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: Are You Vested? Post 5 of 5

This week I conclude the series “Before You Apply” by summarizing the key Questions of the entire series and by asking the final question: Are you VESTED?

Review of the 4 previous Questions in  #BeforeYouApply

  • What’s the vision for your future career?

  • Is this program a viable option for you?

  • Can you be more Versatile?

  • Can you be more Vulnerable?

Before you apply: Are you Vested?

For this question, I want to admit right here that I am co opting a term from another industry for my own purposes… but you will soon see the value in this metaphor.  To become “Vested” is to earn the legal right to a future payment or asset especially in regards to a retirement plan. After a number of years, an employee gains the right to an employer-provided stock incentive or financial contributions made to their retirement account or pension. In short, being Vested is to ‘secure the bag.’

To be Vested is to ‘secure the bag.’

The idea for this term as a critical pre-qualification for future doctors, lawyers to graduate degree earners comes from one of my favorite mentor stories. During my first year in my doc program, I was invited to an event where a panel of prestigious administrators and scholars were addressing the resources available for research at the institution. The most memorable question posed was something like: “Dr X how did you stay motivated during your doctoral training.” For context, this was asked by a person of Color to the sole African American panelist. After a pause, Professor X proceeded to vaguely describe a few of struggles, ironies and injustices he suffered at an unnamed PWI. He concluded his personal story with this line that has stayed with me for over a decade: “The day I walked in to ——- University, I decided I would leave with feet first in a body bag before I’d leave without that degree.”

Then he went on to say that in his opinion the people that finish their PhDs make decisions to finish long before they earn the right to a degree, and sometimes you can see the determination in their eyes.  

….the people that finish their PhDs make decisions to finish long before they earn the right to a degree, and you can see the determination in their eyes.  

My own PhD experience was very similar. However, I didn’t decide to earn the degree until I was beginning my 3rd year. Like Professor X, I faced multiple challenges. In that summer alone, there was a pivotal family adjustment, a lack of support from a clinical supervisor and even a course requirement that intimidated me.  Quitting (taking a leave of absence) was not only advised to me by the program, it was probably in my best interests that semester. I can admit this now in hindsight of course. Nevertheless, I made the stubborn decision to stay and I insisted that there had to be another solution.  It was at this juncture that I began to feel the ownership that I’d learned about earlier. My decision to stay was the line in the sand that required me to act more decisively and to chart a new course for my successful degree completion.

Ownership of the Process

In closing, Being VESTED is a question of ownership. You can feel it in your gut. It’s a willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the next step in the Program.  It’s a commitment to yourself to show up and PRESS HARD no matter what. To advocate for your work, resources, time on people’s calendars, etc. There is something special about how the universe and your supporters (even naysayers) will align themselves to rally when they see you dig those heels in. In another post, I’ll have to share the story of the day I became a stalker to obtain a signature on a form.

The interesting thing is Professor X served on my dissertation committee, and he was such a calming presence.  Once years later, I told him how that story inspired me, and he barely remembered telling it. Yet, I’m sharing it with you now because you are going to need people who believe that you OWN that degree. This is not to say that you won’t have to actually do the work to earn the degree. But with hard work, serious study and the consistent pursuit of excellence AND the determined mind, it’s yours. The mindset is the key, and generally, it comes first. The feeling of ownership is the engine that fuels your persistence at each rung of difficulty. You’ve got this!

The Takeaway

Before you apply to grad school, do the inner work of reflecting on your motivation to earn this degree. Build a strong support team who can encourage you and chastise you appropriately when needed. Be on the lookout for faculty mentors who are content experts AND people of great character who inspire you. They might even be different people.

As always, I appreciate your reading, following and comments on this post. Please share it with someone who would benefit also. I also have a private group on my Facebook page to help future scholars get information and support on their journey to #GetAccepted.

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

Before You Apply #Versatility #GetAccepted (3 of 5)


This month, I continue the theme of  graduate education and what to consider #Before You Apply.  This strategy consists of five concepts: Vision, Viability, Versatility,Vulnerability and Being Vested. Please go to the website to review the first two concepts and for more background.


Concept Review from last post: Viability

Consider: Is this program a viable option for ME?

Due diligence is selecting the right degree and the right program before you apply. The effort extended PRE-application will save you time and money once you are accepted. There is an ideal fit between your strengths and capabilities and degree program to which you apply for admission.


The issue of viability is also important because it ensures that your training will lead to the skills, networks, and industry access upon completion. Don’t let your insecurity about getting accepted cause you to miss identifying important information about the program. In graduate school, students represent the brand of the faculty. There are formal and informal gates requiring their seal of approval and support through each stage of the program. These may include: comprehensive exams, proposals, internship and/or a defense of the thesis or dissertation. That post also proposed over ten items to consider as criteria for evaluating programs.


Before You Apply: Ask are you ready to increase your versatility?

Versatility is the word of the day in surviving, thriving and leveraging your experience and expertise after graduation. While many people believe their current work and family life requires a lot of versatility, pursuing a master’s degree or doctorate requires significantly greater and deeper levels of this characteristic. One level of this is intellectual curiosity and flexibility. In my own theological training, social science and n clinical courses, it was useful to develop a loose attachment to important concepts, theories and approaches. New ideas (to the student) are constantly introduced, examined and turned inside out.

Students read assignment not to say that’s ‘done’ but to put it aside and often return with completely fresh eyes seeing its context or limitations after exposure to competing ideas. Critical thinking is like an overused pun when discussing course goals and objectives. Yet, my first degree practically ruined my ability to tightly hold on to specific concepts. My mind was especially skilled in playing the role of the critic. Even now, I can efficiently identify the faults and limitations of many proposed solutions; for this I give thanks to mentors and classmates who indulged in countless heated debates presenting complex contingencies for nearly any topic. Nevertheless, for those who love learning, these discussions lead to important socialization processes. In fact, many grad students agree that time spent in discussion over the world’s ‘Big Problems’ was both intimidating and inspiring offering the most favorable memories of the process.

Dr. Briallen Hopper (2019) writes about a universal secret love of grad school in the article, “Enjoying Grad School.” Besides intellectualism, grad school provides flexibility in professional connections and credentials due to the myriad of tasks required to succeed. These include communication, finding funding for education, work and study hours, negotiation with house/roommates, coordination with advisers, contributing as an assistant in research or teaching or both. Hopper also suggests some of these skills are also essential after grad schoolfacing continuous evaluation and rejection and learning to ask others for support.

In closing, here are some ways you can begin to develop or expand your skills in intellectual curiosity or versatility:

  • Identify the top 5 influencers in your future field and choose one to begin reading their most recent publication.

  • Identify the graduate student organizations on campus at you top school, and visit their websites.

  • For those same organizations, send an email to the graduate student leader and ask a few questions.

  • Read faculty profiles in the program.

  • Review the course list for the requirements for the degree.

  • Search for syllabi online for required courses.

  • Find out if there are opportunities for graduate students to work on research with faculty, post docs, etc.

This list contains a sample of the suggestions that I’ve made to current grad students who struggled with this skill. It is definitely not exhaustive.


Please like, comment and share this post if this post has been helpful. Next month’s post will discuss vulnerability. How much and when to share the ‘real’ you Before You Apply. Thanks for reading! See you next time.

Link to Chronicle of Higher Ed Article mentioned above:
https://www.chronicle.com/article/On-Enjoying-Grad-School/245486

GET ACCEPTED Before You Apply: Is it Viable? (2 of 5)o

This week’s post continues the theme of graduate education and why Pursue Higher Dreams Coaching has chosen to focus on motivating smart, savvy professional women to pursue advanced degrees as a way to leverage their careers. This strategy includes five concepts or considerations: Vision, Viability, Versatility, Vulnerability and Being Vested. Following some reflection on these points, most applicants will have resolved the key barriers to getting accepted into a graduate degree program.

Review from last week: Vision

Graduate education is designed provide knowledge and skills to catapult students from a general level understanding within a field towards a deeper, more specific level of application or inquiry. Additionally, this advanced level of understanding positions the student to enter an ongoing conversation with experts and influencers within the discipline. I propose it is this “access” to the table where the dialogue is happening that is one of the key advantages to earning a masters and/or doctoral degree.

It is imperative that YOUR VISION of the dregree connects you to issues and concerns that impact you and that you feel a sense of passion about influencing in the your career or life plan.

Considering Viability: Is this degree program VIABLE for ME?

Now that you are beginning to clarify your vision about what degree and what type of degree, we will address the second major consideration: VIABILITY. Graduate education is most useful when a student has done due diligence selecting the right degree and the right program. One myth frequented in some circles is that “any masters degree is better than none”. This implies that the type and quality of the program, it’s faculty and curriculum and concentrations are all insignificant if not irrelevant. Well, this is ludicrous in my opinion.

As comforting as this might appear on the surface, few students can afford to waste time and money to get credits toward a degree they can’t or won’t use. The good news is that this is the stage where a little effort PRE-application investigating your strengths, needs and limitations (see next week’s topic VULNERABILITY) will help you identify the criteria to evaluate each program. This is even more critical to your success POST-application. There is a magic formula of finding the ideal fit between you and your grad program. This secret sauce is often the difference for students of color and female students between degree completion and timeline to completion.

Assessing the Viability of a program (and fit with you) is also important to ensuring that the network you want to be associated with post dregree actually materializes. The type of training is also key to your mental preparedness after you are accepted. If it’s a 2, 3 or 5 year program then your goal at the outset is to finish within that time frame. For example, some students fail to inquire about this ahead of their acceptance. I attended a program that was fully funded for five years, but the average time to completion (nationwide) for that degree was 7 years at the time.

One reason students fail to ask these questions is that they have the mindset: I’m just grateful to get in. However, it’s not a gift to enter in program that you can’t finish. Not to mention, you also need support and mentoring to finish the program. Unlike an undergrad program, graduate students represent the brand of the faculty. You’re their offspring metaphorically speaking in some institutions. There is an unspoken seal of approval from the those that support your progress through each stage of the program. It rare to see a student who progresses to comprehensive exams, the proposal stage and certainly those who schedule a defense of a thesis or a dissertation without the full support of the programs’ faculty.

In closing, here are some questions to reflect on concerning the criteria of what programs to apply to:

1. They have the degree program I am interested in.

2. They have at least one concentration that I would enjoy pursuing.

3. There is at least one faculty member in the program who’s work I understand, respect and would (given the chance) approach as a potential mentor.

4. There are opportunities and resources for graduate students to pursue independent respeach if that is relevant to your field.

5. Clinical work and sites for practical are valued, available and introduced early in the program.

6. There are sufficient support services for academic, personal and professional concerns to be quickly identified and addressed.

7. There are other graduate students that look like you in the program, on the faculty and in the administration of the school.

8. The program’s graduation rate is at least as good as the national average for the field.

9. There is partial or full funding excluding loans and financial aid at this school.

10. There are alumni of this program doing the type of work that I aspire to do.

11. There is a student conduct policy or handbook easily accessible.

This list is not exhaustive but it summarizes some of the key criteria for grad programs based of the concerns of the graduate students that I had worked with for the last 10 years. Please Leave me your thoughts about this list of criteria, and share your thoughts on what else needs to be added.

Next week’s post will discuss vulnerability; how much and when to share what. Thanks for reading, please like and share this someone who would benefit.