The excerpt below examines some of the factors to consider in choosing a dissertation topic, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. It is from Chapter 4, Writing a Dissertation in: The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for scholars from Graduate School through Tenure. By John A. Goldsmith, John Komlos, and Penny Schine Gold. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60037, The University of Chicago Press, Ltd, London, ? 2001 by The University of Chicago, all rights reserved, Published 2001. Reprinted with permission.
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HOW DOES ONE CHOOSE A DISSERTATION TOPIC?
With considerable care. Never lose sight of the fact that the dissertation should be the crowing achievement of your graduate education and will influence the direction of your career for many years to come. It will take years to write and might well require a couple more years of polishing to make it publishable. Inasmuch as you are locking yourself into a project that will occupy a big chunk of your life, this decision should not be made lightly.
Some advisors are willing to offer a choice of two or threw dissertation topics. This can be of great advantage, inasmuch as she has a better overview of the field, knows the sources, and knows if the dissertation is doable within the allotted time frame, and, in effect, you receive a crucial implicit promise that you will be closely guided along the way. Of course, some professors are reluctant to suggest thesis topics, either out of a philosophical commitment and responsibility that go with such advice, but they may also simply want to limit their involvement with students. Be aware that a reserved disposition might well signal a reluctance to work with you closely, and it might be wise to look for alternatives.
It is much safer to your mentor's suggestion of topics if offered. By doing so, you will give yourself additional time to develop the necessary skills for selecting a good research project, which are difficult to acquire. To be sure, there are those who argue for a sink-or-swim approach on the assumption that the student will learn these skills by being forced on to choose a dissertation topic. This point of view is surely reasonable, but my own experience leads me to urge you to err on the side of caution if you have the opportunity unless you have reason to think that you have already mastered such skills: the risk of sinking is too great at this stage. As a third alternative, you may find the choice being made through give and take with your supervisor.
If you have good reason to be confident in doing research on the topic of your own choice of if close guidance feels too restrictive to you, then proceed, but at least be forewarned that you can easily lead yourself on a wild goose chase. In fact, many students do not finish their dissertation because their topic turns out to be much too difficult for reasons that were not immediately obvious to them. In any case, do make sure you have your mentor's full support before embarking on a project.
It is imperative that both you and your advisor be interested in your thesis topic. It is important that your mentor be interested in it because otherwise she might be much less motivated to help you, and it is crucial that you be excited about it because otherwise you will have enormous difficulties mustering the momentum to succeed in completing the project. Original research is challenging, and even frustrating at times, in the sense that hundreds of obstacles need to be overcome in the process. Unless you are truly fascinated by the topic and consider it intrinsically valuable and rewarding to work on it, you can easily slip into becoming an ABD instead of a Ph.D.!
Make sure that you do not start a dissertation on an unfamiliar topic. You should prepare some plans, even if tentative ones, well in advance and have a good overview of the topic before you commence active research. It will be extremely useful if you have already made preliminary excursions into various related issues during the course of your graduate study. Having written one or two seminar papers on some aspects of the topic, you will enter the dissertation stage already somewhat knowledgeable about the field. You will know most of the scholars who are writing in that field. This knowledge will help you to formulate issues and to write up the thesis proposal in a convincing manner. Moreover, you should by now have a sense of how interesting the topic actually is to you.
Once you have chosen your dissertation topic in collaboration with your adviser, you should seek her active guidance to the utmost degree possible. Every topic has imperceptible pitfalls, and your advisor can and should help you over them. Dissertation research is multifaceted; it proceeds in complex, and unexpected, ways, and the result is unpredictable. I have never done research that did not hold some surprises for me, and at times, I even disapproved my initial hypothesis. The closer your topic is to the expertise of your mentor, the more direction you can count on, and the easier it should be for you to avoid making mistakes or getting stuck along the way. These issues are less pertinent in the laboratory sciences because there the graduate student usually works in a close-knit research team, direction and funded by the mentor's own research program. In such fields, there is more group interaction, and perhaps more cooperation and conformity in research design.
In any case, you will need to learn who the important scholars are in the field. Ask your advisor who is working in your area, check their respective home pages on the Internet, and look for their working papers. Consult also the programs of the meetings of professional organizations in your field for people interested in related topics. Dissertations in progress are sometimes announced in the newsletter of discipline's main professional association, or there is a centralized dissertation registry. Though incomplete, they are certainly useful. Check also the University of Michigan microfilms of unpublished dissertations.
Because in some departments and in some disciplines your access to your mentor might be limited, you may find it advisable to talk over your preliminary ideas with your peers and even show them your dissertation proposal before you give it to your mentor.
Your dissertation is your first real research project, and you are not expected to strike out on your own into completely uncharted territory. That would be premature. You should restrict the scope of your topic as far as you can. You will be expected to work within a paradigm; that is, you aren't required to resolve a major controversy between two competing schools of thought in the discipline, although you can explore a pertinent aspect of a controversy in a case study. Dissertations are similar to the "masterpieces" that medieval guilds required for full membership in a craft: you might think of yourself as a journeyman demonstrating her skills to the members of a profession. In other words, the dissertation need not be an earth-shattering contribution, but, however modest, it must be original and demonstrate your skill in research and argument. Actually, one of the unstated purposes of the thesis requirement is to filter out people who will not be able to do original research in their subsequent career.
I think there is considerable variation here across disciplines and across universities and departments as well. I can give a lot of reasons why her advisor wants to be working on, and you've mentioned most of them already. But I would also say that the stronger a student's intellectual abilities and strength of will are, the more she should take seriously the notion of setting off in a radically new direction intellectually. But I mean that only for students who are intellectually mature enough to provide arguments that are cogent within the old paradigm for why the new approach is superior. That's very tall order.
And in the real world, the selection of a dissertation topic is often going to be a matter of negotiation in some respects between advisor and student. I don't think I've ever had a student come to me with a list of three of four possible topics to get my take on them, but that seems like a pretty good idea.
Penny Gold: Whether one takes a topic selected by an advisor or develops one's own, I would emphasize John Komlos's comment that one has to be excited about the topic. I think it is more likely that this will happen, if the topic is developed by the student, and coming from questions that they really want to pursue. What difference will it make to you if your question is answered? If the answer is "Not much, it's just a nifty puzzle," you might want to search further. The interest has to be deep enough to sustain you over years of difficult work. Your professional identity will be also, shaped by association with this topic. Is this how you'd like to be known in the field, at least for the rather long first stage of it, until you do your next large project?
If I may turn for a moment to the more practical issue of financing the dissertation, I would like to note that if you do not already hold a fellowship, you should look at the many complications of available fellowships in your library. Ask your mentor for possibilities, and consult the graduate or department secretary as well as the university's research office. You should also be aware of what grants other students ahead of you have perceived. Some national professional organizations have their own list of prospective funding agencies relevant to the discipline. In addition, the newsletters of many organizations advertise such opportunities. You should plan ahead, start early, and write the most convincing proposal you can. It's a good idea to apply for all the grants for which you might conceivably qualify, since it is easier to turn down an award received than to wait a year for the next cycle of competition if you are under-funded. Some fellowships are not mutually exclusive, but allow you to hold other awards either simultaneously or consecutively. The goal, of course, is not to get rich, but to obtain enough support to complete the dissertation comfortably. Allot yourself enough time. Be generous in your estimates, since many have a tendency to be overly optimistic about the length of time required to complete a project. Do not forget that this is the first time you will be doing original research. You should anticipate unforeseen detours requiring additional time to bring the project to completion.
Of those who were enrolled in a doctoral program in 1997, only half had started on their thesis four years after graduating from college. The breakdown in the various programs is as follows:
Thesis in Progress
These data have their limitations because they do not reveal when the student started the program. But the information does give us some idea of the progress of college graduates within four years after receiving their first degree. For example, 5 percent of those in a doctoral program in 1997 had completed their thesis required at that point. To be sure, 40 percent had not started yet.
The University of Michigan Dissertation Abstract Database can be found at http://www.umi.com.
The National Science Foundation supports research in a number of social science areas, including sociology, political science, economics, law, statistics, and management (for doctoral research as well). See http:www.nsf.gov/sbe/ses/start/htm.