Dissertation proposal help

Dissertation proposal help: how to find a topic worth researching

As a grad student, you know that at some point you'll have to start picking away at an unbelievable task - your dissertation. And if you're like most people, without you even realizing it your proposal deadline is around the corner-and you don't have a single topic in mind. So what do you do in this situation?
First, take a deep breath and relax. Choosing your topic may be the most fun you'll have during this whole process. In this area, the sky is the limit (or at least partially). You now have the chance to delve into the topics you've always been interested in, but never have the time to research, or finally get the answers to questions you've had since undergrad.
Second, learn the characteristics of a good dissertation topic. When you know what to look for you'll have less options in front of you, therefore making it much easier to finally select a topic in the end.

What should you look for in a good dissertation topic?

Many factors come into play when considering which direction to head in for your dissertation. And considering the time that is invested in this project, as well as the weight it holds for your graduate and professional life, you can't help but agonize over it a little. But the remedy is simple-know how to separate the good ones from the bad ones.

Qualities of a good dissertation topic

  • is interesting to you and your potential readers
  • something that is do-able; or can realistically be investigated considering your time and resources
  • is relevant to current happenings or modern day affairs (ex. something that may have a real impact on people's lives)
  • connects to a broader concern or context
  • fills a gap or hole in previous research
  • provides a provocative take on an old issue or looks at something in a new, alternative way
  • is likely to get published or help you land a job
Though these may seem like a lot of qualities to hold, note that your ideal topic doesn't need to match all of these descriptions (as it probably won't). The idea is that it will at least hold down a few of the most important ones, such as sustaining your interest, being relevant to the field (filling a gap or hole), and something that you can actually accomplish (do-able).
Now with these qualities in mind, you can better follow some simple steps to selecting a dissertation topic.

5 steps for topic selection

1. Make a mental note of the subjects that you think you would enjoy investigating

This goes back to those 'dream' topics mentioned earlier; the ones you've always wanted to learn more about. Or better yet, simply topics that you would enjoy learning a lot about. *And since you know your likes and dislikes pretty well its not necessary for you to jot them down, but at least keep them in mind when moving on to step two.

2. Conduct some light research and look for inspirations

Preliminary research is hard to avoid if you're serious about topic hunting. You can't expect for a good one to just fall in your lap. You need to find out more. For example; What do the keywords actually mean? Are there any subcategories involved that I need to know about? What are the main concepts and ideas?
Also as you conduct your preliminary research you can try to look for inspirations here and there. A source of inspiration may be a journal article that caught your eye, a news headline that made you stop, or just something that you feel that you can really connect with. This is when you want to pause and take note of your thoughts.
*Also be mindful not to turn your light research into heavy research. At this point you are only finding out the very basic components of the subject so that you can formulate a workable dissertation topic.

3. List a few possible choices

Now that you've done a little research on some of your 'dream topics' or any other ones, you can start creating a definite list of choices. None of these are written in stone but they should at least be realistic options that you can investigate.

4. Break them down further if necessary

A topic is usually not ready for use right off the bat. In most cases, tweaking, narrowing, and fine-tuning are needed to make a general topic into a dissertation one. Overall, your dissertation topic should be one that an actual problem can be derived from or from which a research question can easily be extracted.
For example, you may be interested in the general topic of Standardized testing and its affect on teaching. But to narrow it down a bit more, you may decide to rename it; The effects of standardized testing vs contextualized learning on the teacher and the student.
This second example is obviously more suitable for a dissertation topic as the problem to be investigated is clear and extractable. Likewise, it was easily achieved by simply comparing one thing to another, and adding an additional group (i.e. the student).

5. Grade each one according to the 'good topic' checklist

Now that you have a comprehensive list of narrow dissertation topics, you can afford to comb through them by comparing them against the qualities of a good topic. Ideally if you've done a good job with #4 you probably have some really good choices on your hands, but since you can only choose one its worth it to only pick the best of the best.
For instance, a topic may work well to fill a gap in the research, or relate to current events in the field, but it also would require a significant amount of funds, time, and assistance to research. If this is the case, it may not be a topic you want to commit to, and you'd be better off trying another option.
In addition to the steps mentioned here, its always a good idea to run any potential topics pass your advisor. Advisors are there to assist you in such circumstances and can be invaluable to your topic finding process; helping you hone in on the latest or 'hottest' topics in the field as well as advising you against topics that are really not worth pursuing.
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Martha Buckly

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