How to Choose Your PhD Dissertation Topic

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Updated: November 9, 2023, Reading time: 11 minutes

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A doctorate represents the peak of education in a particular field and is a major milestone in an individual’s journey to being an academic and lifelong learner. On a more practical note, earning a PhD is a barrier to advancement in one’s field. 

Enrolling in a PhD is not a matter taken lightly, and one must start on a program with their heart and mind set on a particular topic, problem, or idea they want to pursue their dissertation. 

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Choosing a topic for a dissertation isn’t necessarily easy, but it also shouldn’t be hard as long as one gives it enough thought. Dissertation topics are potentially as wide-ranging as the entire scope of a particular field, and while homing in on a particular area to pursue might be daunting, here are some guide questions and points to consider in coming up with your potential Ph.D. Dissertation topic.

What Makes a PhD Dissertation Different from a Master’s Thesis?

What Makes a PhD Dissertation Different from a Master’s Thesis - Image

In broad strokes, a Master’s Thesis differs from a Dissertation in its overall intent. A Master’s Thesis is meant to demonstrate your knowledge and skills in a particular topic. While a Master’s Thesis is meant to be original and innovative, it tends to stick to what’s within the bounds of existing research.

This can be in terms of a thesis’ underlying theories, models, and methodologies. A Master’s Thesis is more or less an expansion or an elaboration of existing research, and any analysis is based on this as well.

Meanwhile, a Dissertation still touches on existing research in the field, but in it, you are expected to conduct your research on a particular topic and come up with original research and new knowledge.

Dissertations are also typically several times bigger than Master’s Theses, given their intent to generate new knowledge. In sum, Master’s theses tend to follow beaten paths, while a Dissertation is meant to explore and open new ones.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a PhD Dissertation Topic

Questions to Ask When Choosing a PhD Dissertation Topic - Image

Ideally, you should already have a Dissertation topic in mind even before you enroll in a PhD program. This has an important purpose: this helps university departments gauge whether or not to accept you into the program (relative to the expertise of their faculty) and also gives you an idea of which universities might be a good fit for you while you are looking around and submitting applications.

In a more practical sense, some universities and departments/programs require students to have a concrete idea of what topic they have in mind for their dissertation as part of screening applicants. 

What topic interests you, or what are you passionate about?

This is an important point to keep in mind. It’s safe to assume that by this stage, having already earned/are in the process of earning your Master’s Degree, you already have a good idea of which particular aspects of your field interest you the most. 

Pursuing dissertations on ideas you love most helps keep you motivated and open-minded as you conduct your research and inquiry. 

Does a chosen topic fall within your area of expertise?

It goes without saying that a good topic should fall within the bounds of your skillset and expertise in your field. Dissertations are meant to be original, ground-breaking explorations, and in this regard, having a mastery of required skills, research methodologies, etc., is crucial, on top of a thorough knowledge of your field. 

What topic did you take up/are taking up for your master’s degree?

In coming up with a potential dissertation topic, one need not look far. Your current Master’s Degree is perhaps one of the most immediate starting points, in particular, the ideas you are exploring for your thesis. Master’s Theses may be limited in terms of what they can explore, but going through the major steps of your thesis will often give you an idea of what particular area you may want to explore further or potentially contribute to. 

Your list of related literature and research for your thesis, in particular, is a good source of inspiration. A lot of these sources represent the most current research in your field, and it’s worth looking through the authors of the material you are citing and finding out the particular areas they are researching. It also helps to contact these authors formally, and more often than not, they would be willing to discuss their research with you.

Is your chosen topic researchable/answerable?

The specifics would vary between fields and disciplines, but it is very important to establish whether your potential topic can even be researched to begin with. A number of limitations may be at play in this regard. In some fields, the prevailing technologies have not yet reached the right stage of maturity to facilitate research on your topic, or at this stage, may be best left to post-doctoral researchers.

In other cases, the right data might not exist owing to it not having been gathered in the past years or decades. Still, in some cases, your topic might necessitate conducting research in places or settings that would put you in unnecessary danger, and crucially, research on a topic might necessitate crossing the red lines of ethics and professional standards. 

These are just some of the limiting factors to keep in mind in seeing whether or not a topic is researchable, given your position as an incoming PhD student. It is also important to keep in mind that as a Ph.D. student, you will most likely be required to earn your degree within a set number of years, and exceeding that limit is often non-negotiable.

Has the topic been researched already/has it already been explored enough?

This is one of the first points that you need to clarify in choosing your potential dissertation topic. Depending on a field of discipline, some areas or sub-fields will invariably be more accessible than others (or even more popular in some cases) and will have a bigger body of existing research. 

Since a dissertation is meant to break new ground and add to the overall body of knowledge of a particular field or discipline, it helps first to be able to determine whether a particular topic has already been explored. Determining the level of research on a particular area or topic will also help guide and form your inquiry and, ultimately, your final Ph.D. dissertation topic.

You will have a good idea of a particular area’s level of exploration through the course of gathering and parsing through related literature even as early as when you’re doing your Master’s Degree, so it helps to keep an eye out for this. 

Is there research on the topic from other fields?

You need not limit yourself to what’s within your field/discipline; in fact, you should make it a point to also look at any potential related research on your chosen topic from other fields. Doing this gives you a good alternative perspective to your chosen topic since research from outside your own field would often have different starting points and would have different lenses to view a particular topic. Looking at research done in other fields would also help further inform and mold your thought process as you finalize your chosen dissertation topic.

Does your department support your topic of choice? Are there faculty members willing to mentor you through it?

This is a key consideration for you as a PhD student and would impact not only the topic you can go for but also which university will serve you best (assuming you get accepted). You will be exploring your topic as a student largely under the guidance of one or more expert faculty, and your potential topic must be within the range of expertise of a particular university’s faculty. 

Some universities also specialize in particular areas or may have a particular research agenda they are willing to pursue. This can play into their selection process for candidates they may want to admit into their program. A university will have finite resources, and it would be beneficial for them to admit students who are looking to explore ideas that are closest to their agenda in order to maximize their resources. 

Will the resources available to you be enough to conduct the necessary research?

This is a rephrasing or an expansion of the earlier question on whether or not your chosen topic is researchable. To reiterate, regardless of the fact that you intend to generate original research, you will first and foremost be taking on your topic as a student, and this sets a number of key limitations. You will need to determine whether the resources available to you will conceivably be enough to let you complete your dissertation. 

This includes a number of practical considerations, including any available grants, fellowships, scholarships, and even a particular university’s existing facilities. Your chosen topic might involve you having to use equipment of limited availability or accessibility or may require you to conduct fieldwork in overseas locations.

There is no simple answer to this, however, since requirements would vary depending on particular fields or disciplines, but it is important to keep this in mind in the interest of being able to finish your dissertation and earning your PhD. 

Resource considerations may seem trivial to some, but this also serves as an important input in further developing your chosen topic. Scientific and scholarly research, after all, doesn’t involve trying to take on as many problems and topics as you can. To inject a few long-term goals into your planning, maybe it would also help to come up with your chosen PhD dissertation topic with the aim of further exploring the topic once you earn your doctorate. It might not even have to be you who will do the exploring, but others as well.  

Are you particularly attached to your chosen idea or topic?

Throughout this article, we have been talking about being sure about which idea or topic you would want to explore for your PhD dissertation, but it is also important to address whether or not you have formed an attachment to a particular topic or idea. 

As a scholar, you mustn’t get attached to a particular idea, not just while you are coming up with your dissertation topic but throughout the whole course of doing your research and beyond. 

This is where the pitfall of confirmation bias comes in. While it is standard to let the evidence dictate the inquiry, doing research with a strong attachment to a particular idea or expected outcome introduces the possibility of cherry-picking data and bending the outcome of your research to fit your original idea. 

This is bad science, and more than a few researchers have fallen victim to this, some to great cost. It is, therefore, important to constantly keep an open and flexible mind as a scholar and be ready to accept any necessary changes to your chosen dissertation topic. This serves as good practice for when you’re already conducting your research, as it is almost always the case that your inquiry will evolve based on whatever findings may emerge.

Are you listening to what others are saying?

Coming up with the right topic for your dissertation should not be a lonely battle. Science is a collaborative process, and this should be mirrored in your thought process. As a student, you will have access to your peers, members of your cohort, and, crucially, your faculty and mentors. It is good practice to bounce ideas around and ask for input constantly. This practice should extend beyond the formulation stage and well into your conducting the dissertation research itself. 

Lastly, it also helps to share your own relevant input constantly. After all, you’re may not the only one in your circle who is trying to come up with research topics (whether for Master’s Theses or PhD Dissertations), and your input may turn out to be one of the clinchers that help someone move forward by a huge bound. 

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Final Thoughts

A PhD Dissertation is a highly crucial undertaking, and coming up with a topic for your dissertation requires rigorous thought that considers many key points. 

Choosing a topic for a PhD Dissertation takes a number of key theoretical and practical considerations into account since you will be going into your research problem as a student with access to finite resources working within a set time limit to earn your degree.

It is important to come up with a chosen topic long before applying for a PhD, but it is equally important not to grow too attached to a particular topic or idea, as well as always to welcome change and consider others’ input.

We’re certain of one thing—your search for more information on picking the best graduate degree or school landed you here. Let our experts help guide your through the decision making process with thoughtful content written by experts.