Choosing a dissertation topic

Having talked to a few students about the question of dissertation topics lately, I’ve been forced to think a little about exactly what standards one should use in choosing a topic. I’m sure there are plenty of rules of thumb out there, but, as I see it, here are my rules, from 0 to 3 (yes, zero).

0. Don’t choose a topic, but a question. This one’s fundamental. Choosing a topic (like, say, “war”) is one thing, but it’s not a useful thing. You should identify a question for which your research will, ultimately, provide an answer. Find some underlying puzzle that you want to solve, and in framing your goal as a question, you’ll always be able to answer what is, I think, the most critical question you can ask of any piece of research: “What do we know now, after reading your work, that we didn’t before?” Having the question in place will ensure that you’ve got a response: the answer to your research question. So don’t think “topics”…think “puzzles” and “questions.” (Where do these questions come from? Read this.)

1. Find a question that you’re interested in. A dissertation is a long-term project, one that you’ll likely spend at least a year on in graduate school and more as faculty mining it for publications, and it requires a healthy dose of self-motivation. No one’s going to hold your hand on this, and that’s the point. You’ll inevitably grow tired with it and frustrated at certain points, so it’s critical that you care (at least a little) about finding the answer.

2. Find a question that you can get a bunch of intellectually lazy, self-involved, baselessly arrogant academics interested in. Most academics, when you press them, think their own work is great and most everyone else’s is shit, but when it comes to both publishing and getting a job, you’ve got to get these serial malcontents interested. Faculty are great for this, because if you can get some of them interested enough to think you’ve got a good project, you’re on your way. Keep in mind, too, that plenty of things satisfying rule 1 won’t satisfy rule 2, so be ready to forego some topics on the advice of faculty. They do have your interests at heart, because producing good grad students is a completely shared goal. Keep that in mind. They’re not out to stifle your “creativity”…they’re trying to help you settle on a topic that satisfies this rule. And, trust me, they know what works for it better than you. Just accept it.

3. Find a question that’s dissertation-sized. You always want to do something substantial, sure, but most students’ instincts are to overestimate the size and scope of dissertations and to bite off more than they can chew. So the odds are that your first idea will just be too big, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It just means that you’ve planned out a dissertation and the outline of the research agenda that could follow from it. When faculty say that your project is too big or tries to do too much, they’re not (necessarily) pissing on your skills—far from it—they’re just matching the size of the task to the size of the dissertation. You want something that you can complete in a reasonable time frame, and that often means saving some of the most ambitious stuff for later, but that’s not at all a bad thing. Who wouldn’t want a plan in place for how to continue research once the dissertation’s done and you’re sitting at your first job wondering what the hell to publish next?

So there you have it. 4 simple rules for choosing a dissertation topic. Of course, you’ll find that rule 1 is probably the easiest, because it’s the least restrictive in terms of what satisfies it (unless you really have no interest in politics, in which case grad school is clearly not for you)…but listen to and learn from people who’ve successfully been there and done that, and you’ll be on your way.

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