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Dissertation Topics 101: Thoughts on choosing a topic that works

The process of writing a doctoral dissertation is one that is both time consuming and rewarding. One of the most difficult aspects of writing the dissertation for the PhD is finding a topic that can be studied with the type of rigor that a dissertation requires. Questions such as "What should I write about?" and "where do I begin?" are common on every graduate student's mind during the stages leading up to the dissertation proposal.

In this presentation, Dr. Brian Ebie draws from his experience in coaching, serving as advisor, or committee member for many, many successful doctoral dissertations and master's thesis projects, to help the doctoral student find a good place to start thinking about the research topic for the dissertation. In 20 slides the reader will find a solid outline of processes to consider when starting the proposal phase of the dissertation or thesis.

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Dissertation Topics 101: Thoughts on choosing a topic that works

  1. 1. Thoughts on choosing a dissertation topic that works By Brian Ebie, Ph.D
  2. 2. The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" I found it! But "hmm… that's funny..." -- Isaac Asimov © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  3. 3. Presentation Order  Choosing a Topic ◦ Is it YOU? ◦ Is it Your Area? ◦ Is it Viable  Obstacles to the Proposal ◦ Internal ◦ External © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  4. 4.  Read – a lot ◦ Who else has thought about it? ◦ Read research articles in your field and related fields ◦ Who has perhaps taken a cross-disciplinary approach to your topic? It is possible to find that another discipline has taken at times a unique approach to your field.  Read especially the last chapter of dissertations and scholarly journals in fields in which you’re interested. ◦ Look at the author(s) suggestions for future study ◦ What is missing from the body of literature? © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  5. 5.  Ask questions and write them down in lists ◦ Make notes, jot ideas, keep paper handy, make flow charts on your iPad, sticky notes on your wall, etc. ◦ Even old-fashioned note pads and note cards are useful.  Don’t rely on your advisor or committee to hand you a topic.  Also, don’t be afraid to say “Here’s what I’m interested in” and then actually tell your advisor. © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  6. 6.  Questions to ask: ◦ Does the topic reflect my passion/interest? ◦ Does the topic fit in my area, field, forte? ◦ Does the topic and associated process of writing, experimenting, viable, feasible, seem worthwhile? © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  7. 7.  Designing, getting committee(s) approval, researching, experimenting, writing, and defending your dissertation is a long process. ◦ What drove you to pursue the PhD? ◦ What are you known for? ◦ What do you what to be known for?  It is important that you look for a topic to which you can remain committed. © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  8. 8.  It is important to choose an area of investigation in which you have an interest ◦ A common mistake involves choosing a topic simply because not many others have written about that topic. Consider that there might be a reason why… ◦ Again, what interests/passions drove you to pursue the PhD? ◦ What two topics have interested you the most in your academic writing/research thus far? © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  9. 9.  Is the topic manageable, given your time frame, resources, and availability of data sources?  Is the topic researchable?  Is the potential design within your range of competence? ◦ What research methodology will you use? ◦ Do you have a working or solid background in field? ◦ Do you have a familiarity with existing literature/research? © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  10. 10.  Is the topic significant in practical or theoretical terms? ◦ Does it make a contribution to the field? ◦ Will you be an “expert” in that field because of this document? ◦ Did you study valid sources? (read this for an example) © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  11. 11.  Is the topic significant in practical or theoretical terms? ◦ Does it make a contribution to the field?  Is it original? (Has it been done before?) ◦ Can you give it your own “spin?” ◦ Can you add your distinctive direction?  Does it take you where you want to go? © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  12. 12. DON'T think, however, that your topic has to be earthshakingly original. This search for mega- creativity has caused many a case of writer's block. Most things have probably been studied before, although perhaps not in the combination or circumstances that you will look at them. This, in and of itself, will be a contribution.” -Mary I. Dereshiwsky, Ph.D © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  13. 13.  No matter how glamorous the topic…  No matter how current the topic…  No matter how obscure the topic… There will be obstacles. © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  14. 14.  Hypothesis construction ◦ A common problem is trying to answer too many research questions. “Casting too wide a net.” ◦ Topic is not well defined.  Sample issues ◦ Especially in behavioral research it can be difficult to find a truly robust, random sample. ◦ Receiving appropriate approvals for the use of human subjects/minors/metadata can be difficult. © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  15. 15.  Methodological issues ◦ What is the best approach to research design that will answer the research questions? ◦ Quantitative, Qualitative, Experimental, Descriptive, Historic, Mixed-method, etc.  Analytic contradictions ◦ Type I and II errors when addressing the research hypothesis ◦ Using an incorrect statistical treatment of the data © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  16. 16.  Time ◦ There are numerous time constraints based upon the type of research, access to the sample population, access to faculty advisors, etc. ◦ Making the time to examine, write, read, proof, submit, resubmit, start over, write, read, proof, submit, give up, resubmit, examine, read, write, examine, sleep, sleep on paperwork, dream about 3-Way ANOVAs, read, etc….  Getting several faculty to agree upon the topic itself: ◦ This can be harder than necessary. Dissertation committees are made of several professors, each with a unique approach and idea about your topic. ◦ Seek help from your committee chair to determine how to best satisfy the consensus. © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  17. 17.  Perspective ◦ Degree of detail with which to pursue with your topic ◦ Have you built a solid theoretical framework that will support the exact questions you are asking, and the approach you are taking?  Is it too simplistic? Too complicated?  Getting ALL of those ideas from graduate school into one thesis statement! © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  18. 18.  “The essence of a dissertation is critical thinking, not experimental data.”  “Writing a dissertation requires a student to think deeply, to organize technical discussion, to muster arguments that will convince other scientists, and to follow rules for rigorous, formal presentation of the arguments and discussion.” Read more at https://www.cs.purdue.edu/homes/dec/essay.dissertation.html © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  19. 19.  You will often be asked some variant of: “so, what is your dissertation about?” from random people.  Try to answer this question in one sentence.  If you cannot, you need to figure out how to condense your life’s work on this document with a title that’s 42 words long, into one sentence. © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.
  20. 20.  This slide show is meant as a jumping off point on your search for a topic, to help shape some basic points of thinking about the process.  For a more detailed look at the basics of dissertation writing, check out this link from Purdue:  How To Write A Dissertation or Bedtime Reading For People Who Do Not Have Time To Sleep © Brian Ebie 2015. No reproduction without author permission.

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  • MarthaOmoekpenAlade

    Dec. 21, 2016
  • nabeelahasan

    Nov. 29, 2019

The process of writing a doctoral dissertation is one that is both time consuming and rewarding. One of the most difficult aspects of writing the dissertation for the PhD is finding a topic that can be studied with the type of rigor that a dissertation requires. Questions such as "What should I write about?" and "where do I begin?" are common on every graduate student's mind during the stages leading up to the dissertation proposal. In this presentation, Dr. Brian Ebie draws from his experience in coaching, serving as advisor, or committee member for many, many successful doctoral dissertations and master's thesis projects, to help the doctoral student find a good place to start thinking about the research topic for the dissertation. In 20 slides the reader will find a solid outline of processes to consider when starting the proposal phase of the dissertation or thesis.

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