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How to Choose a Dissertation Topic | 8 Steps to Follow
Published on November 11, 2022 by Shona McCombes and Tegan George. Revised on January 3, 2023.
Choosing your dissertation topic is the first step in making sure your research goes as smoothly as possible. When choosing a topic, it’s important to consider:
- Your institution and department’s requirements
- Your areas of knowledge and interest
- The scientific, social, or practical relevance
- The availability of data and resources
- The timeframe of your dissertation
- The relevance of your topic
You can follow these steps to begin narrowing down your ideas.
Table of contents
Step 1: check the requirements, step 2: choose a broad field of research, step 3: look for books and articles, step 4: find a niche, step 5: consider the type of research, step 6: determine the relevance, step 7: make sure it’s plausible, step 8: get your topic approved, frequently asked questions about dissertation topics.
The very first step is to check your program’s requirements. This determines the scope of what it is possible for you to research.
- Is there a minimum and maximum word count?
- When is the deadline?
- Should the research have an academic or a professional orientation?
- Are there any methodological conditions? Do you have to conduct fieldwork, or use specific types of sources?
Some programs have stricter requirements than others. You might be given nothing more than a word count and a deadline, or you might have a restricted list of topics and approaches to choose from. If in doubt about what is expected of you, always ask your supervisor or department coordinator.
Start by thinking about your areas of interest within the subject you’re studying. Examples of broad ideas include:
- Twentieth-century literature
- Economic history
- Health policy
To get a more specific sense of the current state of research on your potential topic, skim through a few recent issues of the top journals in your field. Be sure to check out their most-cited articles in particular. For inspiration, you can also search Google Scholar , subject-specific databases , and your university library’s resources.
As you read, note down any specific ideas that interest you and make a shortlist of possible topics. If you’ve written other papers, such as a 3rd-year paper or a conference paper, consider how those topics can be broadened into a dissertation.
After doing some initial reading, it’s time to start narrowing down options for your potential topic. This can be a gradual process, and should get more and more specific as you go. For example, from the ideas above, you might narrow it down like this:
- Twentieth-century literature Twentieth-century Irish literature Post-war Irish poetry
- Economic history European economic history German labor union history
- Health policy Reproductive health policy Reproductive rights in South America
All of these topics are still broad enough that you’ll find a huge amount of books and articles about them. Try to find a specific niche where you can make your mark, such as: something not many people have researched yet, a question that’s still being debated, or a very current practical issue.
At this stage, make sure you have a few backup ideas — there’s still time to change your focus. If your topic doesn’t make it through the next few steps, you can try a different one. Later, you will narrow your focus down even more in your problem statement and research questions .
There are many different types of research , so at this stage, it’s a good idea to start thinking about what kind of approach you’ll take to your topic. Will you mainly focus on:
- Collecting original data (e.g., experimental or field research)?
- Analyzing existing data (e.g., national statistics, public records, or archives)?
- Interpreting cultural objects (e.g., novels, films, or paintings)?
- Comparing scholarly approaches (e.g., theories, methods, or interpretations)?
Many dissertations will combine more than one of these. Sometimes the type of research is obvious: if your topic is post-war Irish poetry, you will probably mainly be interpreting poems. But in other cases, there are several possible approaches. If your topic is reproductive rights in South America, you could analyze public policy documents and media coverage, or you could gather original data through interviews and surveys .
You don’t have to finalize your research design and methods yet, but the type of research will influence which aspects of the topic it’s possible to address, so it’s wise to consider this as you narrow down your ideas.
It’s important that your topic is interesting to you, but you’ll also have to make sure it’s academically, socially or practically relevant to your field.
- Academic relevance means that the research can fill a gap in knowledge or contribute to a scholarly debate in your field.
- Social relevance means that the research can advance our understanding of society and inform social change.
- Practical relevance means that the research can be applied to solve concrete problems or improve real-life processes.
The easiest way to make sure your research is relevant is to choose a topic that is clearly connected to current issues or debates, either in society at large or in your academic discipline. The relevance must be clearly stated when you define your research problem .
Before you make a final decision on your topic, consider again the length of your dissertation, the timeframe in which you have to complete it, and the practicalities of conducting the research.
Will you have enough time to read all the most important academic literature on this topic? If there’s too much information to tackle, consider narrowing your focus even more.
Will you be able to find enough sources or gather enough data to fulfil the requirements of the dissertation? If you think you might struggle to find information, consider broadening or shifting your focus.
Do you have to go to a specific location to gather data on the topic? Make sure that you have enough funding and practical access.
Last but not least, will the topic hold your interest for the length of the research process? To stay motivated, it’s important to choose something you’re enthusiastic about!
Most programmes will require you to submit a brief description of your topic, called a research prospectus or proposal .
Remember, if you discover that your topic is not as strong as you thought it was, it’s usually acceptable to change your mind and switch focus early in the dissertation process. Just make sure you have enough time to start on a new topic, and always check with your supervisor or department.
Formulating a main research question can be a difficult task. Overall, your question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement .
However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:
- Feasibility and specificity
- Relevance and originality
All research questions should be:
- Focused on a single problem or issue
- Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
- Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
- Specific enough to answer thoroughly
- Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
- Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly
You can assess information and arguments critically by asking certain questions about the source. You can use the CRAAP test , focusing on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.
Ask questions such as:
- Who is the author? Are they an expert?
- Why did the author publish it? What is their motivation?
- How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence?
A dissertation prospectus or proposal describes what or who you plan to research for your dissertation. It delves into why, when, where, and how you will do your research, as well as helps you choose a type of research to pursue. You should also determine whether you plan to pursue qualitative or quantitative methods and what your research design will look like.
It should outline all of the decisions you have taken about your project, from your dissertation topic to your hypotheses and research objectives , ready to be approved by your supervisor or committee.
Note that some departments require a defense component, where you present your prospectus to your committee orally.
The best way to remember the difference between a research plan and a research proposal is that they have fundamentally different audiences. A research plan helps you, the researcher, organize your thoughts. On the other hand, a dissertation proposal or research proposal aims to convince others (e.g., a supervisor, a funding body, or a dissertation committee) that your research topic is relevant and worthy of being conducted.
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Home / Blog / 7 tips to help you to choose your dissertation topic
7 tips to help you to choose your dissertation topic
08th Sep 2017
Choosing a topic for your dissertation (or final year research project) can be difficult; your dissertation is an important piece of work that accounts for a large number of credits on an undergraduate or postgraduate degree course so it’s important to choose wisely.
Are you a student trying to narrow down your ideas to form a single subject? Or are you just planning ahead for a future course? Wherever you are in your education journey, discover our top tips for selecting the perfect topic for you…
1. Select a topic that you find interesting
Your dissertation or research project will take many weeks and months to complete. Therefore, it’s extremely important to choose a topic that you find interesting. Maybe you’ll find a topic that’s focused on your career? Or maybe you’ll be inspired by a subject in another module on your course? Either way, trust us; your motivation for your dissertation will be much easier to maintain if you have passion for the subject area.
Choosing a subject that might also benefit your future career is something that our tutors here at University of Essex Online would definitely recommend; it will give you greater understanding of an in-depth area of your business while also giving you an additional strength when writing a future job application statement.
2. Choose something different
It’s important to choose a unique topic for your project or dissertation to ensure that you have the opportunity to carry out your own research and come to your own conclusions. Finding a completely unique area of research is seldom possible, but perhaps you could consider approaching an already-researched area from a different angle? Or maybe you could develop a unique idea from a smaller topic that hasn’t already been saturated with research?
3. Don’t be too vague
A dissertation or research project must be a tightly-written, academic piece of work. Each sentence should contribute to the construction of the research or argument and the overall piece must follow a clear structure. Choosing an idea that is too broad may make it impossible to explore the topic fully in the word count allowed, and can make it extremely difficult to draw concise conclusions.
4. Don’t be too narrow
While your tutor will encourage you to be succinct, your dissertation still needs to meet the required word count. Focusing on a topic or question that is too small or narrow means that you will struggle to expand on your arguments and draw well-rounded conclusions. Similarly, when you are writing out your proposal, make sure you don’t select a question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.
Researching your topic is probably the best thing you can do to ensure that you’re choosing the right subject for you. Factor in time well before you need to submit your proposal to research the various topics you’re interested in, and you’ll probably quickly find out whether there are enough resources out there to allow you to expand on your ideas and to support (or contrast with) your position.
6. Be objective
It’s easy to ‘fall in love’ with a topic or subject early on in your research, making you blind to all its weaknesses. Therefore, it’s important to be realistic about the promise and scope of your idea. Try to take a step back from your topic and analyse it from an outsider’s perspective to make sure that you’re not holding onto a weak idea. As long as you have organised your schedule properly, you should still have plenty of time to find another topic.
7. Ask for advice from your tutor
Your tutor is your mentor and guide throughout the process of writing your dissertation. They are there to help you with any question you have, no matter how big or small. When you have an idea for your dissertation or project, and you’ve carried out some preliminary research yourself, schedule some time to talk to your tutor to ask for their advice. Your tutor will have years of experience guiding other students on their choice of topic, so you can be sure to receive some great recommendations.
Already got some ideas? You can find out more about the courses we offer by downloading a prospectus .
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How to Choose a Dissertation Topic
The first major challenge in the dissertation process is deciding the topic of your dissertation study. You need to consider how much research has been performed on the topic, whether it’s worth investigating further, how original your choice may be, and an understanding of whether or not it has been researched or is important to the field. If this seems like an awful lot to consider, keep in mind that your doctorate degree awaits you if you succeed.
How to find a Dissertation Topic
There are a number of ways to go about finding the dissertation topic you will end up pursuing. Topics rarely emerge from nowhere, you need to be proactive in your search. Some things you can consider, when choosing your dissertation topic are:
- What are my interests? If you’re writing about something that excites you, writing becomes much easier. Think about your career and personal life, and what positive effect you could have on both by studying a specific topic.
- What have I written about previously? Did one research paper stand out as something you’d like to pursue further? Did your professor give feedback or seem interested in you exploring the topic more? Consider reconnecting with your professor for direction or research the topic further to determine if it meets your needs.
- What current theories are being explored? What’s happening in your professional field? Are there innovations taking place that could be explored further. As new theories emerge, it becomes easier to expand on original research.
- What does Google say? If all else fails, you can always search for topics in your field online. Google Scholar is a great tool to help find scholarly research and publications after you settle on a topic idea.
- What have other dissertations recommended? Dissertations often include a “Recommendations for Future Research” area that proposes future research about their topic. You may want to investigate other dissertations that peak your interest, and use their recommended research to fuel your own pursuits.
Now that you have an understanding of what to consider before choosing a topic, you will need to find literature relating to the topic you chose.
Items to Consider Before Choosing Your Dissertation Topic
Keep in mind that your dissertation will be a lot of work, in understanding this, you should choose a topic that will keep you engaged. Choose a topic that interests you long term, not just in the moment.
Understanding the commitment that your dissertation will take, remember to choose a topic that is manageable. You should understand how much time and budget you may require to pursue the topic, if it’s out of scope, then you should consider alternative topics. Your graduation date should be used as motivation but also a deadline to have successfully defended your dissertation.
Make sure that the topic you choose has enough data to work from, or that it has not already been exhaustively researched. If a topic is too fresh, there may not be enough research to pull from when creating your dissertation. If the topic has already been researched in depth, you may not be able to provide new hypothesis and research of your own. It is a good general rule to use research no more than 2 years old. Keep in mind that if you use research older than 2 years old, the research could be 5 or more years old by the time you complete your dissertation and may be entirely out of date.
Once you’ve chosen a topic that fits your needs, and meets the needs of your committee members/professors/dissertation chairs, then it’s time to get to work.
Additional Dissertation Reading
Now that you know how to choose a dissertation topic, you might find these articles helpful:
- Writing Your Dissertation Proposal
- How to Write a Dissertation
- Preparing for Dissertation Defense
Still have broader questions about dissertations in general? You may be interested in the following article:
- What is a Dissertation
How To Find A High-Quality Research Topic
6 steps to find & evaluate high-quality dissertation/thesis topics.
By: Caroline Osella (PhD, BA) and Derek Jansen (MBA) | July 2019
So, you’re finally nearing the end of your degree and it’s now time to find a suitable topic for your dissertation or thesis. Or perhaps you’re just starting out on your PhD research proposal and need to find a suitable area of research for your application proposal.
In this post, we’ll provide a straightforward 6-step process that you can follow to ensure you arrive at a high-quality research topic . Follow these steps and you will formulate a well-suited, well-defined core research question .
There’s a helpful clue already: your research ‘topic’ is best understood as a research question or a problem . Your aim is not to create an encyclopedia entry into your field, but rather to shed light on an acknowledged issue that’s being debated (or needs to be). Think research questions , not research topics (we’ll come back to this later).
Overview: How To Find & Choose A Research Topic
- Get an understanding of the research process
- Review previous dissertations from your university
- Review the academic literature to start the ideation process
- Identify your potential research questions (topics) and shortlist
- Narrow down, then evaluate your research topic shortlist
- Make the decision (and stick with it!)
Step 1: Understand the research process
It may sound horribly obvious, but it’s an extremely common mistake – students skip past the fundamentals straight to the ideation phase (and then pay dearly for it).
Start by looking at whatever handouts and instructions you’ve been given regarding what your university/department expects of a dissertation. For example, the course handbook, online information and verbal in-class instructions. I know it’s tempting to just dive into the ideation process, but it’s essential to start with the prescribed material first.
There are two important reasons for this:
First , you need to have a basic understanding of the research process , research methodologies , fieldwork options and analysis methods before you start the ideation process, or you will simply not be equipped to think about your own research adequately. If you don’t understand the basics of quantitative , qualitative and mixed methods BEFORE you start ideating, you’re wasting your time.
Second , your university/department will have specific requirements for your research – for example, requirements in terms of topic originality, word count, data requirements, ethical adherence, methodology, etc. If you are not aware of these from the outset, you will again end up wasting a lot of time on irrelevant ideas/topics.
So, the most important first step is to get your head around both the basics of research (especially methodologies), as well as your institution’s specific requirements . Don’t give in to the temptation to jump ahead before you do this. As a starting point, be sure to check out our free dissertation course.
Step 2: Review past dissertations/theses
Unless you’re undertaking a completely new course, there will be many, many students who have gone through the research process before and have produced successful dissertations, which you can use to orient yourself. This is hugely beneficial – imagine being able to see previous students’ assignments and essays when you were doing your coursework!
Take a look at some well-graded (65% and above) past dissertations from your course (ideally more recent ones, as university requirements may change over time). These are usually available in the university’s online library. Past dissertations will act as a helpful model for all kinds of things, from how long a bibliography needs to be, to what a good literature review looks like, through to what kinds of methods you can use – and how to leverage them to support your argument.
As you peruse past dissertations, ask yourself the following questions:
- What kinds of topics did these dissertations cover and how did they turn the topic into questions?
- How broad or narrow were the topics?
- How original were the topics? Were they truly groundbreaking or just a localised twist on well-established theory?
- How well justified were the topics? Did they seem important or just nice to know?
- How much literature did they draw on as a theoretical base? Was the literature more academic or applied in nature?
- What kinds of research methods did they use and what data did they draw on?
- How did they analyse that data and bring it into the discussion of the academic literature?
- Which of the dissertations are most readable to you – why? How were they presented?
- Can you see why these dissertations were successful? Can you relate what they’ve done back to the university’s instructions/brief?
Seeing a variety of dissertations (at least 5, ideally in your area of interest) will also help you understand whether your university has very rigid expectations in terms of structure and format , or whether they expect and allow variety in the number of chapters, chapter headings, order of content, style of presentation and so on.
Some departments accept graphic novels; some are willing to grade free-flow continental-philosophy style arguments; some want a highly rigid, standardised structure. Many offer a dissertation template , with information on how marks are split between sections. Check right away whether you have been given one of those templates – and if you do, then use it and don’t try to deviate or reinvent the wheel.
Step 3: Review the academic literature
Now that you (1) understand the research process, (2) understand your university’s specific requirements for your dissertation or thesis, and (3) have a feel for what a good dissertation looks like, you can start the ideation process. This is done by reviewing the current literature and looking for opportunities to add something original to the academic conversation.
Kick start the ideation process
So, where should you start your literature hunt? The best starting point is to get back to your modules. Look at your coursework and the assignments you did. Using your coursework is the best theoretical base, as you are assured that (1) the literature is of a high enough calibre for your university and (2) the topics are relevant to your specific course.
Start by identifying the modules that interested you the most and that you understood well (i.e. earned good marks for). What were your strongest assignments, essays or reports? Which areas within these were particularly interesting to you? For example, within a marketing module, you may have found consumer decision making or organisation trust to be interesting. Create a shortlist of those areas that you were both interested in and academically strong at. It’s no use picking an area that does not genuinely interest you – you’ll run out of motivation if you’re not excited by a topic.
Understand the current state of knowledge
Once you’ve done that, you need to get an understanding of the current state of the literature for your chosen interest areas. What you’re aiming to understand is this: what is the academic conversation here and what critical questions are yet unanswered? These unanswered questions are prime opportunities for a unique, meaningful research topic . A quick review of the literature on your favourite topics will help you understand this.
Grab your reading list from the relevant section of the modules, or simply enter the topics into Google Scholar . Skim-read 3-5 journal articles from the past 5 years which have at least 5 citations each (Google Scholar or a citations index will show you how many citations any given article has – i.e., how many other people have referred to it in their own bibliography). Also, check to see if your discipline has an ‘annual review’ type of journal, which gathers together surveys of the state of knowledge on a chosen topic. This can be a great tool for fast-tracking your understanding of the current state of the knowledge in any given area.
Start from your course’s reading list and work outwards. At the end of every journal article, you’ll find a reference list. Scan this reference list for more relevant articles and read those. Then repeat the process (known as snowballing) until you’ve built up a base of 20-30 quality articles per area of interest.
Absorb, don’t hunt
At this stage, your objective is to read and understand the current state of the theory for your area(s) of interest – you don’t need to be in topic-hunting mode yet. Don’t jump the gun and try to identify research topics before you are well familiarised with the literature.
As you read, try to understand what kinds of questions people are asking and how they are trying to answer them. What matters do the researchers agree on, and more importantly, what are they in disagreement about? Disagreements are prime research territory. Can you identify different ‘schools of thought’ or different ‘approaches’? Do you know what your own approach or slant is? What kinds of articles appeal to you and which ones bore you or leave you feeling like you’ve not really grasped them? Which ones interest you and point towards directions you’d like to research and know more about?
Once you understand the fundamental fact that academic knowledge is a conversation, things get easier.
Think of it like a party. There are groups of people in the room, enjoying conversations about various things. Which group do you want to join? You don’t want to be that person in the corner, talking to themself. And you don’t want to be the hanger-on, laughing at the big-shot’s jokes and repeating everything they say.
Do you want to join a large group and try to make a small contribution to what’s going on, or are you drawn to a smaller group that’s having a more niche conversation, but where you feel you might more easily find something original to contribute? How many conversations can you identify? Which ones feel closer to you and more attractive? Which ones repel you or leave you cold? Are there some that, frankly, you just don’t understand?
Now, choose a couple of groups who are discussing something you feel interested in and where you feel like you might want to contribute. You want to make your entry into this group by asking a question – a question that will make the other people in the group turn around and look at you, listen to you, and think, “That’s interesting”.
Your dissertation will be the process of setting that question and then trying to find at least a partial answer to that question – but don’t worry about that now. Right now, you need to work out what conversations are going on, whether any of them are related or overlapping, and which ones you might be able to walk into. I’ll explain how you find that question in the next step.
Need a helping hand?
Step 4: Identify potential research questions
Now that you have a decent understanding of the state of the literature in your area(s) of interest, it’s time to start developing your list of possible research topics. There are (at least) three approaches you can follow here, and they are not mutually exclusive:
Approach 1: Leverage the FRIN
Towards the end of most quality journal articles, you will find a section labelled “ further research ” or something similar. Generally, researchers will clearly outline where they feel further research is needed (FRIN), following on from their own research. So, essentially, every journal article presents you with a list of potential research opportunities.
Of course, only a handful of these will be both practical and of interest to you, so it’s not a quick-fix solution to finding a research topic. However, the benefit of going this route is that you will be able to find a genuinely original and meaningful research topic (which is particularly important for PhD-level research).
The upside to this approach is originality, but the downside is that you might not find something that really interests you , or that you have the means to execute. If you do go this route, make sure that you pay attention to the journal article dates, as the FRIN may already have been “solved” by other researchers if the article is old.
Approach 2: Put a context-based spin on an existing topic
The second option is to consider whether a theory which is already well established is relevant within a local or industry-specific context. For example, a theory about the antecedents (drivers) of trust is very well established, but there may be unique or uniquely important drivers within a specific national context or industry (for example, within the financial services industry in an emerging market).
If that industry or national context has not yet been covered by researchers and there is a good reason to believe there may be meaningful differences within that context, then you have an opportunity to take a unique angle on well-established theory, which can make for a great piece of research. It is however imperative that you have a good reason to believe that the existing theory may not be wholly relevant within your chosen context, or your research will not be justified.
The upside to this approach is that you can potentially find a topic that is “closer to home” and more relevant and interesting to you , while still being able to draw on a well-established body of theory. However, the downside is that this approach will likely not produce the level of originality as approach #1.
Approach 3: Uncensored brainstorming
The third option is to skip the FRIN, as well as the local/industry-specific angle and simply engage in a freeform brainstorming or mind-mapping session, using your newfound knowledge of the theory to formulate potential research ideas. What’s important here is that you do not censor yourself . However crazy, unfeasible, or plain stupid your topic appears – write it down. All that matters right now is that you are interested in this thing.
Next, try to turn the topic(s) into a question or problem. For example:
- What is the relationship between X, Y & Z?
- What are the drivers/antecedents of X?
- What are the outcomes of Y?
- What are the key success factors for Z?
Re-word your list of topics or issues into a list of questions . You might find at this stage that one research topic throws up three questions (which then become sub-topics and even new separate topics in their own right) and in so doing, the list grows. Let it. Don’t hold back or try to start evaluating your ideas yet – just let them flow onto paper.
Once you’ve got a few topics and questions on paper, check the literature again to see whether any of these have been covered by the existing research. Since you came up with these from scratch, there is a possibility that your original literature search did not cover them, so it’s important to revisit that phase to ensure that you’re familiar with the relevant literature for each idea. You may also then find that approach #1 and #2 can be used to build on these ideas.
Try use all three approaches
As mentioned earlier, the three approaches discussed here are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the more, the merrier. Hopefully, you manage to utilise all three, as this will give you the best odds of producing a rich list of ideas, which you can then narrow down and evaluate, which is the next step.
Step 5: Narrow down, then evaluate
By this stage, you should have a healthy list of research topics. Step away from the ideation and thinking for a few days, clear your mind. The key is to get some distance from your ideas, so that you can sit down with your list and review it with a more objective view. The unbridled ideation phase is over and now it’s time to take a reality check .
Look at your list and see if any options can be crossed off right away . Maybe you don’t want to do that topic anymore. Maybe the topic turned out to be too broad and threw up 20 hard to answer questions. Maybe all the literature you found about it was 30 years old and you suspect it might not be a very engaging contemporary issue . Maybe this topic is so over-researched that you’ll struggle to find anything fresh to say. Also, after stepping back, it’s quite common to notice that 2 or 3 of your topics are really the same one, the same question, which you’ve written down in slightly different ways. You can try to amalgamate these into one succinct topic.
Narrow down to the top 5, then evaluate
Now, take your streamlined list and narrow it down to the ‘top 5’ that interest you the most. Personal interest is your key evaluation criterion at this stage. Got your ‘top 5’? Great! Now, with a cool head and your best analytical mind engaged, go systematically through each option and evaluate them against the following criteria:
Research questions – what is the main research question, and what are the supporting sub-questions? It’s critically important that you can define these questions clearly and concisely. If you cannot do this, it means you haven’t thought the topic through sufficiently.
Originality – is the topic sufficiently original, as per your university’s originality requirements? Are you able to add something unique to the existing conversation? As mentioned earlier, originality can come in many forms, and it doesn’t mean that you need to find a completely new, cutting-edge topic. However, your university’s requirements should guide your decision-making here.
Importance – is the topic of real significance, or is it just a “nice to know”? If it’s significant, why? Who will benefit from finding the answer to your desired questions and how will they benefit? Justifying your research will be a key requirement for your research proposal , so it’s really important to develop a convincing argument here.
Literature – is there a contemporary (current) body of academic literature around this issue? Is there enough literature for you to base your investigation on, but not too much that the topic is “overdone”? Will you be able to navigate this literature or is it overwhelming?
Data requirements – What kind of data would you need access to in order to answer your key questions? Would you need to adopt a qualitative, quantitative or mixed-methods approach to answer your questions? At this stage, you don’t need to be able to map out your exact research design, but you should be able to articulate how you would approach it in high-level terms. Will you use qual, quant or mixed methods? Why?
Feasibility – How feasible would it be to gather the data that would be needed in the time-frame that you have – and do you have the will power and the skills to do it? If you’re not confident with the theory, you don’t want something that’s going to draw you into a debate about the relative importance of epistemology and ontology. If you are shy, you won’t want to be doing ethnographic interviews. If you feel this question calls for a 100-person survey, do you have the time to plan, organise and conduct it and then analyse it? What will you do if you don’t get the response rate you expect? Be very realistic here and also ask advice from your supervisor and other experts – poor response rates are extremely common and can derail even the best research projects.
Personal attraction – On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about this topic? Will addressing it add value to your life and/or career? Will undertaking the project help you build a skill you’ve previously wanted to work on (for example, interview skills, statistical analysis skills, software skills, etc.)?
The last point is particularly important. You will have to engage with your dissertation in a very sustained and deep way, face challenges and difficulties, and get it to completion. If you don’t start out enthusiastic about it, you’re setting yourself up for problems like ‘writer’s block’ or ‘burnout’ down the line. This is the reason personal interest was the sole evaluation criterion when we chose the top 5. So, don’t underestimate the importance of personal attraction to a topic – at the same time, don’t let personal attraction lead you to choose a topic that is not relevant to your course or feasible given your resources.
Narrow down to 3, then get human feedback
We’re almost at the finishing line. The next step is to narrow down to 2 or 3 shortlisted topics. No more! Write a short paragraph about each topic, addressing the following:
Firstly, WHAT will this study be about? Frame the topic as a question or a problem. Write it as a dissertation title. No more than two clauses and no more than 15 words. Less than 15 is better (go back to good journal articles for inspiration on appropriate title styles).
Secondly, WHY this is interesting (original) and important – as proven by existing academic literature? Are people talking about this and is there an acknowledged problem, debate or gap in the literature?
Lastly, HOW do you plan to answer the question? What sub-questions will you use? What methods does this call for and how competent and confident are you in those methods? Do you have the time to gather the data this calls for?
Show the shortlist and accompanying paragraphs to a couple of your peers from your course and also to an expert or two if at all possible (you’re welcome to reach out to us ), explaining what you will investigate, why this is original and important and how you will go about investigating it.
Once you’ve pitched your ideas, ask for the following thoughts :
- Which is most interesting and appealing to them?
- Why do they feel this way?
- What problems do they foresee with the execution of the research?
Take advice and feedback and sit on it for another day. Let it simmer in your mind overnight before you make the final decision.
Step 6: Make the decision (and stick with it!)
Then, make the commitment. Choose the one that you feel most confident about, having now considered both your opinion and the feedback from others.
Once you’ve made a decision, don’t doubt your judgement, don’t shift. Don’t be tempted by the ones you left behind. You’ve planned and thought things through, checked feasibility and now you can start. You have your research topic. Trust your own decision-making process and stick with it now. It’s time to get started on your research proposal!
In this post, I’ve proposed a straightforward 6-step plan to finding relevant research topic ideas and then narrowing them down to finally choose one winner. To recap:
- Understand the basics of academic research, as well as your university’s specific requirements for a dissertation, thesis or research project.
- Review previous dissertations for your course to get an idea of both topics and structure.
- Start the ideation process by familiarising yourself with the literature.
- Identify your potential research questions (topics).
- Narrow down your options, then evaluate systematically.
- Make your decision (and don’t look back!)
If you follow these steps, you’ll find that they also set you up for what’s coming next – both the proposal and the first three chapters of your dissertation. But that’s for future posts!
Psst… there’s more (for free)
This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.
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I would love to get a topic under teachers performance. I am a student of MSC Monitoring and Evaluations and I need a topic in the line of monitoring and evaluations
I just we put for some full notes that are payable
Thank you very much Dr Caroline
m a PhD Student I would like to be assisted inn formulating a title around: Internet of Things for online education in higher education – STEM (Science, technology, engineering and Mathematics, digital divide ) Thank you, would appreciate your guidance
Well structured guide on the topic… Good materials for beginners in research writing…
Hello Iam kindly seeking for help in formulating a researchable topic for masters degree program in line with teaching GRAPHIC ART
I read a thesis about a problem in a particular. Can I use the same topic just referring to my own country? Is that being original? The interview questions will mostly be the same as the other thesis.
Hi, thanks I managed to listen to the video so helpful indeed. I am currently an MBA student looking for a specific topic and I have different ideas that not sure they can be turned to be a study.
I am doing a Master of Theology in Pastoral Care and Counselling and I felt like doing research on Spiritual problem cause by substance abuse among Youth. Can I get help to formulate the Thesis Title in line with it…please
Hello, I am kindly seeking help in formulating a researchable topic for a National diploma program
As a beginner in research, I am very grateful for this well-structured material on research writing.
Hello, I watched the video and its very helpful. I’m a student in Nursing (degree). May you please help me with any research problems (in Namibian society or Nursing) that need to be evaluate or solved?
I have been greatly impacted. Thank you.
more than useful… there will be no justification if someone fails to get a topic for his thesis
I watched the video and its really helpful.
How can i started discovery
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How to choose a dissertation topic for your doctoral degree.
Your doctoral degree program culminates in a dissertation if you’re working toward an academic doctorate, or a doctoral study if you’re going for a professional doctorate degree. Both approaches are designed to bring new information to light through real-world research that addresses an actual problem in your field of interest.
Regardless of whether you’re earning your doctorate at an online university or in a more traditional academic setting, one of the first—and most important—steps in the dissertation process is selecting a topic. “You can’t do anything else until you figure out the basic focus,” says Dr. Susann V. Getsch who chose online learning and earned her PhD in Psychology from Walden University.
Within the context of PhD programs, there are a number of different approaches when selecting your dissertation topic. To offer you some direct insight, we asked four alumni of Walden’s online graduate degree programs to share their experiences and provide helpful tips you can follow during this process.
Dr. Susann V. Getsch, Walden University Alumna
1. Develop a topic that will hold your interest . Determine what resources you have available—time, money, people—and choose a topic that isn’t too resource-intensive. You’ll be spending at least a year on a dissertation (or any large research project), so it has to be compelling enough to keep your attention.
2. Read everything you can on the subject . Go outside of your required class readings and you might just run across something that helps you develop the framework for your research.
3. Find a theoretical basis to support your topic . Do some research to find theories that fit your study perfectly.
4. Look for a niche in which you can make a difference . Be sure you’re really offering something new to the field. You can’t change the world with one dissertation, so focus on the crux of what you want to explore and add something new to the field.
5. Let yourself shift gears . Frequently, the topic you start with deviates from your original plan as it evolves.
6. Fine-tune your topic based on input from others . Take every opportunity to seek constructive feedback and incorporate advice from experts.
Dr. Vicky D. Woodruff, PhD in Health Services Dr. Kristal D. Ayres, Doctor of Education (EdD)
1. Study your passion . Start with a subject you’re passionate about and then look into the existing research conducted to help determine the next logical step.
2. Find available data . Use a previously conducted study to capture comparative data and develop good working relationships with the people who are in charge of that data. You may also need a written legal agreement—so sort through those details first.
3. Build a good committee . Interview your committee members first to ensure they understand and are passionate about your goals. After all, it would be impossible to do the work alone. With the support of your committee, you’ll have a great team on your side.
4. Only ask questions that can be answered . Use your rich, powerful data to your full advantage, and stick within its confines. Also, determine early on if there are any biases in the data. Your goal is to create an airtight study.
5. Think about your work as part of an international dialogue . What else is published on your topic? Understand your data in a broader context and be actively engaged.
Dr. Shane Fairbairn, PhD in Education
1. Take advantage of the resources available . Use the resources offered by your university to help with your decision making. This might include your research center or applicable seminars.
2. Tap into your peers . Meet with each of your cohorts and ask them to weigh in on your topic and plans for research.
3. Consult your mentor . A good and experienced mentor can be your best resource for providing straightforward advice and direction for moving forward.
Writing a dissertation is a rewarding experience. The research you conduct and present will not only greatly expand your specialized knowledge, but it could help others in your discipline and the greater community for years to come.
Pursue Your Doctoral Degree Online at Walden University
If you want to boost your career and position yourself to make more meaningful contributions to your field, one of the best choices you can make is to earn your PhD or doctorate. Walden, an accredited university, offers more than 20 online doctoral degree programs with more than 140 specializations for you to choose from. That means you can better maintain a work-life balance while you enhance your credentials and further your skills. With online learning, you can take classes at whatever time of day works best for you as you return to school and get your doctoral degree.
Walden University is an accredited institution offering high-quality online degree programs at the bachelor’s , master’s , and doctoral level , as well as online certificate programs . Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.
Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org .
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Dissertation survival guide: choosing a topic, choosing a topic.
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- Methodology & Data Analysis
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Decide your research question
First of all, you need to decide what you want to find out. This is your research topic, and should be something that you can answer through your dissertation.
When you draft this, talk to your tutors and ask them what they think - they'll know what could be realistic and achievable . You might also find it useful to do some exploratory reading and find out what has already been written on your area of interest.
Some subject areas may have provided a list of potential topics for you to explore. If this exists for your course, it will be in your module area on Brightspace.
Once you have a topic, you can develop potential research questions . This establishes what you want to find out and should be something that you can answer through your dissertation. Use post-it notes to think of different ways to describe your most important words (also known as key concepts or keywords), or try mind-mapping.
Here are some useful resources to help you select a topic for your dissertation.
- The Final Chapter Interactive guide from the University of Leeds. The section "Starting your project" will guide you through selecting a topic and refining your research questions.
- How to choose a topic for your dissertation Article from the Times Higher Education, on what you should consider when choosing a dissertation topic.
What not to include
When deciding on a topic, choosing what not to include is just as important! Consider how you will limit your research.
Mind-mapping your topic
Once you have a research question in mind, try mind-mapping to identify related questions and gaps in your knowledge.
You may want to mind-map with post-it notes, pen and paper, or could use mind-mapping software to do this.
The University of Huddersfield has access to MindView. This is installed on all University computers, and can be used from home via UniDesktop . See the video below for instructions on using MindView.
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Choosing your dissertation topic can be one of the most stressful things you do as a graduate student. You are going to have to live and breathe the topic you choose for several years (no pressure), so choose wisely! There are several factors to consider as you narrow your ideas. One crucial factor to consider is your plans after you graduate. For instance, someone who wants to pursue a career in academia might consider a topic that will allow them to establish a research trajectory with several follow-up studies. Whereas, someone who is seeking a terminal degree to advance their current career in the private sector might not plan to conduct systematic research again. Regardless of your future goals, you need to select a topic that you can see yourself sticking with for several years.
Identify a problem. While this step seems obvious, most people are able to quickly articulate an interest and not an actual research problem . What’s the difference? A statement about a research problem should concisely describe a current issue that needs to be addressed and improved upon.
Here is an example of each:
- Interest: I want to study how integrated healthcare models are implemented in Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals in the United States.
- Problem: A majority of the integrated healthcare models that have been implemented in U.S. Veterans Affairs hospitals have failed, while integrated healthcare models in other settings, such as private hospitals, have been successful. I want to know why.
See the difference?
Try starting with your interest statement and then ask yourself, “So what?” Your answer should help you articulate the problem.
Search the literature. Now that you have identified a problem, you need to search the literature high and low for current information about the problem. Start with peer-reviewed literature published in the past two years. If this proves to be challenging, locate a recently published dissertation related to your topic to identify seminal authors, references, and keywords for searching databases. You might find that someone has already conducted the study you want to conduct. If that happens, don’t panic. You might be able to build on their research!
Identify a “gap” in the literature. Now that you have conducted an exhaustive search of the literature, it is time to identify a “gap” in the literature. A “gap” in the literature is missing knowledge in the field of research related to your study. One way to identify a “gap” is by reviewing future research in recently published peer-reviewed articles. Using the above example, let’s pretend that I located an article that researched what I hoped to study, and the conclusion was that integrated healthcare models were not effectively implemented in VA settings because each hospital was responsible for its implementation processes and there was no centralized system for sharing data and communication strategies across VA hospitals. One recommendation for future research made by the authors was the need to survey leaders at each VA hospital to gather data regarding best practices. Now that’s a “gap” in the literature!
Determine how you can fill that “gap.” Determining how you can fill the “gap” in the literature can be a bit tricky. It would help if you considered what research designs are available based on the “gap” you’ve identified. In the above example, a national survey seems like the obvious choice. If you are a qualitative researcher, one option would be to conduct interviews and focus groups with all of the leaders of VA hospitals. BUT, is that feasible? Probably not. What I’m getting at here is that you might need to narrow the scope. For instance, maybe you decide to focus only on VA hospitals in one region of the United States.
Start by creating a list of options and thinking through how you would go about conducting research. This brainstorming activity will help you decide what options are feasible.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Will I be able to collect data in a reasonable timeframe?
- Will I have access to the population?
- Will I be able to recruit the required number of participants based on my study design?
If you complete all of these steps and are still struggling, sign up for our Refine Your Study Topic Workshop . We will match you with a coach who can guide you through each of the above steps.
Author: Jessica Parker, EdD
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On the Dissertation: How to Find a Research Topic
A new book sheds light on a vital academic skill: the art and craft of figuring out what you want to investigate..
When it comes to choosing a dissertation topic, students in the lab sciences have it the easiest. Because their funding comes from their adviser’s lab, their dissertations will typically be carved out of the professor’s research agenda. That practice has its problems. The most obvious: These graduate students have only limited input into their own thesis topic. They don’t get to learn and practice an important skill that all researchers need once they’re on their own — the knack of figuring out what to study.
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Clearing an easy path to a thesis topic defers an important part of doctoral education in the sciences. But what about everyone else? All graduate students need to learn how to identify and develop a topic and formulate a research agenda. And it’s not an easy skill to teach — especially if the instructor doesn’t know much about how to do it, either.
I’ve long wanted to spotlight this subject in The Chronicle’ s occasional series on the dissertation (earlier essays focused on drafting the introduction and the value of writing groups ). But I hesitated because I wasn’t sure of what to say. Back when I was a graduate student, I got lucky: My topic snuck up on me. It emerged from a course I devised at the time. (The course was called “The Literature of the Bizarre, the Grotesque, and the Macabre,” and it led to a dissertation on the grotesque in antebellum American literature.)
The best I can say for myself is that when I did stumble upon a thesis topic, I had the good sense to notice. However, my experience isn’t exactly teachable. I’ve advised many student dissertations over the years, and I confess that topic design has never been one of my strengths.
For better and worse, I’ve been cautious about offering advice on this front. The sciences are not the only fields in which students end up with a topic that mirrors their adviser’s work. I’ve seen that happen more than a few times in the humanistic precincts I inhabit, with decidedly mixed results.
And I don’t want to dictate thesis topics to my students. After all, they have to live for two or three years with their topic. I don’t. On the other hand, if I hold myself at too great a distance from their thought process, I’m not helping them — or doing my job.
So how can students — and professors like me — learn the art and craft of topic design?
Fortunately, an excellent new book from the University of Chicago Press has come to the rescue. Thomas S. Mullaney and Christopher Rea’s Where Research Begins , is a revelation. Unlike previous books in the field (such as the valuable and many-times revised The Craft of Research, published in 1995), Mullaney and Rea focus on how to release and develop your own analytical creativity, and then how to shape it into what they call “a research project that matters to you (and the world).”
Where Research Begins is fundamentally a workbook, and it’s filled with exercises. The book has two parts. The first section describes what Mullaney and Rea call “self centered” research, which they define as discovering what matters to you and framing it as a problem that can be investigated.
Too often, the book says, academics try to “please some imaginary, external judge.” Or maybe that judge is not imaginary at all. I’ve seen plenty of graduate students — including some under my own direction — try to please the teacher before pleasing themselves. Perhaps the book’s single greatest virtue lies in its emphasis on the importance of uncovering what matters to you and separating that from everything else, including what you think your dissertation adviser wants.
Via a series of exercises, the book gradually moves the reader from topic to questions, and then to a research problem. Repeatedly in framing a topic, Mullaney and Rea encourage the researcher to look for “the effect on you.” Their emphasis on a step-by-step process to transform a personal interest into a viable research topic is the second cardinal virtue of the book.
Where Research Begins shows how a topic will enter both a field of study and a “problem collective” made up of researchers who may belong to different fields, but who are working on similar questions. For example, someone trying to learn why bourbon has become so popular in the United States might identify her field as American food studies. But she might share her problem with a researcher tracing the emergence of religious denominations in Europe, or someone studying fads in Japan.
The shift from self-centeredness to intellectual community makes up the second part of the book. Mullaney and Rea call this second stage “Getting Over Yourself.”
In moving from exercise to exercise, the book advises the reader to “write as you go.” If you do, the end result will be what the authors cleverly call “draft zero,” a step away from a first draft.
Such formulations led one of my former students to remark that Mullaney and Rea “have the best metaphors.” Where Research Begins is indeed filled with witty analogies that make reading the book a pleasure. Instead of merely encouraging the reader to ask rigorous questions, they write: “Think of a question as if it were a car,” and “stress test” the steering and brakes.
To get from sources to arguments, Mullaney and Rea ask the researcher to “connect the dots.” In real life, as opposed to dot-to-dot coloring books, you have to find the dots to connect. What happens when there are only a few of them? When you don’t know what picture they form? “Figure out which dots belong to your picture,” they advise. This extended metaphor delivers a powerful and memorable lesson on how to identify and plumb an archive.
Playful metaphors do more than make the reader smile. Metaphors, as the linguist George Lakoff reminds us, shape thought.
The authors recommend a method that I would describe (to offer my own metaphor) as quarrying. They direct the researcher to quarry, examine, and reflect — and then repeat the procedure. Discover things, study them, figure out what they say to you (including about your personal interests), and then use that knowledge to discover more things. The book’s exercises employ this recursive method again and again.
Where Research Begins is a gratifyingly student-centered book but it will help experienced researchers as well as beginners, teachers as well as students. For faculty members who advise graduate students, it particularly helps expose the assumptions baked into our own methods of thinking. I’ll be a better teacher for that, and my students will arrive at better research topics.
That’s a valuable takeaway for all concerned, but good dissertation topics especially matter for students from underrepresented groups. Many of them want to do research that reflects their personal commitments — and they’re more likely to leave graduate school if they are discouraged from pursuing those interests. That subject deserves particular attention, and I’ll have more to say about it in my next column.
How to Choose a Dissertation Topic | 8 Steps to Follow · Step 1: Check the requirements · Step 2: Choose a broad field of research · Step 3: Look
1. Select a topic that you find interesting · 2. Choose something different · 3. Don't be too vague · 4. Don't be too narrow · 5. Research! · 6. Be
Items to Consider Before Choosing Your Dissertation Topic ... Keep in mind that your dissertation will be a lot of work, in understanding this, you should choose
choosing your topic and deciding on your research question. It will enable you to write a first draft title for your dissertation and produce the objectives
Overview: How To Find & Choose A Research Topic · Get an understanding of the research process · Review previous dissertations from your university · Review the
How to Choose a Dissertation Topic For Your Doctoral Degree · 1. Develop a topic that will hold your interest. · 2. Read everything you can on the subject. · 3.
First of all, you need to decide what you want to find out. This is your research topic, and should be something that you can answer through
Learn what a research gap is, the different types of research gaps (including examples), and how to find a research gap for your
Start with peer-reviewed literature published in the past two years. If this proves to be challenging, locate a recently published dissertation
When it comes to choosing a dissertation topic, students in the lab sciences have it the easiest. Because their funding comes from their