A Jointventure of
Career Paths
A | A | A

The Right Dissertation Topic

By Christian Wilbers

The topic can make or break a dissertation. Chosen well, it convinces selection committees, helps earn financial support, and steers your academic career in the right direction.

The Right Dissertation Topic © franny-anne - iStockphoto.com The dissertation topic should be chosen well
Researching and writing a dissertation is a defining time in the life of an academic. The dissertation gives young scholars the opportunity to make the first independent contribution to their respective discipline. At the same time, the doctoral thesis is a giant undertaking that commands great respect from many PhD candidates, occasionally even frightening them. It is therefore very important to use a methodical approach as you develop your dissertation topic and constantly ask yourself the following questions: Can I fully identify with my research topic? Is it relevant for the discipline? Have other scholars tried to answer the same questions in the past? Is it a realistic project to be completed in three or four years? And most importantly: Does it help me reach my goals?

The dissertation topic: where to start

If you are contemplating a dissertation, you probably have done most of your Bachelor's work and might even be pursuing your Master's degree at the moment. Very likely, then, there is a specific discipline that fascinates you more than others - which means that you have already taken the first step in the right direction. Follow your interests under all circumstances, attend advanced seminars in that field and read the newest research literature. Try finding a set of questions that you care about passionately and that have not been sufficiently answered in the past. At the same time, try to determine clear boundaries for your project as early as possible: A clearly defined sociological data pool, a newly discovered collection of letters from World War I, a biological species, the late period in the corpus of your favorite author. The more precise the question, the smaller the danger that you will end up with a project much too large to manage in three to four years.

Once you have sufficiently delineated your area of research, you should start thinking about methodology. In other words: How do you intend to answer the question that you so passionately care about? Maybe there are two competing theories for data analysis or literary criticism, which currently divide your discipline? Look into those approaches and develop a good reasoning for choosing one and not the other. For many scholars this is a tedious process but at the same time an indispensible part of every dissertation project, or any academic project for that matter. A well-developed methodology is like a guide that will help you throughout the dissertation when you run the danger of drowning in a flood of facts and data.

All about relevance: who cares about my dissertation?

It is the greatest fear that all academics share: Three weeks prior to the publication of their own dissertation or scholarly article in an academic journal, a competitor publishes the same results. This fear, however, is usually unfounded. Two researchers working in the same area almost never reach the same conclusions. Much more frequently their research results complement each other and they become colleagues and future collaborators instead of competitors. Much worse is the fate of those, who do their research in an area that no one else is currently investigating. They run the danger of producing results that go unnoticed by their colleagues and that end up disappearing in academic oblivion. Data bases like ProQuest Dissertation&Theses can help you find out whether or not someone else has already exploited the topic of your interest or if there is promising space for a young scholar like yourself.

In any case, it is extremely important to be up to date on the research developments in your discipline. You should read academic journals and especially so-called "Review Articles," which provide succinct summaries of recently published academic books and studies and may also give useful suggestions for future research. Talk to faculty and older PhD students about your project. Younger, aspiring scholars are frequently much better informed about newest trends than established experts. Your future classmates will give you useful advice about the research directions that are worth pursuing and which dissertation topics you should probably avoid. At the same time, the word of older professors still counts: It is them, after all, who have to get excited enough about your dissertation project to write letters of recommendation and work together with you in other capacities in the future.

Live and love your dissertation

And finally, maybe the most important advice that will help you successfully complete the dissertation: Find a topic that you can get excited about. After all, it will be a constant companion during lonely hours in the archive or lab, on your desk or in the classroom. The topic of your dissertation will probably occupy your mind on the weekends as well. Good dissertations develop over the years and are written by people who burn for whatever it is they are writing about. If you are already sensing an internal resistance to the topic while developing your project, you will have a very tough time finishing it. However, if you can feel your curiosity grow while putting together the dissertation proposal, if you can't wait to get started, then you are definitely on the right track.

Apply to a German Graduate School - Application-Guide
Dissertation Exposé»
Curriculum Vitae(PDF)»
Letter of Motivation»
Language & Admissions-Test»
Personal Interview»

academics :: January 2014

If you are looking for a PhD position, a place at the right graduate school is an amazing choice - with secured financial support, a fixed time frame and a course focused around you. academics.com gives you an overview of all the graduate school options.

All graduate schools