An anonymous academic once told one of my students that "A good dissertation is a finished dissertation." Though off-putting to an anxious PhD or Master candidate, the prof's comment speaks to the tenacity and heads up planning that must go into conceiving, executing, analyzing, and writing a dissertation. The more cognizant you are of the many constraints that must be fulfilled to complete a dissertation the better your chance of creating a good dissertation and indeed finishing your dissertation. In this post and the accompanying white paper "A Guide to Picking a Dissertation Topic," I outline three important factors and constraints that should go into any dissertation starting with your interests and ending with the literature that your research question must fit into.
The three factors discussed here are (1) Your own interests and passions, (2) the skills and interests of your university staff (especially committee chairs and members), and (3) the place of your research in the literature on your topic. Choosing a "good" topic starts from within exploring your interests and passion, but your research is not done in a vacuum. Once you've identified what is important and meaningful to you, you must find the place of your research among the community of your university and its staff (particularly your committee and chair), and determine the value of your research within the larger literature on your topic.
The Research Questions Within: The critical starting point to finding a good research topic is to explore and know your own interests and passions. I suggest that students do a self-evaluation of the topics that interest them, courses they've enjoyed, experience they've had in their field, and their key skills as an important input into their choice of topics. This self-knowledge will be a pillar of strength in the arduous road to completing a dissertation. If you care about your topic, it will give you strength along the way. If you don't, no one will. Great research springs from the passion and ideas of bright people like you, and I encourage you to first and foremost pursue those interests and passions. However, your passion is only a starting point, and to make your research meaningful (and finish your dissertation;) you will need to involve your academic community and find the niche of your research in the larger literature on the topic.
Aligning with Your University and Program's Community: An important constraint to consider when choosing your topic is the skills and interest of the staff in your university and the program you are enrolled in. I therefore also suggest an evaluation of the key players in your program's staff. Ideally, your topic of interest will fit into the research interests and skills of the professors in your program and especially your dissertation committee and committee chair. This is not just a matter of the sycophantic echoing of your chair and committee's interests. The advice and unique skills of your chair and committee should be a resource to you, and if your interests align with theirs, you will benefit from their experience and knowledge in the development and execution of your research.
Having said that, there is a certain "office politics" involved in getting the approval of your plans and work from your committee and chair. It is impossible to escape the fact that these professors have the power to pass you (or not), so it is in your best interest to form a good relationship with these mentors and colleagues, and to respect them and gain their respect. If you have the ability to choose a chair and your committee, it would paramount to choose people with whom you work well and share your interests and values. Your relationships with your university staff are a critical link to not only getting your dissertation approved, but to getting intelligent mentoring and feedback to make your work better and to get you through your dissertation.
Aligning with the Larger Research and Literature on Your Topic: The third pillar of finding a good research topic is how the research you propose fits into the literature on the topic. You should review the literature of your topic with a keen eye on your research questions and hypotheses because your review of the literature usually culminates explaining how your research fits into this literature and with a formal presentation of your research question and hypotheses. You should rely on the guidance of your committee and chair to set out a good literature review plan that does not loose sight of your research questions and hypotheses. One of the most common issues I see in dissertations are literature reviews that are disconnected from the research questions, hypotheses proposed. The development of research questions and hypotheses should be done in the context of writing your literature review which will culminate with a justification of your research and its contribution to the literature and a formal presentation of your research questions and hypotheses.
A research topic chosen from your interests, that fits the experience and interests of your university community (your committee and chair), and that has a strong niche in the literature on your topic will get you started with a strong basis to create a good dissertation and one that you will finish. You are invited to download my Guide to Picking A Dissertation Topic which outlines this process in detail including questions and worksheets to guide you.
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