A doctoral degree is a common path if you want to pursue your academic interests in a rigorous and research-oriented program. Many doctoral programs consist of several years of classes and one or more years of research, culminating in the defense of your dissertation. If you’re wondering what a dissertation is or how to choose a direction for such a lofty endeavor, you’ve come to the right place. Use this guide to learn more about what a dissertation entails and how to choose your dissertation topic, then dive into the topics that matter and narrow down the details of starting your research.

What Is a Dissertation?

Let’s start with the basics and answer the question, “What is a dissertation?” According to Top Universities, a dissertation is an original, long-form research project that involves collecting and analyzing new or existing data. By applying the methods and guidelines learned in your doctoral program, you can gather data and present findings in your dissertation in one of two ways:

1. Empirical (new): These dissertations involve collecting new data, which you can do in a number of ways. Some of the most common methods of collecting data include observing participants or subjects — whether humans or animals — in a lab or other setting. Students of natural and life sciences graduate programs often choose this path, though it is not the only option, per Top Universities.

2. Non-empirical (existing): Although they don’t require the collection of original data, these dissertations focus on existing data and arguments to formulate a new argument or argue in defense of an existing argument. You’ll need to compile information, facts, and research from sources such as surveys and books, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have to bury yourself in a library for the completion of your dissertation. A critical part of non-empirical research is applying critical thinking and presenting an original analysis of the subject.

How to Choose a Dissertation Topic

Now that you have a foundational understanding of what a dissertation is, and you know the two types of dissertations to choose from, the time has come to choose your dissertation topic. Follow these six simple steps to choose a topic, and you’ll be well on your way to building an outline for your final doctoral program project.

Step 1: Start From a Broad Angle

The good news is by the third or fourth year of your program, you likely have discovered some general areas that interest you. After all, you made it this far into your academic pursuits and research, so it’s a great place to start. Starting with a broad sense of what area of interest you want to study will help. 

For instance, if you want to earn a PhD in psychology, you may have discovered a subject area that interests you enough to dedicate weeks and months of research — such as abnormal psychology, social psychology, cognition, or forensic psychology. Focusing on one of these areas of interest you are passionate about or already have experience in is a great place to begin. Once you have chosen a general topic for your dissertation, you can narrow down the specifics of what you want to research within the field.

Step 2: Consider the Guidelines

Next, carefully review your institution’s requirements for completing your dissertation. Academic writing site Scribbr encourages you to understand dissertation components, such as sources for research, minimum and maximum word count, deadlines for chapters and presentation, professional or academic orientation, fieldwork, and more. Thoroughly understanding these guidelines and limitations can give you more focus than diving into your dissertation without key information. By cutting out what’s off limits, you can spend more time narrowing down what’s reasonable to research with the resources you have available. 

Step 3: Study the Field

A core part of your dissertation research will be studying the field itself. Before you begin collecting any original data or gathering data from other sources, you should spend time deeply understanding the past and current state of that part of the field. This research can be used in your literature review (more on that to come), and will ground your forthcoming analysis in the field.

Step 4: Narrow Your Topic Down

As you dig into the research and understand the background of your broader topic, take time to consider what really interests you about this particular area. If there are individual studies, phenomena, or conclusions you choose to corroborate or challenge, dive deeper into the questions you have. Probing deeper into these narrowed-down areas will help illuminate what you’re excited to research. In turn, these questions can guide the months of original research that lay ahead of you.

Step 5: Make Your Research Topic Original

Once you have decided on a topic that is both interesting and reasonable, based on your institution’s requirements, dedicate time to develop a fresh take on your study. You do not want to replicate past research, nor do you want to add noise to the topic. Ask questions that challenge current ways of thinking. Find new ways to investigate the field. Investigate methods that have not previously been used in this area. What new and original perspectives can you bring to the topic? They will be the essence of your dissertation.

Step 6: Consult Your Advisor

If there is anyone who has been in your place before, it is most likely your dissertation advisor. The graduate, professor, or mentor who will act as your guide and final approver is a resource you should utilize! As My Dissertation Editor points out, advisors provide you with guidance, organization, and mentorship. Tap into them for support and advice at every major step along the way. Depend on their experience to guide yours. They have likely made missteps and learned lessons that you can benefit from. Use their experience to help guide you in choosing a dissertation topic and executing the lengthy research. Run your ideas past them, defer to their expertise, and ask for help when you get stuck. 

While these six steps are not definitive, they can act as a guide in choosing your dissertation topic. It is likely you will need to dedicate a good portion of your dissertation planning simply to determining the best topic for you, so revisit these steps as often as you need to hone-in on the final direction of your research. You should also review the below considerations before committing to a dissertation topic – most importantly, the role it will play in your career after you graduate.

Does Your Dissertation Topic Matter After You Graduate?

The answer to whether or not your dissertation topic matters after you graduate depends entirely on your professional pursuits. If you wish to pursue a career in biochemistry, then logically, your dissertation topic should be heavily focused to this field.

With your dissertation being a serious time commitment — not to mention the pinnacle of your academia — you should carefully consider how you will use your topic to define your career. If you plan to teach at an advanced level or continue your research at an academic or government facility, your dissertation topic will set the stage for what you teach and research. That is one end of the spectrum, asserts Francesco Lelli, while the other extreme is rather defeating: it does not matter. Lelli outlines seven possible outcomes for the life of your dissertation after your graduate (Editor’s note: they range from dire to inspiring. So, hang in there. If you believe in your research, there is a place for it to live on even after commencement.):

  1. Your dissertation will be (almost) forgotten.
  2. Your dissertation will be used by another student.
  3. Your dissertation will be used by a student association.
  4. Your dissertation will contribute to the research of your supervisor.
  5. You will co-author a publication that uses part of the content of your dissertation.
  6. Your dissertation will contribute to a national or international research project.
  7. Your dissertation will be used in the company where you were doing your internship.

It stands to reason you should be aware of all the possible outcomes of your dissertation and the weight the outcomes carry, depending on your pursuits after you graduate. The good news is this: you get to determine how important your research is and how involved it is in your future. That can range from little to possible great importance.

How Long Is a Dissertation?

Now into the nitty gritty of not just your dissertation topic, but of the paper itself. Steve Tippins of Beyond PhD Coaching answers this question simply: your dissertation should be “long enough to answer the question.” Though this answer may be vague, his point is that you cannot know how long — or short for that matter — your dissertation needs to be until you do the research, both in the form of a literature review and in data collection, followed by the appropriate analysis. Only then as you sit down to write out your findings and compile conclusions will you see how long your dissertation needs to be.

What Chapters Are in a Dissertation?

You can expect chapters to vary slightly by discipline, such as humanities versus life sciences, but the core chapters of a dissertation generally remain the same. Upon completing your research and gathering your findings, you will present a manuscript with chapters that may include:

  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Methodology
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion

What Skills Do You Need to Write Your Dissertation?

If you’re accepted into a grad program, you’ll likely develop many skills through classes you take, and you can expect to hone those skills further while researching and writing your dissertation. Some skills you will likely use, according to Thesis Editor, include critical thinking, time management, project management, organization, research, public speaking, networking, and of course, writing.

What Are Some Tips for Choosing a Dissertation Topic?

When you tackle such an important endeavor as choosing a dissertation topic, there are some tips to keep in mind to help you decide. First, keep your topic realistic and achievable, says Lib Guide. As you develop preliminary research questions, try to prevent them from taking on a larger scope than is manageable in the allotted time you will have to answer them. In addition to mapping out your dissertation, reviewing the field, collecting data, analyzing your findings, and writing your dissertation, unexpected factors are bound to come up. When these impact your time until completion, you will be glad you kept your topic realistic. 

Finally, one tip: you should not attack this feat without passion. You undoubtedly decided to pursue a graduate program because you are passionate about the field. Keep that same enthusiasm alive with the dissertation topic you choose. You will be committed to it not only for the length of the research and dissertation, but potentially much longer if you shape your career around it. 

Overview: How to Choose Your Dissertation Topic

Choosing a dissertation topic can be both challenging and rewarding. While there are many factors in the process of your research you cannot change – time, resources, and institutional requirements – you can impact your dissertation topic by taking time to understand how you really want to spend the weeks and months, and possibly years, ahead of you. Try to strike a balance of not limiting yourself, while focusing on a dissertation topic that sparks your interest and provides value to the field.


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