Student Notebook

Choosing a Dissertation Topic

Graduate students may take several approaches to choosing a dissertation topic. While a perfunctory approach may hasten a degree, establishing a standard of quality will enable you to both advance the field and also evolve our own career. Eight steps are presented below to aid the graduate student in selecting a dissertation topic.

1. THE DISSERTATION TAKES PRIORITY. Following completion of comprehensive examinations and coursework, graduate students may often view their graduate education as almost over. On the contrary, the dissertation actually marks a new era of study. As a doctoral candidate, your procedural formalities are no longer dictated by faculty. Rather, you must examine the selected topic, create a timeline for its development, and alter your lifestyle to assure its completion.

2. PICK AN INTERESTING TOPIC. If your topic is simply your professor’s pet area, you should be aware the topic may lose appeal before it’s even “housebroken.” Furthermore, if your professor moves on to another interest area, you will be stranded and possibly unable to complete your work. Remember, this is a topic that should keep you engrossed and motivated for at least one to two years. Pick it as carefully as you would a new pair of dress shoes.

3. BE AWARE OF ONGOING RESEARCH. Many students may spend a year researching a topic before finally selecting one for their dissertation. You must examine current literature both specifically and generally. One way to do this is to contact key researchers to help you identify published and unpublished studies. Conduct periodic key word searches in computerized databases to identify new angles or problems associated with your topic. Keep in mind this is a daunting and interminable task, as new research is always evolving. Be sure your time is not monopolized studying new research at the expense of analyzing your own.

4. DEFINE YOUR CONSTRUCTS CLEARLY. Terms such as “memory,” “intelligence,” and “educational level” may derive different meanings among diverse psychological scientists. Evaluate your constructs and obtain references to support your construct definition. If your definition veers from the accepted literature, be prepared to defend the definitional defiance to your committee and reviewers who may later, hopefully, publish your results.

5. EVALUATE WHETHER YOUR TOPIC IS PUBLISHABLE. While reviewing the literature, determine if your completed project will “fit” the Zeitgeist of an existing journal. You should be able to place yourself in the desk of a reviewer and assess, with minimal doubt, whether or not your dissertation would enhance the integrity of a reputable journal.

6. EVALUATE YOUR TOPIC’S IMPORTANCE. Certainly your topic must be important to you, but it must also add to your field of interest. Your topic should offer additional insight into an existing problem, and offer an opportunity to demonstrate your level of expertise and quality of scholarship.

7. ESTABLISH GOOD COMMITTEE RELATIONSHIPS. Your dissertation committee will establish either a direct or de facto relationship with both you and your topic. Obtain feedback from committee members if they can offer specialized support or, if individual members have an area of interest that can be incorporated as a hypothesis subtopic, try to include a discussion of this somewhere in the dissertation. The more committee members who “own” a part of your topic, the more who will support your defense, leading you toward appropriate publication.

8. ESTABLISH A TIMELINE FOR COMPLETION. A timeline will further assist you in selecting your topic. Some projects may be completed in one year, while others may take two years or longer. Select a topic that will be manageable within the selected deadline parameter.

Of course there are many other questions not answered above: Is the project fundable? Will it pass IRB review? Should you use parametric or non-parametric statistics? What is an appropriate research design? These are all very important questions that will also require evaluation. Making a list of your questions and carving out proposed answers may prove helpful in this process.

Completing a dissertation requires careful planning and insight from choosing a topic to the final defense. Perhaps, the above suggestions will aid in not only identifying an appropriate topic, but also prompt completion of a project that will add to the field of psychological science.

Observer Vol.17, No.1 January, 2004

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