How to Choose a Dissertation Topic | 8 Steps to Follow

Choosing your dissertation topic is the first step in making sure your research goes as smoothly as possible. When choosing a topic, it’s important to consider:

  • Your institution and department’s requirements
  • Your areas of knowledge and interest
  • The scientific, social, or practical relevance
  • The availability of data and resources
  • The timeframe of your dissertation
  • The relevance of your topic

You can follow these steps to begin narrowing down your ideas.

Step 1: Check the requirements

The very first step is to check your program’s requirements. This determines the scope of what it is possible for you to research.

  • Is there a minimum and maximum word count?
  • When is the deadline?
  • Should the research have an academic or a professional orientation?
  • Are there any methodological conditions? Do you have to conduct fieldwork, or use specific types of sources?

Some programs have stricter requirements than others. You might be given nothing more than a word count and a deadline, or you might have a restricted list of topics and approaches to choose from. If in doubt about what is expected of you, always ask your supervisor or department coordinator.

Step 2: Choose a broad field of research

Start by thinking about your areas of interest within the subject you’re studying. Examples of broad ideas include:

  • Twentieth-century literature
  • Economic history
  • Health policy

Step 3: Look for books and articles

To get a more specific sense of the current state of research on your potential topic, skim through a few recent issues of the top journals in your field. Be sure to check out their most-cited articles in particular. For inspiration, you can also search Google Scholar, subject-specific databases, and your university library’s resources.

As you read, note down any specific ideas that interest you and make a shortlist of possible topics. If you’ve written other papers, such as a 3rd-year paper or a conference paper, consider how those topics can be broadened into a dissertation.

Step 4: Find a niche

After doing some initial reading, it’s time to start narrowing down options for your potential topic. This can be a gradual process, and should get more and more specific as you go. For example, from the ideas above, you might narrow it down like this:

  • Twentieth-century literature  Twentieth-century Irish literature  Post-war Irish poetry
  • Economic history  European economic history  German labor union history
  • Health policy  Reproductive health policy  Reproductive rights in South America

All of these topics are still broad enough that you’ll find a huge amount of books and articles about them. Try to find a specific niche where you can make your mark, such as: something not many people have researched yet, a question that’s still being debated, or a very current practical issue.

Tip
If there’s already a lot of research and a strong consensus on your topic, it will be more difficult to justify the relevance of your work. However, you should also make sure there is enough literature on the topic to provide a strong basis for your own research.

At this stage, make sure you have a few backup ideas — there’s still time to change your focus. If your topic doesn’t make it through the next few steps, you can try a different one. Later, you will narrow your focus down even more in your problem statement and research questions.

Step 5: Consider the type of research

There are many different types of research, so at this stage, it’s a good idea to start thinking about what kind of approach you’ll take to your topic. Will you mainly focus on:

  • Collecting original data (e.g., experimental or field research)?
  • Analyzing existing data (e.g., national statistics, public records, or archives)?
  • Interpreting cultural objects (e.g., novels, films, or paintings)?
  • Comparing scholarly approaches (e.g., theories, methods, or interpretations)?

Many dissertations will combine more than one of these. Sometimes the type of research is obvious: if your topic is post-war Irish poetry, you will probably mainly be interpreting poems. But in other cases, there are several possible approaches. If your topic is reproductive rights in South America, you could analyze public policy documents and media coverage, or you could gather original data through interviews and surveys.

You don’t have to finalize your research design and methods yet, but the type of research will influence which aspects of the topic it’s possible to address, so it’s wise to consider this as you narrow down your ideas.

Tip
Collecting original data takes a great deal of time. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend on your dissertation, it might be best to focus on analyzing existing data from primary and secondary sources.

Step 6: Determine the relevance

It’s important that your topic is interesting to you, but you’ll also have to make sure it’s academically, socially or practically relevant to your field.

  • Academic relevance means that the research can fill a gap in knowledge or contribute to a scholarly debate in your field.
  • Social relevance means that the research can advance our understanding of society and inform social change.
  • Practical relevance means that the research can be applied to solve concrete problems or improve real-life processes.

The easiest way to make sure your research is relevant is to choose a topic that is clearly connected to current issues or debates, either in society at large or in your academic discipline. The relevance must be clearly stated when you define your research problem.

Step 7: Make sure it’s plausible

Before you make a final decision on your topic, consider again the length of your dissertation, the timeframe in which you have to complete it, and the practicalities of conducting the research.

Will you have enough time to read all the most important academic literature on this topic? If there’s too much information to tackle, consider narrowing your focus even more.

Will you be able to find enough sources or gather enough data to fulfil the requirements of the dissertation? If you think you might struggle to find information, consider broadening or shifting your focus.

Do you have to go to a specific location to gather data on the topic? Make sure that you have enough funding and practical access.

Last but not least, will the topic hold your interest for the length of the research process? To stay motivated, it’s important to choose something you’re enthusiastic about!

Step 8: Get your topic approved

Most programmes will require you to submit a brief description of your topic, called a research prospectus or proposal.

Remember, if you discover that your topic is not as strong as you thought it was, it’s usually acceptable to change your mind and switch focus early in the dissertation process. Just make sure you have enough time to start on a new topic, and always check with your supervisor or department.

Frequently asked questions about dissertation topics

How do I know I have a good main research question?

Formulating a main research question can be a difficult task. Overall, your question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement.

However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:

  1. Researchability
  2. Feasibility and specificity
  3. Relevance and originality
How do I write questions to ask for research?

All research questions should be:

  • Focused on a single problem or issue
  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly
  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis
  • Relevant to your field of study and/or society more broadly
Writing Strong Research Questions
How do I assess information critically?

You can assess information and arguments critically by asking certain questions about the source. You can use the CRAAP test, focusing on the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of a source of information.

Ask questions such as:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert?
  • Why did the author publish it? What is their motivation?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence?
What is a dissertation prospectus?

A dissertation prospectus or proposal describes what or who you plan to research for your dissertation. It delves into why, when, where, and how you will do your research, as well as helps you choose a type of research to pursue. You should also determine whether you plan to pursue qualitative or quantitative methods and what your research design will look like.

It should outline all of the decisions you have taken about your project, from your dissertation topic to your hypotheses and research objectives, ready to be approved by your supervisor or committee.

Note that some departments require a defense component, where you present your prospectus to your committee orally.

What’s the difference between a research plan and a research proposal?

The best way to remember the difference between a research plan and a research proposal is that they have fundamentally different audiences. A research plan helps you, the researcher, organize your thoughts. On the other hand, a dissertation proposal or research proposal aims to convince others (e.g., a supervisor, a funding body, or a dissertation committee) that your research topic is relevant and worthy of being conducted.

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Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.