by Michael David Franklin | May 6, 2010
In my initial advising calls with new doctoral learners in the School of Public Service Leadership, I make it a point to feel out their thoughts about the dissertation by asking, “What ideas or areas of interest do you have for a potential dissertation topic?”
Some learners respond with a detailed idea that stems from their professional experience, career goals, master’s academic work, or a combination of all three. And in their explanation these learners invariably communicate passion for their idea. Other learners hesitate before confessing they have no clue. I will gently press them to identify a broad area of interest, like prisons or nonprofit organizations, and in response they will tentatively offer a thought or two: an interest in surveillance technologies or white collar crime, for example. Yet, they express uncertainty about themselves. The majority of learners fall somewhere in the middle, confidently offering an idea to me but pointing out that they aren’t certain where to go with it.
Your dissertation topic should be on your radar from day one because it is imperative that you start a dialogue with yourself and with others about the dissertation process. This not only will help foster an integrated coursework experience by allowing you to concurrently meditate on your intellectual development and your topic’s development. It will also yield richer and more meaningful interactions about the dissertation when you attend colloquia.
Below I offer four key ways to begin developing your dissertation topic:
1) Reach out to a faculty member from your program who shares your research interests, and initiate correspondence with them about your topic. You can reach out by sending an email in which you briefly introduce yourself, summarize your interests in a paragraph or less, and ask the faculty member if she or he would be willing to correspond with you about your dissertation topic. You can determine faculty research interests by consulting the Mentor biographies on your School’s home page. Although there is no guarantee that whoever you contact will serve as your official Mentor during your Comprehensive Exam and/or Dissertation, having extracurricular dialogue with faculty will guide and animate your topic’s development.
2) Consult the Dissertation Manual, particularly Chapter 4, for information about selecting, narrowing, and focusing your dissertation topic. The Dissertation Manual can be found on iGuide 3 within the Schools & Programs drop-down menu, or by clicking here.
3) Start a literature review about your topic to orient yourself within the field and to survey current scholarship. It would be a good idea to include recent dissertations in your review. More information about conducting literature reviews can be found on the Library page here, and contact a librarian if you need assistance.
4) Create an informal cohort of fellow doctoral learners with similar interests to discuss, exchange, and test out ideas. Having a group of fellow interlocutors to discuss the ups and downs of graduate school not only will help you persist through the program, but also will be helpful as you explore possible dissertation topics. Connect with fellow learners in your courses and at colloquia. Some Schools offer forums in which their programs’ learners can contact each other, like the Public Service Professionals Group in the School of Public Service Leadership.
What are some other ways that you have found helpful in developing your dissertation topic?