apply to graduate school. The theme of this post is the issue of vulnerability. The question to ask is can you be vulnerable? Or are you willing to risk being vulnerable in order to achieve your goals and get the support you need while navigating the twists and turns of the journey towards your degree.

Review of the last post on #versatility

Versatility is how one survives, thrives and leverages the expertise gained by achieving their masters or professional degree. On one level you must assess whether or not you have intellectual curiosity to understand the basis for classical theories and content. Can you release your firmly held beliefs and tenants long enough to challenge and critique the sacred assumptions.

You must Learn to present and argue dual positions – both for and against – cherished practices or policies is a well respected skill that will serve graduates well beyond the Academy. This last post closed with age strategies to build or expand on versatility.


Before you apply: Can you be vulnerable?

To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable.

To make yourself honorable is to show your strength.

Crissi Jami, American poet and essayist, Your Tango

Accepting vulnerability in graduate school is accepting the reality that you will be “wrong” a lot and you will be told that you need to do better even when your not wrong: Your ideas, your writing assignments,your formatting your sources basically everything. If you are in grad school and you have perceived that you were being attacked frequently it’s not your imagination. Some faculty would say that it is their job to critique and evaluate you harshly and that it is in your best interest.

My belief is that critique is not helpful all of the time; just because those of us with PhD‘s often experienced the trauma harsh criticism in graduate school, means that it should remain that Way for the next generation of students. Physical and emotional harm is not a legacy we need to continue in Higher Education?

The goal of this series is to prepare you for what could happen after being excepted into graduate school. Before you apply is designed to provide information and access to resources before you apply to graduate school. Therefore strategic vulnerability is a trait to be developed and harnessed; whatever negative emotions may come up for you, feeling vulnerable is not your imagination.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and chang.”

Casandra Brené Brown, PhD, MSW, Author

A key reason I include vulnerability as one of the top five questions to ask before you apply is that it’s one that quickly snowballs to impact your wellbeing. On One hand, the process of applying to graduate school requires you to augment your view of yourself. In Particular, it requires you to present yourself with Rose colored glasses and as the best version of yourself. Soon after being accepted, you are suddenly catapulted into a cohort of other high achieving, brilliant candidates. Given our human nature, the urge to compete and measure up within the pack, our egos can be easily bruised with even one bad mark. Even unconsciously you may begin to feel inadequate and less brilliant around your peer group. Even if you are doing fine in your classes and making friends within your group, the sting of competition can damage your self perception.

Therefore being vulnerable is really about being willing to except your human-ness and to express a level of authenticity regardless of how well you perceive your peers or professors are evaluating you. So if this hits home to you, what should you plan to do….

Tips for preparing for vulnerability in graduate school:

  • Establish a relationship with the university counseling center or a community mental health professional.
  • Make time to schedule contact with true lifelong friends.
  • Learn to ask for support when needed.
  • Establish a rigorous self-care routine that includes daily and weekly time to refresh and recharge.
  • Learn to listen to feedback and evaluate the motives and intentions of the giver. All feedback is not good feedback and those who are well-intentioned will not be vested in whether or not you take their advice.

I found that the more truthful and vulnerable I was, the more empowering it was for me. – Alanis Morissette, (Canadian singer-songwriter)

Thank you for reading this post! If this has been helpful to you, please like or share the link with others in your circle of influence who would benefit.

Also, Please check out previous posts on this topic, sign up for our email list, and check out other resources for applying to graduate school.

#getaccepted #beforeyouapply #vulnerability

Post 4 of 5

Excellence in an Age of Complacency

Last week, I got to address 24 inductees into the Psi Chi International Honor Society at a local college. This society was founded to encourage members to maintain excellence in scholarship in psychology and to advance the field (Mission Statement for Psi Chi). This post is written for new professionals establishing themselves as experts in their fields.  As an educator, one critical goal is preparing students to conduct exemplary research, to disseminate and apply it in a way that enhances lives and solves problems. Many people obtain PhD’s because of a desire to be not only an expert in a disciple but to make a larger difference by empowering others through education.   From this context, I shared seven principles observed in role models – scholars and practitioners – who influenced me at the beginning of my career.

Dream Big, but set small daily goals. Abstract thinking is great for dreaming and setting a vision of who you will be and how you will make a difference in the world. However, self-determination theory tell us that intrinsic motivation is the key to transforming big dreams into daily goals.  Creating and mastering daily goals is the real key to building a set of habits that last after the excitement wanes.  So the first prinicipel is to balance your big dream with your daily routines.  Daily shifts in behavior add up quickly to big gains over time.  Try to identify the minimum amounts of effort needed every day to create your Big Dream. When set a that new habit in motion.

Be Smart. Be Humble. While it would be great to know everything, we don’t. No one does. Today’s achievement is worth celebrating (These students were in the top 10% of their class).  Set a goal to learn something new every day for the rest of your life. Being smart may come naturally for you, and it will take you far.  However humility plus smarts will take you further.  Character is hard to teach. Even when we think we KNOW, it’s okay to let it pass without comment. In fact, sharing unsolicited knowledge is irritating and rob others of their own meaningful learning experience.  Just as important is to have the courage to admit what you don’t know. Honesty and humility are underrated the professional world, but your success are not tied to perfection. Show up with an insatiable desire for knowledge and service, and people will go further to help you learn.

Make learning a habit. I am not going to explain why lifelong learning is important to this crowd of overachievers (J). But I will say that it gets harder as you go further as you move up the ladder. It’s also MORE important as you progress. Creating a habit is easiest when we expand on our current routines. When our planning is built around “triggers” that let us know that it’s time to act, our newer habits will be stronger than intentions.  Select a part of your schedule with deep roots, and just add another “link in the chain” with your new habit. When I was working on my dissertation, I wanted to expand my reading beyond my topic. It was nearly impossible to think how I could possible add one more thing to my schedule. Studies confirm this to be a successful method to rely on contextual cues over willpower to create new habits.   One routine has been entrenched for years is my morning coffee while writing in a great journal. So I made a list of books that I could read in chunks (15 min. a day) and put them by my journal in my bedroom. I have applied this technique to cleaning my house, learning Spanish, and many other areas over the years.  Next time you commit to “read more,” instead try “When I go to eat lunch, I will take my  book and for 10 minutes between my salad and my dessert.”

Be grateful. Many people have supported you up to this point, and they will likely continue to support you through the next stage as well: grad school, a book, job relocation, big promotion, conference, or dissertation ahead. Find small ways to say thank you as often as you can to your key supporters. Most of us is only as strong as our social support team. My grad program was known for encouraging graduates hand write thank you notes on the engraved stationery.  Be the one in ten job applicants that remembers to acknowledge the people.  Everyone is just as tired, busy, and stressed as you are.  Make the time!  This practice will serve you well in the professional circle because it is so rare.  An email note of appreciation is free but it’s also priceless.

Be You.  What makes this world fun is that we are all different.  What makes this world crazy hard is that we are all different. Learn to accept yourself, your strengths and your idiosyncrasies together. You aren’t perfect but you are ALL you’ve got.  Be the best version of YOU that you can be by making consistent investments in your own self-care.  There are far too many depressed and anxious clinicians, scholars and educators.  We need YOU to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.

Watch your back.  The principle remind us that people are watching us.  Someone is standing behind you waiting for your leadership.  Most of us are where we are because someone showed us the ropes. They took the time to say (In love) you are doing it wrong. They noticed we were crashing and burning, and they took the time to help.  Be that mentor for someone else.  As you progress, you will get even busier, but the people that you mentor will one day be your allies and your colleagues.  Treat them well and invest in them the way that someone did for you.

So my last tip or Principle on Excellence is “Write your own tip!” Everyone’s path is different. You don’t know what lies ahead, and if you think you know, I guarantee you 5 minutes after you get comfortable, something unexpected will occur and you will need to re-group.  Be willing to take your time and make mistakes. Excellence is not really about getting it right or getting it done first. Excellence is moving beyond complacency and simply NOT giving up.  Work “as if” you know you’ll make it.  And one day, you will realize it’s true:  the Big Dream is here.

Closing Thought

What would you try if you absolutely KNEW you could not fail? – author unknown

 

Please share your comments and questions with me on this blog!