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PhD Thesis: How to find a Dissertation Topic


I recently had a conversation with a PhD student who is trying to find a thesis topic. I shared my own journey to finding my topic, as well as some bits of advice I’ve heard from others along the way. For what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts:

  • Start broad and then focus. Ask, What research area within your field do you enjoy? Start reading in this area. Note those narrower topics that interest you. Keep mining and focusing in until you find a topic.
  • Poke consensus, even long standing but recently unchallenged conclusions. Often new information or methodologies will challenge the consensus.
  • Snoop around topics/areas that aren’t receiving a lot of attention or are new. Not only will this help you avoid that dreaded discovery that someone else has already written your dissertation, but it will give the opportunity to make a significant contribution.
  • Climb out on the branches of a scholar’s (or your supervisor’s) vine. Look at those topics mentioned under ‘future research’ headings at the end of a monograph or thesis, for example. This isn’t my favorite approach, but not all valuable research is ‘pioneer’ research.
  • Mine those areas in which you have already done research. Work smarter, not and harder (but not harder than necessary).
  • Ask a scholar for a topic (or better, for help in narrowing your current research). I don’t like the outright ask a scholar to give you a topic, but in some disciplines and PhD models, doctoral research is conducted largely under the work/research interests of an already-established scholar. If you’re considering doctoral research, though, you should have the skills to begin working out a research area for yourself.
As you prepare to write, you may also want to consider software for your thesis/dissertation writing. I review a number of options here.

By the way, I’ve begun gathering information and advice to incorporate in an ebook for anyone interested in better writing (e.g., theses, essays, etc.). The goal is to be thorough yet concise. Topics include research, organization, writing style, process of writing, and technological aids (software, web, etc.). If you want to hear when its finished, sign up below. If not, no worries! 


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