"Never lose sight of the fact that the dissertation should be
the crowning achievement of your graduate education and will influence
the direction of your career for many years to come."
Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#352 HOW DOES ONE CHOOSE A DISSERTATION
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
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
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).
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