Simple Strategies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2004 (© 2004)
SIMPLE STRATEGIES FOR DEVELOPING
SUCCESSFUL DISSERTATION TOPICS
Jeffrey W. Braunstein, Ph.D.
Developing research topics for dissertations and theses can be a
very tedious and agonizing experience. You may be faced with the dilemma of
balancing your professional interests with what is feasible and possible to
accomplish at this stage of your career. All to often, I have met students who
have committed to a dissertation or thesis project that would take a lifetime to
accomplish. Sometimes students are encouraged or pressured to accept a
dissertation or theses of “convenience.” These students are encouraged to
develop their dissertation or thesis by extending the current research of their
professor. This situation can be especially difficult to negotiate. Your
dissertation or thesis chairperson may encourage you to further research in
their area of interest by enticing you with the benefits of using an existing
database or other resources that have the potential to expedite or facilitate
the dissertation process. This issue of Simple Strategies will address the
aforementioned topics and provide suggestions for successfully negotiating this
all too important part of the dissertation or thesis process.
How can I develop a dissertation topic that can incorporate
my professional interests yet still allow me to graduate before I reach
After working with many students, I suspect that the 3 Biggest
Obstacles for failing to complete a dissertation or thesis are:
1. Procrastinating or not starting because the task looks
2. Poor planning and problems with subject recruitment
3. A fear of research design and statistics
Personal Interest and Feasibility
It’s important to weigh and
balance: (1) your interest in a specific area of study and (2) the feasibility
of the project and the probability of completing your dissertation. I fully
encourage and support students to pick dissertation topics of interest, but I
advise them to closely weigh the positives and negatives for choosing their
Remember you need to
first review the relevant research in your particular area and then just add “a
piece to the puzzle” in your chosen field of study. When you’re deciding on a
dissertation or thesis topic, ask yourself these very important questions:
Questions & Solutions to Assess and Improve the
Feasibility of Your Dissertation Topic
Question: How hard will it
be to recruit subjects for my dissertation?
Solution: Try to choose a population of potential subjects for your
dissertation that are easily accessible. Can you recruit subjects from where
you work? Are you affiliated with an organization or institution that will let
you interact with their staff or clients? If you don’t have convenient access to
subjects, you have to figure out a way to outreach potential subjects.
Developing a dissertation topic that offers a needed service or benefit to
potential subjects can help facilitate data collection. The use of advertising
and other direct marketing techniques can also be used to outreach and recruit
potential subjects for your dissertation.
Question: Why should
people participate in my study?
Solution: Ask yourself this
very important question: What are the reasons that people would want to
participate in my dissertation or thesis? It’s extremely important to assess
whether these reasons are strong enough to attract enough participants for
your dissertation before committing to a specific topic. Offering monetary
rewards or entry into a raffle can entice people to participate in your
dissertation. Sometimes you can outreach a group of people who may be very
willing to participate in research because they believe that their
participation would provide a significant contribution to a cause that they
strongly believe in or are greatly affected by. For example, it may be
easier to collect dissertation data when conducting disease research if you
concentrate on collecting data from persons who are either directly
afflicted by the specific disease or from the relatives of the afflicted.
Question: Have I chosen
too many variables to study for one dissertation?
too many variables to study at one time may require you to collect a large
amount of subjects. You may also have to use very complicated statistical
procedures to analyze your dissertation data. Choosing too many variables
also means that you have to conduct literature searches on each specific
variable in your dissertation. In addition, you have to examine and review
the literature on the relationships between the variables that you have
chosen to study in your dissertation. Limiting the number of variables in
your dissertation is always recommended. Select only the most important
variables that will answer your research question. Remember, you have the
rest of your career to continue the research you’ve started in your
Should I accept a dissertation or thesis of convenience?
Sometimes students are faced
with the dilemma of accepting a dissertation or theses of “convenience.” This
situation can be especially difficult to negotiate. Students in this situation
are frequently encouraged to develop their dissertations by extending the
current research of their professor. In exchange for furthering your
professor’s research, you may receive the benefits of using an existing database
and other resources that can potentially expedite the dissertation process.
Below is a list of potential positives and negatives associated with accepting a
dissertation or thesis of convenience.
NEGATIVES OF ACCEPTING
A DISSERATION OR
THESIS OF CONVENIENCE
You have a head
start on data collection.
You’re stuck with
the data that’s collected and have inherited all its methodological
problems and design limitations. You now have to work backwards,
developing your dissertation from archival data.
You have chosen a
dissertation or thesis topic that is an extension of research you’ve
already been involved with during your first years of graduate
school. You are already very well versed in this area.
You might be
obligated to assist with other research projects in exchange for
using the community database and resources. This can potentially
reduce the amount of time you have to focus on your dissertation or
Your professor (and
now your dissertation or thesis chairperson) is very well versed in
this field of study and can provide a lot of help and assistance
with your dissertation.
advisor or chairperson is a very busy academician who has very
little time to help you with your dissertation and now you’re stuck
with him or her.
Keeping these simple strategies
in mind when developing a dissertation or thesis can help you to successfully
develop a feasible study and avoid many of the pitfalls experienced by graduate
students. Spending extra time during the planning stage of the dissertation can
help you to develop a methodologically sound dissertation and improve the
chances of completing your dissertation or thesis on time. After so many
years of hard work, studying, and financial expense, do you want to contend with
the difficulties and anxiety experienced by many graduate students who are ABD
(All But Dissertation)?
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