The scariest part of writing a dissertation may be starting the journey and trying to figure out what makes for good research topics and questions. The subtleties of how a question leads to research methodology is never apparent to those who have not previously done research. Therefore, this often leads to miscommunication and unhappiness in the relationship between advisors/mentors and doctoral students. This article is one of a series offering help with dissertation to doctoral students faced with the challenges of graduate work and it focuses on the frequently asked questions: “How do I get started on my dissertation? How do I choose a topic? What makes for good research questions?” This article covers getting started on the process of choosing your final dissertation topic and research questions, future articles will discuss each question at length. Covered here are: listing topics, asking questions and beginning to read.
Start by making a list of topics that interest you. Remember your goal is twofold: first, to be of interest to you and then to have the maximum contribution to your professional world. Why is it that your interest level is so important? You will have to work with this topic for a number of years, and likely by the end it will be less intrinsically interesting than it is now. Therefore, choose something that you find fascinating so that it is worthy in your mind of researching for years. Look at it this way, this is a topic on which you will be an expert, and on which you will build the next phase of your career. Do you really want to go down this road for the rest of your life?
Now put a star by those things on the list on which you already have a base of knowledge. Since the field is wide open for what you might study, it may be wise to spend some time delving into those things you know the least about. Who knows? You may find some hidden gems in those topics around which you are at this point totally ignorant. You have a lot of time.
Remember a topic is general – underneath it are millions of potential questions your research could ask. I suggest you open a spreadsheet and start it by putting potential topics in the left-hand column and using all of the subsequent columns to the right of the topic for potential questions that you would find interesting. Let your mind wander freely and keep track of the questions that come to mind. What do you want to know? How will it work in your professional life? What is intriguing here?
Periodically reread your questions, crossing out some and adding others as you reflect on every topic. Go over the topics and questions at least two or three times a week for a period of a month or more. Which seem to be a cluster of ideas that will keep your interest for a long time? Which will make a difference in your professional world? Can you imagine ways in which it will enhance your career to be an expert on this topic, or to answer one of these questions? Be careful to look at your emotional reaction as you consider working with any one of these topics or questions for a long period of time. You will need to choose the one that makes your heart sing.
Beginning to Read
The third step is to begin reading across the list that you have formed of topics and questions. Remember, some of these you will know something about and some of these will be completely new to you. Be sure to read current research on both. Since you are just starting your doctoral career, you have the option of delving into becoming an expert on something you know nothing about at this moment. Take that possibility into consideration and don’t limit yourself to what you already know.
Spend the next month reading across every topic you have on the list. Go to your college database and look for research articles that relate to the questions you are asking. This will help you in learning how to use your library, and in finding academic keywords to match your topics and interests. Find and read one good piece of research on each topic/question while searching through the reference list at the end of each article and making note of other reading you will want to check out.
This is a perfect time to start to use your reference library software. I recommend the use of EndNote. Whatever you do, start now to take detailed notes capturing the full reference, and complete ideas that you gather every time you read. This will become a priceless tool as you move through your dissertation journey.
In summary, the first month or two of your dissertation journey should start with reflection on topics and questions of interest. Using a spreadsheet to list the topics and questions will help you organize. Use of a good reference library database will capture your reading. Consider this an adventure, and meander your way through the academic literature in your field. By making note of where your emotions are most intrigued you will arrive at a topic that will carry you through your multiple years as a doctoral student.
Whilst using these online search functions is all very well and good, you do need to ensure that you are putting in the correct search terms to deliver results that will be meaningful for your dissertation. The last thing you want is to have spent an hour trawling through the online resource database, only to go and locate your shortlisted books and then find out that the book contains nothing that is in anyway relevant to your Do My Dissertation For Me title! So, to avoid this scenario happening, remember to input relevant key words into the search term box; and if you know the author’s name or the book title that you are hunting for then by all means enter this information as your search should be more lucrative. Don’t forget to use a combination of search terms to see if different results are generated, and ask for help if you get stuck. Alternatively you could speak with your course tutor before you commence your library search and ask him / her for any key word hints or tips that he / she feels would be conducive to your subject.