Developing your dissertation topic is (obviously) one of the first steps of your dissertation process. But did you know that it’s also one of the most important? And, did you know that most people find it one of the most challenging aspects of getting started?
Choosing your dissertation topic is a lot like choosing your significant other. You’ll be spending a lot of time together, staying up late into the night, working together, and you’ll need to be in conversation and dialogue for the whole time you’re together. You’ll need to be able to withstand changes in focus, prevent topic bloat, and, otherwise, remain engaged and on good working terms for the length of your dissertation process.
There are five main mistakes I see graduate students make when they are choosing their dissertation topic.
Mistake #1: They try to please everyone, and end up pleasing nobody (least of all themselves.)
Since choosing a dissertation topic is a sometimes vague and uncertain process, it’s natural to want to seek advice. The challenge becomes when you get a lot of great ideas, from a lot of sources, and start to lose track of what you want to do, and why. It’s easy to get advice, but not always easy to meld the good advice into something workable. It’s always better to start with some ideas for yourself, and be patient with your process of sifting and sorting through the options.
Mistake #2: Choosing an overly ambitious topic, one that includes too many variables
The best dissertation is a done dissertation. Selecting a topic with too many variables can make it difficult to research, difficult to write, and difficult to find any meaningful results. This is a recipe for a very long, and very painful, dissertation process. Better to choose a topic that you can comfortably complete, rather than one which seems grand, but never gets done.
Mistake #3: Allowing the topic to grow bigger as time goes on.
I talk about this idea in terms of ‘scope creep’- which means that the topic and focus keeps expanding as you read more, learn more, and talk to your advisor more frequently. It is wise to keep boundaries on your topic and to assess periodically if the topic is growing bigger over time. If it is, you need to find ways to put in parameters and limit it, otherwise you run into a topic which is too complex and might not even be doable. (See Mistake #2).
Mistake #4: Planning your topic without operationalizing your process.
This mistake refers to creating a dissertation topic without any clear plan of how you will actually examine your questions or complete the project. You must find a balance between big picture thinking and being very specific about how and when you will collect the data or develop the information for your project. Be sure you have a reasonably clear research method or pathway determined prior to finalizing your topic.
Mistake #5: Choosing a topic for which you can not obtain or create data.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen more often than you think. Again, students get so caught up in the ideas that they forget to take the next step, which is grounding their ideas in both theory and practicalities such as data collection, data access, and data usability. If you can’t create or obtain data, you can’t complete the research. And if you can’t finish the research, you won’t get your degree.
If you are the early stages of the dissertation process, I’d strongly recommend that you use these tips as a guideline for how best to proceed in selecting your dissertation topic. A bit of knowledge at the beginning can save you a lot of headache at the end.