Overwhelmed by the Idea of Picking a Dissertation Topic?
The dissertation is one of the trademark features of earning a doctorate, but selecting a topic and coming up with a project plan for the dissertation is often easier said than done. The SPSPotlight co-editors interviewed some SPSP student members who are in the final stages of their dissertation to get their insight and advice on starting the dissertation.
First things first: check your program
Many components of the dissertation process—like how to pick a topic or who to choose for one’s committee members—can vary program to program and/or from advisor to advisor. Students should check in with their advisor and program head about the expectations, norms, and rules for their specific program. For example, some Ph.D. programs prefer the dissertation to be a compilation of projects students have worked on throughout their time in graduate school. Martha Berg, a Ph.D. student at The University of Michigan, who recently defended her dissertation on how people respond when their close friends commit moral transgressions, stated that the dissertation process in her program is meant to reflect “a collection of the best work [students] have done” throughout graduate school. Other programs or advisors encourage stand-alone projects for the dissertation. Understanding the expectations before diving into one’s dissertation project can save students a lot of time and effort.
What factors should be considered in choosing a topic?
What students already know
It can be useful for students to think about the areas of literature with which they are already familiar when deciding on a topic. Delancey Wu, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, began seriously considering her dissertation following her qualifying period. As part of her qualification exam, Delancey wrote a review paper on cultural differences in support-seeking and the various mechanisms that underlie these processes. In doing so, she also became interested in how these cultural differences would extend to perceived responsiveness and other close relationship processes. As a result, Delancey chose to study the cultural differences in how people perceived others’ responsiveness and she used the review paper she wrote for her qualifying exam to form the introduction for her dissertation. Similarly, Martha Berg built upon previous work she completed in graduate school for her dissertation. Martha had begun looking at moral transgressions in friends early in graduate school and found that this topic was successful in generating new ideas. As a result, she was able to build on her past work under this theme to form a cohesive dissertation.
What students are passionate about
It’s also useful for students to consider their personal interest in and enjoyment of a topic. Rachael Jones, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, initially began the dissertation process with a different idea in mind that her advisor encouraged. However, Rachael realized she was making slow progress because she was not enthusiastic about the project. Therefore, she changed her topic to be about something she personally found more interesting: how people use eating and exercise to manage their stress and negative emotions. Rachael commented that maintaining motivation throughout the dissertation process can be challenging as it is, so she advises students to pick a project topic that will hold their interest for a long time.
Practical constraints and the bigger picture
Delancey Wu advises students as they prepare to embark on their dissertation journey to keep in mind how practical a given project or study will be. She initially hoped one of the studies for her dissertation could be an observational lab study, but since she was writing her proposal during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was not sure how feasible it would be to conduct that study in person down the line. Factors like timing, funding, lab space, and even national or global circumstances can all influence the feasibility of a study and completing one’s dissertation. Students should minimize the factors that are outside their control in selecting the research method(s) for their dissertation so that they can complete their dissertation in a timely manner with something to show for their efforts.
Finally, Rachael Jones mentioned it’s important to keep in mind how a student’s dissertation will fit into their broader career goals. Rachael shared, “Students receive conflicting messages about how important their dissertation is. On the one hand, the dissertation is what the public most associates with a Ph.D. and an important capstone project in graduate school. On the other hand, academia and other future employers may not value the dissertation as much as they do publications, skills, teaching, or practical experience [depending on the job].” She encourages students to keep this disparity in mind, and to consider how they should distribute their time and effort to match what they value and for what they will ultimately be rewarded.
Beginning one’s dissertation is an exciting, but often overwhelming, step in one’s graduate school journey. Keeping program expectations, knowledge and interest of a topic, and practical constraints in mind can help students make the most of their dissertation experience.
Special thanks to Martha Berg, Delancey Wu, and Rachael Jones for their contributions. Responses were edited for grammar and clarity. All direct quotes were printed with permission.