9+ Tips on how to Choose a Dissertation Topic

how to choose a dissertation topic

Choosing a dissertation topic is really difficult.

When I had to choose dissertation topic I agonized for weeks.

And I’ve supervised over 50 students’ dissertations across undergraduate, masters and PhD levels. All of my students agonized over their topics, too.

So you’re not alone in your struggle.

The below tips for choosing a dissertation topic are the ones I wish I was given when I was in the process of looking for a suitable topic.

If only I’d known these points, I would have saved a lot of time and stress for myself. So if these tips only help one person out, I’ll be happy.

These tips really work for just about anybody. They’re particularly useful for undergraduate and Masters level students who are writing dissertations. But, I’m sure most doctoral students will also find these points relevant, too. Especially tips 1 – 3.

Here are my tips on how to choose a dissertation topic – I hope they come in handy, and good luck on your research journey!

1. It Doesn’t have to be Unique (Yet).

This is the one piece of advice I wish I had gotten when I was choosing my dissertation topic.

Many students feel like they need to find a unique topic that will blow their markers away.

I was this student.

I thought that I had to choose a topic and idea that was going to make a unique contribution to knowledge. I thought I had to discover something, or, at the very least, choose a topic that no one has ever done before.

So here’s what I wish someone had told me:

It doesn’t matter if other people have done the same topic as you.

Don’t even let it phase you for a moment if someone else has chosen your topic. Just choose whatever topic you want.

Why?

Well, because your unique contribution doesn’t come at the start. It comes at the end!

You’ll find a way to make a unique contribution after you have completed your literature review. There is always time and space to find a new angle or different way of doing the topic than other people.

So, don’t choose your topic because it’s unique or different.

Then … how should you choose your topic? Points 2 and 3 give you some tips…

2. Make it Relevant to your Career Goals.

The first thing I recommend to all my students is to consider how their topic can help progress their careers.

When giving guidance to my students, I ask them these three questions:

  1. a) What sort of specialization do you want in your career? If you’re studying teaching, your questions might be: do you want to be a specialized literacy teacher? do you want to be an expert on behavior management? Do you want to be specialized in play-based learning?
  2. b) How do you want to differentiate yourself from your competition? Your dissertation topic is going to be the topic you ‘sell’ as your area of expertise in future job interviews. If you want to get a great job, choose a topic that really stands out in the marketplace. Have a think right now for yourself: what areas of your industry are booming? For example, would it be better to specialize in coal or solar panels? Which one would be best to talk about in a job interview in the 21st Century?
  3. c) Do you want to be a research pro? Most of my students don’t want to be researchers as a career. They do their dissertations to prove mastery of their topic – that’s all. The research is a means to an end. But, if you think you want to go on to do the next level degree (a PhD one day?) then you’ll want to focus on having a high quality methodology, not just an interesting topic.

So, have a think now: is there a topic that will help you get to where you plan on going? What expert knowledge do you want to be able to ‘sell’ in a future interview?

3. Ensure it’s Interesting to You.

You’re going to be wedded to your chosen for a long time. And by the end of this journey you’re going to hate it.

To make your life easier, choose a topic you’re interested in.

Here’s two ways of approaching this:

Choose a Topic you Think About a Lot.

Choose a dissertation topic that you find yourself talking about, complaining about or raving about to your parents. Choose something that makes you angry, inspired or intrigued.

For the next week or so, I recommend taking notes whenever you find yourself thinking idly about something. Is that something you’ve thought about a lot?

Or, Choose a Topic by Looking over Past Assessment Tasks.

Another way of approaching the search for an interesting topic is to look over past assignments.

What assessment task have you done in the past few years that gripped you? Which one did you enjoy the most when you were studying it?

Zoom in on that topic and see if you can turn it into a dissertation.

Bonus tip: If you found a topic that was based on a previous assessment task, see if you can convince the person who taught that subject to be your dissertation supervisor.

4. Keep it Simple.

Too often, students want to choose a topic that is complex and complicated. They come up with a long, detailed research question (usually with the help of their professor) that, really, is hard to understand!

The best strategy is to come up with a topic that is really, really straightforward. At least, the topic should start as simple and straightforward.

Your topic is going to grow and expand into a monster. It’ll be hard to tame and control. You’ll be following random tangents down rabbit holes that end up being dead-ends. You’ll research aspects of the topic and realize it was a completely pointless exercise.

The way to minimize the crazy growth of your research project is to simplify it right from the start. Make it a really simple idea.

For example, I had a student who wanted to research:

“How big is the gap in mathematics outcomes between children from middle-class and working-class backgrounds by age 16?”

I would think that this topic may be achievable by a top academic with a sizeable research grant, but my student was completing a 10,000 word dissertation for graduating her Bachelor of Arts with Honours.

After several agonizing research meetings, we peeled it back over and again until we ended up with something much simpler and more specific:

“What are teachers’ opinions of the impact of poverty on learning?”

Why is this simpler and more specific?

Well, with the second study, my student has a clear focus group (teachers) and an achievable methodology (interviews). This will be far simpler than somehow conducting tests on 16-year old children, getting a significant amount of children to participate in the study, and then dissecting their mathematics test results by income level.

Instead, we aimed small and simple to ensure the task itself was achievable.

We’re not here to win a Nobel prize. You can do that with your multi-million-dollar post-doctoral research grant. Get your degree first.

5. Ensure it’s Achievable.

This piece of advice builds on the previous advice, to “keep it simple”.

Keeping it simple means making sure you have a clear, small-scale focus.

Esuring the project is achievable means choosing a methodology that won’t break you.

Small Scale Qualitative Studies are Achievable for Anyone

I always suggest to my Undergraduate and Masters level students to aim for a small scale study with no more than 20 research participants.

Now, I know there will be many of you out there who want to do quantitative research studies. And in reality, you can do a quantitative study with a small group of students. These usually involve quantitative action research case studies.

If you’re set on a quantitative study, that’s fine. But find a supervisor with the right experience.

Personally, I usually recommend a qualitative focus group analysis for anyone doing their first dissertation.

Why?

The biggest mistake you can make is biting off more than you can chew.

Small scale qualitative studies are the easiest option. They can be achieved within your time frame. And you can certainly still get a very high grade.

So, let’s take the example of the previous research question, which we changed from:

“How big is the gap in mathematics outcomes between children from middle-class and working-class backgrounds by age 16?”

To:

“What are teachers’ opinions of the impact of poverty on learning?”

For the first study, you will have to develop skills in quantitative data analysis, find a sizeable cohort of students, get permission from their parents, get special permission to study children you’re your university ethics committee, develop a quality testing mechanism, pilot the test, conduct the test, analyze the data, then interpret it.

For the second study, you will not have to develop complex mathematical skills, bother with getting permission to research children, or deal with the rigor of quantitative analysis.

In other words, you will be able to bypass many hurdles you may face.

That’s the benefit of a small-scale qualitative study. It’s a nice easy first dissertation methodology. You can do it and do it well.

I know my position is controversial, but hey … I’m here to tell you how to avoid problems, not to stand on a soapbox.

Consider Textual Analysis, Semiotic Analysis or Secondary Research

Finding people to interview, survey or participate in your study in any way at all can be intimidating.

I find it interesting and really fulfilling. But I understand if you think it’s too much for you at this point in time.

If you don’t want to have to go out and find research participants for your study, I recommend one of these types of study:

  • Textual Analysis: you can look at policy documents or newspaper articles and analyze their ideological positioning, for example;
  • Semiotic Analysis: The quintessential semiotic analysis is the analysis of advertising images or movies and the examination of the ways they depict people of different races, social classes or genders;
  • Secondary Research: Look over other people’s research and try to identify themes across a range of research studies.

Now, these three different methodologies are far outside of the scope of this discussion, but consult with your dissertation supervisor if you’re overwhelmed by the idea of conducting research with real human beings. One of these three methodologies may help you bypass that process, and make the dissertation feel more achievable for you.

6. Search Online for Inspiration

If you’re still struggling to choose a dissertation topic, go online to get inspiration!

There’s a few ways you can do this. Here’s a few good ones:

a) Google Previous Dissertation Topics

Many universities upload their students’ dissertations onto an online repository. This means there are a ton of open, free to access databases of previous students’ dissertations all over the internet.

Simply google “Dissertation” + “pdf” + a topic you’re interested in. If you’re a masters student, you can do “masters dissertation” + “pdf” + the topic; and if you’re an undegrad, then simply do “undergraduate dissertation” + “pdf” + the topic;. Simple!

Up will pop a ton of dissertations that you can instantly download to check out previous students’ successful dissertation topics.

Another benefit of doing this is that you’ll be able to view and model the structure that previous students have used as well. This can be super beneficial for you early on!

b) Look at Recent Articles Published in Journals focused on your Topic

If you scroll through the recent issues of journals in your topic, you’ll find a range of research topic ideas.

To get access to top journals in your topic, simply google “Scholarly Journal” + your topic. For example, I am a professor in education. So I’d google “Scholarly journal” + “Education”.

The homepages for a ton of journals will pop up in the Google search. Quickly scan through the recent issues of those journals to see if any ideas will pop up that interest you!

c) If you’re Studying Education or Teaching, Check Here

Lastly, a quick plug for another post I’ve written for dissertation students:

Go check that out if you want to write a dissertation on the ‘education’ topic.

7. Trust your Dissertation Supervisor

Your dissertation supervisor will have walked many students just like you through the research process before.

Look, I know many dissertation supervisors can be disappointingly aloof and disconnected from your research. And relationships can get very frosty with your supervisors indeed.

…But…

Trust your supervisor. They make recommendations for a reason. They know how to navigate the dissertation writing process. If your supervisor makes a recommendation, strong – very strongly – consider it.

Your supervisor also has expertise in one area of research or another. Take advantage of their expertise. Be flexible and let them sway you down certain paths. You need a knowledgeable partner in the research process.

So, trust your supervisor. You need their expertise more than you know.

8. Come up with 3-5 Ideas and Bring them to your Supervisor for Feedback

Your initial dissertation topic ideas will probably need a lot of refinement.

The person who will help you to refine your topic will be your dissertation supervisor. Their main job, unfortunately, is to curb your enthusiasm. It’s to show you what problems you’ll face if you follow certain paths and recommend alterations to ensure your topic is achievable.

So, approach your supervisor with your 3-5 top ideas and watch them do their magic. They should advise you on how to turn your ideas into reality.

Your ideas can be specific or broad – really, it doesn’t matter because you’ll walk out of your supervision meeting with a lot of changed ideas. It doesn’t need to be set in stone.

You could, for example, go up to your supervisor and say something like:

  • “I’m interested in Erikson’s theory of development. Do you have any suggestions of how I can use Erikson’s ideas for a dissertation?”
  • “I’m really into conservative politics. What ideas do you have for an achievable topic?”
  • Any other ideas…

They’ll help you shape and mold your topic into something achievable.

9. Lastly, Stick to your Choice

When I did my dissertation, I questioned my topic daily: I’d always be thinking up new, better ideas for my dissertation!

But once you’re locked in, it’s hard to change your mind. You’re going to get ethics permission to conduct your study, not anyone else’s!

So, my advice is simple:

Once you’ve chosen your topic, commit.

If you’re desperate to do another topic, fine, do another degree. If you’re doing your Master’s right now, bank those other ideas for a potential PhD down the track.

But once you’ve made your choice, really … you’ve got to commit, block out all your regrets and dig in.

Don’t worry about your friends who chose a dissertation topic that is better than yours. Stay in your lane, be content with your topic, and create a great product.

Writing a dissertation is an exercise in being practical more than anything. That start from the very first choice: choosing a dissertation topic that’s achievable and good for your career, and will also put you on the path for top marks.

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