Develop Your Dissertation Topic from Day One

by | 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?

7 Responses to "Develop Your Dissertation Topic from Day One"

  1. Daniel Holmes says:

    Great article. I am in my last few quarters of coursework and so I’m focused on my upcoming proposal. I concur with your list, and would like to expand on #3 a little based on my own experience. I found after several semesters I was quietly accumulating quite a collection of PDFs. I am in emergency management which makes light use of books. The majority of my sources are journal articles, followed by governmental sources available on the web (DHS/FEMA, UN, etc). I highly recommend learners begin organizing these articles as early on as possible. I have found the minimum beneficial local orgnaization is a hierarchy of folders, organized in a manner that makes sense to you (author, year, topic, etc). I have been constantly using my own taxonomy as well as my computer’s search feature to find articles from a local full text search. A more advanced system I discovered only recently is to use one of the PDF management and organization tools, perhaps containing or at least coupled with a reference manager. Not sure if product names are OK here so I’ll avoid that unless prompted (keep in mind I’m a Mac user). I’m at the point where I’m test driving these tools but can already see a big advantage as they organize my hundreds and hundreds of documents and provide value-added services like organization by collections, automatic searches and filing, further online searching from the tool (including in Capella-access databases), etc. Please consider adding this approach to your many downloaded files either as you start to consider step #3, or even if you are into it already.


  2. Michael Franklin says:

    Hello Dan, and thanks for the very helpful comment!

    Feel free to share the name of this PDF management program you use with others here, although I must say that due to the number and range of different programs people use to manage files and information, Capella cannot officially endorse them. This is not to suggest they aren’t good, but rather to acknowledge that such programs haven’t been tested out and therefore are not offered by Capella.

    I think you have put your finger on how we can use technology to our advantage to systematize a sea of information, and I encourage others to share programs they have found helpful!

  3. Mohammad Waheed says:

    Great post, and thank you for writing and sharing this with us. I had a topic in my mind for a while, and I just completed my track II in Dallas, TX. The colloquia helped me finalize what I want to research on. I highly recommend talking to the faculty member as they will ask questions that can only help us.

    I am glad I talked to few faculties and they had few questions which helped me plan my research.

    Thank you

  4. Karis Lee says:

    Great post, and thank you for writing and sharing this with us. I had a topic in my mind for a while, and I just completed my track II in Dallas, TX. The colloquia helped me finalize what I want to research on. I highly recommend talking to the faculty member as they will ask questions that can only help us.

    I am glad I talked to few faculties and they had few questions which helped me plan my research.

    Thank you

  5. Lynn says:

    The post was wonderful! I’ve transferred many credits in some I’m on the last couple of years before my big steps. I feel like I’m a few steps behind everyone who started at the beginning. I like the idea of working on it on Day 1. This is my first quarter and I want to start planning. I want to know what do you do when you look into research in your topic that your interest in and there isn’t much. I want to do mine in the field of Special Education as it pertains to adults but there’s not much research. I’ve been told that its a great topic and needs to be looked at. How do I find resources and structure to the paper.

  6. Dawne says:

    Michael, Thank you for the insight as I found it very useful as I am trappling with my dissertation topic, 7 more courses to complete before comps. I have 2 objectives over the winter break…read a couple dissertations in my interest area and totally redo my filing system to better meet my needs. Your post provided some additional steps I need to pursue…I liked step 1 and 2 and will look at starting those as well. Thanks!

  7. Jim Etherton says:

    Wish I had read this posting four years ago.

    Thanks for the insightful perspective Michael. Most of my cohorts completed their dissertations three years ago as they were focused and motivated. I decided to take my time and take courses that “interested” me. Long story short – my suggestion is to go into the START of your coursework with a focus on the end-state. USE the dissertation manual!