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The posting below looks at some practical suggestions for choosing
the right dissertation topic in the humanities and social sciences.
It is from Chapter 4 Finishing the Doctoral Degree in a Timely
Fashion: The Dissertation as a Key Factor in the Humanities and
Social Sciences, by Cynthia Verba, in Scholarly Pursuits: A Guide
to Professional Development During the Graduate Years. A Publication
of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Copyright ©
2005 By the President & Fellows of Harvard University. Reprinted
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Finishing the Doctoral Degree in a Timely Fashion
The Dissertation as a Key Factor in the Humanities and Social
The Dissertation from the Faculty Perspective
Additional insights for choosing a dissertation topic were offered
at a panel discussion by faculty members (entitled "What
Makes a Good Topic and How to Find It"). The professors were
able to approach the subject from their experiences both as dissertation
advisors and as scholars who have gone through the process of
choosing research projects themselves. The speakers acknowledge
that choosing a dissertation topic is a challenging process that
can produce considerable anxiety. A student's ego and identity
are involved-it's almost like choosing who you are.
They then devoted themselves to dispelling anxiety by offering
a series of practical suggestions for choosing a good topic. They
stated at the outset that they could not provide a strict set
of rules. Topics are as wide as human knowledge; different fields
have different criteria, different paradigms, and different methods.
In the absence of a clear set of rules, the speakers proceeded
instead to apply common sense and experience to arrive at helpful
* Originality is a principal criterion of a good topic. You can
be original in diverse ways. You may examine material that has
never been studied before; or you can examine well-known material,
but provide new interpretation.
* Another way to view these different concepts of originality
is to recognize that some topics are central to the field and
that there is always new work being done; other topics are on
the periphery and have been neglected.
* It is important to choose a topic that is congenial to you,
that you think is worthwhile not only within the framework of
the discipline, but on a personal level. It is not all irrelevant
to consider how much you like interviewing, computers, dealing
with insects-or whatever it is that a topic demands.
* The specific topic that you study may have a personal and idiosyncratic
origin. It is no accident that research on certain groups is likely
to be pioneered by people of that group: women have often led
the way in women's history, Blacks in Black history, immigrants
in the history of immigration.
* You should have a doable thesis that has boundaries; you have
to be able at least to imagine where and when it would end. It
if hard to start a thesis, it can be even harder to end one.
* This means that you should be ambitious intellectually, but
not too ambitious, think of it as a task that will enable you
to get on with your career. Students sometimes ask if their dissertation
should include A, B, C, and D after the dissertation is finished.
* One speaker put this idea in a different way. He suggested
that instead of writing a dissertation prospectus it is best simply
to write a dissertation chapter. He explained that what he really
meant was that it is best to do a little piece of research think
small. If it is interesting it will lead to a bigger problem.
The best proposal is a pilot project; once you have picked a path
you can add on different forks as you go along. He observed that
everyone knows the BIG IDEAS, it is harder to do the little ones.
* Modesty is also helpful in choosing a manageable topic. Some
students set out to write a dissertation that will change the
world; others just want to write a dissertation. In terms of results,
there seems to be no correlation between the quality of the dissertation
and the ambitious nature of the topic.
* They noted that it is useful to make the dissertation separable
into parts with short-term goals. Work on the dissertation often
competes poorly with other tasks that offer more immediate gratification.
Confronting the dissertation as a whole can lead to endless postponements.
* There was also a warning that dissertations seldom turn out
as planned; it is important to hedge your bets and be prepared
in case you do not find data that speaks to the issue.
* A good dissertation topic should also allow you to say something
that is convincing to other people. Each field has its own rules
as to what is compelling evidence. There is always a topic of
explanation and there must be interpretable results.
* One speaker suggested that topics that involve comparisons
provide a more structured framework than studies of individual
subjects. He also recommended building on the work of others.
This does not mean replication, but rather looking for gaps or
for ways to extend other investigations. He stressed that very
few things start de novo. Having a framework, testing things that
others have done is very helpful.
* To find out what it is you would like to do, it is helpful
to be attentive to your reactions in your scholarly reading. If
you find yourself saying "I wish I had written that,"
you can use that as a key to finding something similar.
* Preparing a research design also requires conversation. Research
is often a solitary activity, but designing research is an activity
that should be carried out collaboratively. Decisions made at
the stage of research design are so crucial to the value of subsequent
labor that issues must be talked out thoroughly at the outset.
Even highly experienced researchers often collaborate with colleagues,
teach courses on methodology with them, or pop into each other's
office with a query twice a day. Rule numbers one for graduate
students beginning their first large research projects is: engage
in an extended conversation with your advisors. Even Jove, with
his legendary powers, could not generate a good research design
full-blown from his head.
* Looking to the future, the speakers addressed the relationship
between the dissertation topic and job prospects. Both agreed
that job considerations should be subordinate to intellectual
interests. In any case, predicting the market is like "guessing
in the dark." A topic that is in the mainstream of the discipline
might appear to be safer, but it may be in an overcrowded field.
That problem is not completely solved by choosing a more peripheral
topic, since there may be less demand. In general, you should
avoid choosing a topic because you think it is fashionable. They
also added that the dissertation topic does not necessarily identify
your field that precisely-hiring departments tend to work by broad
During the question period, several students wanted to know how
best to choose a dissertation advisor-especially how to factor
in problems of personality or accessibility versus area of expertise.
Both speakers strongly recommended working with more than one
advisor-it can be beneficial even if there are no conflicts. The
arrangement would depend on departmental policies; in some cases
it could be a formal dissertation; in others, it may be more a
more informal consultation arrangement. It can extend to faculty
members outside of your department and even outside of your department
and even outside of the University. In general, it is wise to
have a number of potential advisors in mind. Some of the most
popular, professors can be too great a demand.
The speakers tried to reassure students that most professors
care about their dissertation advisees-indeed, professors often
find it a source of personal pride to be an active part of the
process of training a new generation of scholars. They added that
the faculty have an obligation to teach and advise graduate students-that
is what they are paid to do. The speakers urged students to be
more active than passive in seeking an advisor, to be more aggressive
in their outreach to professors. They strongly recommended that
students work hard during their first year or two in getting to
know the faculty beyond their classes-interviewing professors,
and attending lectures or seminars.
Another student asked about the role of advisors in getting a
job-he particularly wanted to know what to do if an advisor was
planning to retire soon. The speakers responded that a professor's
retirement need not pose a problem. He or she may even have more
time to give to students. It is common for professors to continue
to work with students after they have left an institution. It
is important to talk frankly with a retiring professor about this
Finally, a student asked why Harvard students seem to take so
long in finishing the dissertation. The speakers observed that
the problem arose from a combination of external pressures and
internal factors. After exams, most students start teaching, which
is a major distraction from the thesis. In addition, some topics
take a long time. However, both speakers had the impression that
students take longer than they have to, and that they are especially
slow to begin. Both felt that this was a mistake and that students
ought to plunge in as quickly as possible. It is very important
to work hard enough during the first year of the dissertation
to keep it alive even while teaching.
Timing of the dissertation was also discussed in terms of reaching
a crucial point in the dissertation where the problematics become
clear; you reach a conceptual breakthrough that allows you to
imagine the end. The earlier that you reach this crucial point,
the better. If you reach it during the first year of the dissertation
work, then you can probably finish in two years, which in many
fields is a respectable amount of time. You should be able to
project even early in the dissertation what a reasonable amount
of time would involve. There was a warning that people tire of
dissertations. The ideal is to pick a congenial topic, work at
a reasonable pace, and FINISH.
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