Monday, July 25, 2011

Choosing a Dissertation Topic (and staying with it), Part 1


After getting started, it’s not uncommon for a doctoral student to switch dissertation topics—at least once. Did I switch topics? Well, no . . . but I considered it carefully. I know of many colleagues who decided that their topic, for whatever reason, wasn’t working for them and after a semester—or year, or even two (yikes!)—it was time to find something else to write about (or about which to write for you grammatical sticklers). What I want to offer (humbly I might add) is experience-based advice on how to (possibly) avoid this all too common topic switching. Based on a successful dissertation, lots of reading, talking to colleagues, and experience, I offer the following recommendations for staying on task with your original dissertation topic.


1. Find a topic you care about.

Sounds easy, right? Think again. In many ways, it seems like common sense (an elusive phrase in itself) to write about something you love—not just like. Unfortunately, there are hundreds—if not thousands—of dissertations out there that have no bearing on what the author’s really care about. Sometimes this happens because we choose a topic we think our advisor would like to read about (see #3 below). At other times, we are unsure of what we want to write on and think, “What am I interested in right now?” A valid question no doubt; however, you need to think BIGGER than your immediate interests. What topics, interests, and ideas have intrigued you enough to write a couple hundred (or less) pages about? Often, we ask our students a similar question, and the answer is dependant. Just like writing teachers—like me—have to tell our students, you do not need to know anything substantial about the topic before you write. The topic should make you ask questions and those questions are the core of research—the things that lead to developing your ideas about topic X. So . . . if I find a topic I care about, that I have questions regarding, and that I believe I could write a dissertation on, what then? This leads us to the next recommendation.


2. Think about what you would like to be known for (you will, after all, be considered the world’s foremost expert at topic X—your dissertation).

Seriously, do you want to be known for topic Y? Regardless of what you believe to be the popularity of your topic with your imagined audience, your dissertation defines your professional agenda and scholarly persona for years to come. Ok, don’t get scared. Let me tell you a story about how I decided my topic because I think it will be helpful to this point.


When I was in my second year (early, I know) of doctoral studies, I tried to get a head start on my dissertation topic by thoughtfully considering my interests. As many of you are finding out, those interests are quite varied and still forming in those early stages of graduate school. Here is what I knew for certain. First, I wanted to work in the specialty of computers and writing—specifically in digital media (my Masters thesis had been on wikis in the teaching of writing, so I had a start here). Second, I was doing research on the experiences of Christian graduate students in doctoral education in Writing Studies as another interest, which led to a published article in my third year, and I knew this topic greatly interested me. Thirdly, I was interested—by corollary—in the moral aspects of writing with digital media such as moral development in college students. So, how could I combine these interests into a dissertation topic? Just as importantly, would I want to be known in my field for research in these three areas: digital media, religion, and moral development (ethics)? The answer was a resounding yes: this is how I wanted my academic persona to be recognized. My topic, then, became digital media ethics in Writing Studies, with a focus on secular and religious higher educational institutions. I had found my topic, and I was ready to get started on the next step: finding an appropriate advisor.

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