How to Find Your Dissertation Topic

Read More to Discover Your Dissertation TopicI remember the day after I passed my comprehensive exams – of course, I was absolutely elated that I had moved forward on another step of the journey toward the elusive doctorate, but the second I received my “PASS” letter, I started to worry about my dissertation. Chances are, you know what I’m talking about if you are on that doctoral journey.

The thoughts wouldn’t stop sounding in my head:

  • What was I going to write about in my dissertation?
  • What if I couldn’t think of a good topic?
  • How would I find that mysterious “gap” in the scholarship?
  • What if the dissertation committee didn’t like my proposal?

What if…What if…. What if.

But stop there. Let’s talk about taking action and alleviating these doubts. I know from experience that if you allow the negativity to permeate your thoughts, then soon you’ll start to believe that inner voice.


You’ve gotten this far. You’re almost done. You owe it to yourself to write that dissertation.

The first step in the process of deciding upon your topic is to understand from the core of your being that this process is HARD. You thought college was hard? You thought getting your first job was hard, or even giving birth? Well yes – giving birth hurts like Hell…but if you go about writing your dissertation with a plan (keep reading for my ideas on that) your process will not feel as painful as childbirth. I promise. It will take longer though, so if you are setting some ridiculous timeframe for completion that not even God himself could complete, let it go (I mean, God has to run the universe, and it’s obvious that he probably wouldn’t be able to bust out a 200-page book in 6 weeks. So, don’t put that pressure on yourself, okay?).

What you need now is a plan.

If you find yourself in a state of panic or despair, please do not fret: you are not alone! One of the most difficult decisions you will make in your academic career is the topic of your dissertation. That’s a fact. Everyone with that Ph.D. can relate, and we all look back on those days of the unknown and are thankful that it’s done.

One day, you’ll wake up and your dissertation will be finished and you will be walking across that stage, hood on, diploma in hand. It will happen.

So, what do we need to do now? Read on.

First, breathe. Relax. And then, take yourself through this reflective activity. I promise that it will help clear your head and make room for new ideas.

Step 1: Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel happy about your accomplishments. I’m being serious here. And this is not a blog post that offers affirmations without solutions (that’s NOT what we’re in this here for, after all) but there’s got to be positivity before we can move on. It’s a fact. So, close those eyes and be happy about all you’ve done!

Go through the acceptance letter you received when you were just about to embark on your Ph.D. studies. Didn’t that feel great?

Think about all those papers and presentations you ACED. You know you did better than everyone else. 😊

Consider the times you pushed yourself to get up early or stay up late so you could finish one more assignment, one more presentation, one more paper. YOU did that!

If you persevered over the last several years despite the colds, the kids, the money, the headaches, the commute, the time— you can write a dissertation in one year or less. You can.

 Step 2:  Think back over your coursework. Which classes interested you the most, inspired you to research – made you excited to learn? Why did you enjoy those classes? Take a few moments to jot down a list of reasons. You might use the following as a guide:

  • Course title
  • Primary concepts learned
  • Papers/presentations completed

Now take that list one step further and examine the papers and presentations that you completed. Chances are that there exists a portion of a paper that you can use for your dissertation. And, there are probably several pieces, pages, paragraphs, etc. that can morph into entire chapters! All it takes is a little time to go back and revisit the work you have already done.

Smart academics know that it is okay to build on their existing work, so they choose paper topics VERY carefully.

Think about when you were a kid, digging in the sand for the perfect shell. Right now, dig through your past hard work and find that diamond that you can use as a foundation for a piece of your dissertation.

Step 3: If you have examined all your past coursework, chances are that you’ve discovered a handful of potential ideas. But there’s still work to be done.

Make a Metacognitive chart: What do you know about the current research in each of the topics that you enjoyed in your previous classes?  What articles and essays have you read recently on that topic? This is important because when you write your prospectus for the dissertation, you will need to prove that there is a gap in the scholarship that needs to be filled (by your original research, of course).

Now, examine the topic that most interests you. If you are unsure about the existence of a hole in the research, consider reading a few seminal texts on your topic and look at their references. Then, read more. The more you read, the more you will start to see trends in the scholarship. As you read, start to think about how your study will add to the existing conversation. Now, you have the potential to fill that elusive gap.

Step 4: Now that you have researched potential topics and started reading again, consider immersing yourself in this field of study for a long time (could be 9 months, could be 19—it’s all up to you). Is the topic interesting enough to keep you writing for that long? Also, and even more forward thinking – can you see yourself building your future academic publishing career on your dissertation topic? If you answered YES, then I’d say you have your topic!

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