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.