Selecting a topic for your dissertation is not easy and is often not the most fun task, but it is extremely important to choose a current and relevant topic. A well-chosen topic ensures that you can more easily write a qualitatively good dissertation. This also makes the writing process more pleasant for you.
Steps in choosing your dissertation topic
Step 1: Check what requirements your study places on the dissertation. Do you have to select from a list of topics or may you make your own choice? And do you have to meet any special terms or conditions?
Step 2: Decide what type of research you want to do. Do you just want to compare existing literature or do you want to carry out practical research yourself, for example, in the form of field research or experimental research? Do you want to make use of existing data or do you want to collect the data yourself?
Step 3: Select a global research discipline. Make sure you realize that for some research disciplines there is more information available than for others.
Step 4: Within your global research discipline, look for current articles and papers. Each field has a number of top journals and trade or professional journals. At the least, always make sure that a couple of articles from these top journals have common issues with your area of research.
For inspiration, you can also enter your research discipline at the website of the primary search engine for scholarly literature, http://scholar.google.com. For more databanks, see the following article: How do you perform desk research?.
Step 5: Select a minor detail or characteristic within your research discipline. Can you explain your topic in a few words?
Step 6: Make a Top 3 list of topics.
Step 7: Show your shortlist to your classmates. If they are enthusiastic about a topic, then you know that you have a good one.
Step 8: From the three topics, select the one that you have the best feeling about.
- Pay attention to the requirements of your study. Sometimes you have to choose from a list of topics within your field.
- Choose a current topic. It is often simpler to find a lot of information about a current topic than a dated topic, about which not much has been written recently. Search via Google (Scholar) for recent articles and web blogs. Or use LexisNexis: a database where you can quickly find all articles within your research discipline. Often you have access to LexisNexis via your higher educational institution or university.
- Always make sure that there are enough scientific sources for your topic. For this, look at the best journals within your field. It’s a good idea to review the last few editions of a number of professional journals.
- Try to choose a commercial angle within your research discipline. This can be very handy later when you are trying to get a job in your field.
- Practical research takes up a great deal of time. If you don’t want to spend too much time on your dissertation, then try to avoid practical research. Instead of conducting research yourself, you could also choose to use existing databases. This saves a lot of time, but also makes your dissertation less unique.
Topic selection within a company
If you are going to write a research paper or dissertation for a company, you must ensure that your colleagues and advisor within the company support your choice of topic.
It is important that the topic is relevant to the company; in this way, you are sure that you can ask for assistance within the company when you need it.
You’ve chosen your topic. What’s next?
As soon as you know your topic, it’s time to write an action plan to outline the structure of your dissertation.
Structure action plan for writing a dissertation
It’s important that your dissertation topic is relevant, as relevance demonstrates that your study is useful.
If the topic is not relevant, it has no value. But for whom must it actually be relevant?
The answer is simple: the topic should be relevant for all of the parties that are involved in your dissertation. You and your educational program are just the starting point.
If you are writing your dissertation about an organization where you are interning or working, it should also be relevant to that entity.
Finally, your dissertation may also need to have scientific, social or practical relevance.
Because you will be dealing with your dissertation for a long period of time, it’s important that the topic you choose has some relevance to you as a person. If it doesn’t, it will be much harder for you to maintain your momentum until the end. Writing your dissertation will become less interesting, which will in turn make it difficult for you to stay motivated.
It’s therefore key that you first choose a subject that is a good match for you.
Your educational program
Of course, it’s also important that you connect your dissertation topic with your educational program. If you fail to do so, your topic is not likely to be approved. However, some fields are very broad, which implies that many different subjects are possible. It really depends on the discipline.
Make sure to have an open discussion with your supervisor about what is and is not possible in relation to a dissertation topic.
Your professional experience
Many students write their dissertation in connection with an internship or job. If this is the case for you, the organization in question may want to have a say in your topic. Be sure to be in touch regularly with your contact point about your research plan, as he or she will know what is relevant for the organization and help to ensure that your results are ultimately helpful for it.
If you are studying a scientific discipline, the scientific relevance of your dissertation is also very important. This means that your research should fill a gap in the existing scientific knowledge. You can ensure that it does by reading extensively on your topic and identifying what hasn’t been investigated yet. It’s important that you also find the research topic stimulating.
One way to find a relevant topic is to look at the recommendations for follow-up studies that are made in existing scientific articles. However, be sure to check carefully that these studies have not already been carried after an article was published.
Example of scientific relevance
A study by Jansen (2015) recommends undertaking further research into the link between X and Y in a controlled setting. This research has not been conducted yet, which means that a gap concerning subject Z exists in the scientific knowledge. Examining the relationship in a controlled setting enables some of the variables that may have impacted Jansen’s (2015) results to be controlled. The current dissertation therefore conducts further research in a controlled environment to contribute to the existing scientific knowledge.
Social and practical relevance
Most theses are required to have social relevance, which basically means that they help us to better understand society.
However, in some disciplines it may be more important that a dissertation have practical relevance. Research that has practical relevance adds value; for instance, it could make a recommendation for a particular industry or suggest ways to improve certain processes within an organization.
Example of practical relevance
The results of the research carried out on the effect of X on Y are important for company Z. They will enable the company to introduce several process improvements that will increase the production rate and thus help to grow the company’s profits.
Choosing a relevant topic is not the end of the story
Once you’ve made sure that your research is relevant, it’s important that you subsequently transmit this relevance in the dissertation itself. This can be done in the introduction to your dissertation, where you should discuss how your research contributes to society and/or the theory.
Remember, too, that relevance is only one of the criteria that your topic must fulfill. We have identified some other issues that you should consider when choosing a dissertation topic and a step-by-step guide that you can use to further define it.