April 1, 2024

How To Select A Topic For Your Dissertation Paper in 6 Steps

How To Select A Topic For Your Dissertation Paper - 6 steps

Are you finding it difficult to select the right topic for your dissertation paper? In this article, we will help you by teaching the 6 steps that you can follow to figure out the right topic for your dissertation paper.
As we know, the very first step in writing a successful dissertation is choosing its topic. So, that the research goes as smoothly as possible! For this, it’s important to consider a few points which can help in narrowing down the idea, and the respective points are:

  • You must know your institution and department’s requirement
  • Your specific areas of knowledge and interest
  • The scientific, social, or practical relevance
  • The availability of collecting data and resources from different platforms
  • And it’s important to know, the time frame of your dissertation
  • And what is the relevance of your selected topic?


You may also be interested in reading How to Write a Dissertation Paper | 14 Steps To Follow


How To Select A Topic For Your Dissertation Paper


Steps of choosing a topic for the dissertation:

Follow these six simple steps to choose a topic, and you’ll be well on your way to building an outline for your final dissertation project. So, let’s start with the steps –


1. Choose a broad field to understand the research process


It is observed that many students make mistakes by not going through a proper research process while choosing their topic for their dissertation. So, the most important step is to get your head around the basics of research (especially methodologies), as well as your institution’s specific requirements. One should start by thinking about their areas of interest within the subject they are studying. Some examples of broad ideas include health policy, economic history, 20th-century literature, and more. There are two important reasons why one should go through the research process, they are:

Firstly, it is important to have a basic understanding of the research process, research methodologies, fieldwork options, and analysis methods before starting the ideation process, or else one will simply not be equipped to think about their research adequately. Before starting the ideating, you will be wasting your time if you don’t understand the basics of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods.

Secondly, it is important to know your university/department’s specific requirements for your research. For example, the requirements could be in terms of topic originality, word count, data requirements, ethical adherence, methodology, etc. Again, if you are not aware of these from the outset, you will end up wasting your own time on irrelevant ideas and topics.


2. Review the past dissertations/thesis of your institution


Reviewing the past dissertation will be hugely beneficial – imagine being able to see previous students’ assignments and essays when you are doing your own, doesn’t it sound good? By this time you will find many students have already gone through the research process to produce successful dissertations. All the past dissertations are usually available in the university’s online library! If you go through them it will act as a helpful model for all kinds of things, from how long a bibliography needs to be, to what a good literature review looks like, through to what kinds of methods you can use and how to leverage them to support your argument.

As you peruse past dissertations, ask yourself the following questions for further clarification:

  • What kinds of topics did these dissertations cover and how did they turn the topic into questions?
  • How broad or narrow were the topics?
  • How original were the topics? Were they truly groundbreaking or just a localized twist on well-established theory?
  • How well justified were the topics? Did they seem important or just nice to know?
  • How much literature did they draw on as a theoretical base? Was the literature more academic or applied in nature?
  • What kinds of research methods did they use and what data did they draw on?
  • How did they analyze that data and bring it into the discussion of the academic literature?
  • Which of the dissertations are most readable to you – why? How were they presented?
  • Can you see why these dissertations were successful? Can you relate what they’ve done back to the university’s instructions/brief?

Seeing a variety of dissertations will also help you understand whether your university has very rigid expectations in terms of structure and format, or whether they expect and allow variety in the number of chapters, chapter headings, order of content, style of presentation, and so on. Some departments even accept graphic novels; some are willing to grade free-flow continental philosophy-style arguments; some want a highly rigid, standardized structure.  Many offer a dissertation template, with information on how marks are split between sections. Check right away whether you have been given one of those templates – and if you do, then use it and don’t try to deviate or reinvent the wheel.


3. Review the academic literature


As you have understood the research process, and your university’s specific requirements for your dissertations or thesis, and have a feel of what a good dissertation looks like, you can start with your ideation process. This is done by reviewing the current literature and looking for opportunities to add something original to the academic conversation. There are a few points, let’s discuss them:

a. Kickstart the ideation process

So, where should you start your literature hunt? The best starting point is to get back to your modules. Remember,

    • The literature is of a high enough caliber for your university
    • The topics are relevant to your specific course


b. Understand the current state of knowledge

Once you’re done with the ideation process, you need to get an understanding of the current state of the literature for your chosen interest areas. What you’re aiming to understand is this: what is the academic conversation here and what critical questions are yet unanswered? These unanswered questions are prime opportunities for a unique, meaningful research topic. A quick review of the literature on your favorite topics will help you understand this.

c. Absorb, don’t hunt

At this stage, your objective is to read and understand the current state of the theory for your areas of interest – you don’t need to be in topic-hunting mode yet. Don’t jump the gun and try to identify research topics before you are well familiarised with the literature. Once you understand the fundamental fact that academic knowledge is a conversation, things get easier.


4. Narrow down, then evaluate


We are sure that by this stage you should have a healthy list of research topics. And once you are there step away from the ideation and thinking for a few days to clear your mind! The unbridled ideation phase is over and now it’s time to take a reality check. The key is to get some distance from your ideas so that you can sit down with your list and review it with a more objective view.

Try to narrow down your “top 5”, and then evaluate them against the following criteria:

  • Research questions – what is the main research question, and what are the supporting sub-questions? It’s critically important that you can define these questions clearly and concisely. If you cannot do this, it means you haven’t thought the topic through sufficiently.
  • Originality – is the topic sufficiently original, as per your university’s originality requirements? However, your university’s requirements should guide your decision-making here.
  • Importance – is the topic of real significance, or is it just a “nice to know”? If it’s significant, why? Who will benefit from finding the answer to your desired questions and how will they benefit? Justifying your research will be a key requirement for your research proposal, so it’s really important to develop a convincing argument here.
  • Literature – is there a contemporary (current) body of academic literature around this issue? Is there enough literature for you to base your investigation on, but not too much that the topic is “overdone”? Will you be able to navigate this literature or is it overwhelming?
  • Data requirements – What kind of data would you need access to answer your key questions? At this stage, you don’t need to be able to map out your exact research design, but you should be able to articulate how you would approach it in high-level terms. Will you use qual, quant, or mixed methods? Why?
  • Feasibility – How feasible would it be to gather the data that would be needed in the time frame that you have and do you have the willpower and the skills to do it? What will you do if you don’t get the response rate you expect? Be very realistic here and also ask advice from your supervisor and other experts – poor response rates are extremely common and can derail even the best research projects.
  • Personal attraction – On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about this topic? Will addressing it add value to your life and/or career? Will undertaking the project help you build a skill you’ve previously wanted to work on (for example, interview skills, statistical analysis skills, software skills, etc.)?

The last point is particularly important. If you don’t start enthusiastic about it, you’re setting yourself up for problems like ‘writer’s block’ or ‘burnout’ down the line. This is the reason personal interest was the sole evaluation criterion when we chose the top 5. You will have to engage with your dissertation in a very sustained and deep way, face challenges and difficulties, and get it to completion.

Now, try to narrow it down to 3, then go for feedback –

We’re almost at the finishing line. The next step is to narrow down to 2 or 3 shortlisted topics. No more!  Write a short paragraph about each topic, addressing the following:

  • What will this study be about? Frame the topic as a question or problem and try to go back to a good journal article for inspiration on the appropriate title style. Now, try to write it as a dissertation title not more than 15 words.
  • Why is this interesting and important as proven by existing academic literature? Are people talking about this and is there an acknowledged problem, debate, or gap in the literature?
  • How do you plan to answer the question? What sub-questions will you use? What methods does this call for and how competent and confident are you in those methods? Do you have the time to gather the data this calls for?


5. Consult Your Advisor and get approved for the topic


It is observed that most programs will require you to submit a brief description of your topic, called a research grant proposal or prospectus. Remember, even if at a later stage 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 but just make sure that you have enough time to start with a new topic, and always do check with your supervisor or department.


6. Make the decision and stick with it!


This is the last step where you have to commit! Choose the one topic that makes you feel most confident about and consider both your opinion and the feedback from others. Once you have made the decision, don’t doubt your judgment, and don’t try to shift. Because you have planned and thought things through, checked feasibility and now you can start. You have your research topic trust your decision-making process and stick with it till the very end.



If you follow these steps, that are provided in this article! We are sure that you’ll get a strong research topic for your dissertation/thesis. Just believe in your research process and you’ll have land accomplishing your dissertation project. Wish you good luck in your academic journey!

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