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Choosing a Dissertation Topic

Tomorrow's Research

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Waiting for inspiration is not the best approach to topic selection. Dissertation topics do not mystically appear. Some students attempt to find a topic that fits a set of already-collected data, a certain population to which the student has access, or a preferred research methodology.  This backward approach is also inappropriate and certain to irritate a potential advisor. 


The posting below looks at some important factors to take into consideration when selecting a dissertation topic.  It is from Chapter 4 Choosing a Dissertation Topic, in the book, The Dissertation Journey: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Writing, and Defending Your Dissertation, by Carol M. Roberts. Published by Corwin, A SAGE Company, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320, (800) 233-9936, Fax: (800) 417-2466, Copyright © 2010 by Carol M. Roberts. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research

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Choosing a Dissertation Topic

The first major challenge in the dissertation process lies in choosing a dissertation topic. Your choice determines how long it will take you to complete your study. For most doctoral students, it is an agonizing decision, mainly because of the uncertainty surrounding it. Has it already been adequately researched? Is it worthy of investigation? How original does it have to be? Is it manageable in scope? To know whether or not it has been researched, or if it is important to the field, you must first immerse yourself in the literature base. It would not be worthwhile to conduct another study about a problem that has been sufficiently investigated unless, however, you conduct a meta-analysis, meta-ethnographic analysis, or literature synthesis. These research approaches synthesize findings across several studies.

Approaches to Choosing a Topic

In selecting a research topic, students sometimes use what Ray Martin (1980) called “dreaming in a vacuum.” He stated that some students believe great ideas come from moments of inspiration; students who walk in the park, backpack in the mountains, or sit in quiet places to contemplate learn a lot about parks, backpacking, and contemplation, but little else. Waiting for inspiration is not the best approach to topic selection. Dissertation topics do not mystically appear. Some students attempt to find a topic that fits a set of already-collected data, a certain population to which the student has access, or a preferred research methodology.  This backward approach is also inappropriate and certain to irritate a potential advisor. The most effective and efficient ways to select a topic are the following:

(1) Become steeped in the relevant literature.

(2) Engage in discussions with faculty and other scholars in your field.

(3) Write about your topic to help crystallize and organize your understanding.

Commonly, students consider three to five potential topics before finally settling on one. Scrapping a topic and starting over at least once is the norm.

Where to Look for Potential Topics

Dissertation topics rarely emerge out of the blue; you must proactively search them out. Here are some potential sources:


1.Your own professional interests. What excites and energizes you? What career goals could be enhanced by studying a particular topic?

2. Faculty members, professional colleagues, and fellow students. Listen to their suggestions about potential topics.

3. Professional journals in your field. This is where you can find out the hot topics of the day and for the near future.

4. Librarians. Ask them to help you run a database search on some topic of interest. Make a list of key words and  phrases to initiate the search. The results of a computer search should help you discover whether a dissertation is possible on this topic or whether the topic has been “done to death.”

5. Dissertations. Review previously written dissertations. Consult Proquest Dissertations and Theses Dissertation Abstracts International and American Doctoral Dissertations, from whom you can order dissertations of interest. Chapter 5 of most dissertations includes a section titled “Recommendations for Future Research.” This is a gold mine of potential topics.

6. Oral defense. The discussions that occur during a dissertation’s oral defense often suggest potential topics. Attend as many of these as you can. It opens your eyes to what happens during a dissertation defense.

7. Current theories. Have any new theories come out in your field, or are existing theories being questioned?

8.  The Internet. A variety of sources exists on the Internet.

9. Conferences and seminars. Often these deal with current interest areas in the field. Talk with presenters and authors to get their ideas about researchable topics.

10. Outside agencies or professional organizations that conduct research. Excellent resources are the 10  Regional Educational Laboratories , and the American Educational Research

Association (AERA),

11. Leading scholars in your interest areas. Usually, authors and researchers eagerly talk with someone interested in their ideas and research. Call and find out what they are currently doing, and ask their advice about potential studies.

12. Your current job setting. Are there problems that need solutions in your workplace? Your boss might have a pet topic that could enhance your career opportunities. However, be cautious. If you think a topic might be suggested in which you have no interest, you are better served not to conduct this research. A dissertation is an extensive, scholarly endeavor, and the topic should be one in which you have strong interest.

13. References in your field. Many handbooks and bibliographies exist in most subject areas. Some useful examples in the field of education are the following:

           a. Handbook of Research on Teaching. Published by the AERA, this handbook provides   

               highly comprehensive reviews of educational research.

           b. Harvard Educational Review. Edited and published by graduate students at Harvard

               University, this journal provides reviews and opinions on the most topical educational


           c. Review of Educational Research. Published by the AERA, this quarterly journal

               publishes review articles that summarize, in a comprehensive and integrated fashion,

               research on educational topics.

           d. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE). Since 1902, the

               yearbook has published an annual volume organized around some central theme, for

               example, Behavior Modification in Education

Distinguished scholars in these areas write the articles. The topics are selected because of their timeliness or immediate practical value to educators and researchers (Martin, 1980, p. 7).

All discipline areas have their own encyclopedias, handbooks, or yearbooks. You can access them on the Internet by keying in your area (e.g., sociology, psychology) followed by the word handbook, yearbook, and so on.

Some Criteria for Topic Selection

How do you know if your particular topic has the potential to become a scholarly dissertation? Most universities and doctoral faculties agree that the doctoral dissertation should be an original piece of research and significant to the field.  However, what constitutes originality or significance is open to interpretation and usually differs among various faculty advisors.  Madsen (1992) clarified the elusive term originality. He claims that a topic must have the potential to do at least one of the following: Uncover new facts or principles, suggest relationships that were previously unrecognized, challenge existing truths or assumptions, affort new insights into little-understood phenomena, or suggest new interpretations of know facts that can alter people's perceptions of the world around them. (p.38)

No hard-and-fast rules exist for selecting a topic. Ogden (1993) reminded us that “the basic purpose of a dissertation is to demonstrate that you can do acceptable research in your field. It is not your life’s work” (p. 39). Following are some general criteria for considering potential topics:


1.  It needs to hold your interest for a long time. It takes longer than you anticipate to write an acceptable dissertation.

2. It must be manageable in size. Most students begin with a topic that is too large. Remember you can’t do it all. Your goal is to add a small but significant piece to the knowledge base and graduate! Save the Nobel Prize-level research to do as a postgraduate.

3. It must have the potential to make an original and significant contribution to knowledge. Can you find a hole, a gap, a missing piece in the knowledge base that you can fill and that would be useful to theory or practice?

4. It must be doable within your time frame and budget. Given your current situation, is it a feasible topic to undertake? Traveling to Russia or conducting a longitudinal study may not be possible.

5. It has to have obtainable data. You must be able to collect data for the study from an appropriate sample size in a reasonable period of time.

6. It has not already been sufficiently researched. There is no value to conducting one more study about a topic that has been researched over and over again.

7. It should be acceptable to your advisor and committee members. The signatures of these individuals determine whether or not you become “doctor.”

Text Box: Helpful Hint

Start a dissertation topic file. As you get ideas about possible topics, place them in a separate file folder that you can review from time to time. This helps keep your topic antenna up and alert for new ideas.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of making a concerted effort to become familiar with the literature and to talk with experts in your field. You cannot know for certain if the topic you desire is significant, nor can you have a clear notion about what is known and not known about the topic. Just because you don’t know, doesn’t mean it is not known.

Text Box: Helpful Hint

-     A truism: You will encounter a wide range of opinions regarding the worth of any dissertation topic. Some might think it outstanding, while others claim it has no value. Such a variety of opinions reflects each individual’s particular interest, experience, or bias. The thing to remember is that you only have to satisfy your dissertation committee to pursue a topic that interests you.

-     Another truism: Stubbornness in pursuing a dissertation topic no one believes worthy of research can lead to ABDism. Time spent pursuing a lost cause can cost you valuable time and make it difficult to obtain an advisor. In other words, as the adage says, if the horse dies, get off!

Replication Studies

One strategy in pursuing a dissertation topic is to replicate a previous study. Replication simply means doing the study again. Often students think repeating another’s study is cheating and just an easy way out. It is quite the opposite. Knowledge accumulates incrementally through studies that build on each other over time, and replication adds strength and clarity to research findings. You can make a valuable contribution by repeating an important study.

It may be important to verify, reinforce, or contradict the results of earlier studies (Balian, 1994).

Text Box: Remember

Caution: It would not be wise to replicate a trivial study or one with weak methodology or incorrect statistics.

Research studies may be replicated in several ways. You might choose to alter parts of the research design of a previous study. It would also be appropriate to add or subtract variables, restate the research questions, or alter the research instrument(s). You might replicate it in a different geographic area, with a different population, or using different instrumentation (e.g., an interview instead of the original survey). These modifications, provided there is justification, can help clarify existing results.

You may adapt the research instrument(s) to fit the new population under study. However, if you use the exact instrument from the previous study, it is a “professional nicety” to ask the author’s permission. You also must invent a whole new literature review. Replicating a study is not nearly as easy as it seems.

In writing the dissertation, you must state a rationale indicating why replication is important (the previous study was conducted 15 years ago, there are updated variables that may influence the results, etc.). You must also acknowledge the replication and compare your findings with previous findings.

Replication Studies Dos and Don’ts


-        Highlight the need to replicate

-        Cite replication

-        Contact original author for agreement (put agreement letter in appendices)

-        Make it your own study

-        Bring a copy of the original study to your advisor

-        Mention the replication in your purpose statement and in your findings and interpretation chapters[E9]


-        Choose a topic for convenience

-        Appear to be plagiarizing

-        Copy bibliography, literature review, or table format

-        Confuse adaptation with replication


Selecting an appropriate topic is one of the most important decisions you make on your dissertation journey. This chapter suggested some effective and efficient ways to select a topic and offered seven criteria to consider. Replicating a previous study is often desirable and appropriate since knowledge accumulates through studies that build on each other over time.

With the necessary gear and a topic that interests you, the next step is obtaining expert guides to help you reach the peak. The next chapter concentrates on selecting and working with your dissertation advisor, committee members, and others responsible for guiding the dissertation process.


Balian, E.S. (1994). The graduate research guidebook: A practical approach to doctoral/masters research. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Madsen, D. (1992). Successful dissertation and theses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Martin, R. (1980). Writing and defending a thesis or dissertation in psychology and education. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Ogden, E. (1993). Completing your doctoral dissertation or master’s thesis in two semesters or less. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.