When you are starting to plan your dissertation, it can be difficult to know where to start. As someone who has recently completed the process, I’d like to give some advice on what I think matters most for choosing a topic and how I approached my dissertation.
The first draft of my dissertation was rejected without review by two journals before being accepted by the third journal. This is not meant as an admonition or criticism of any of those wonderful people at those fabulous journals – it’s just that this wasn’t exactly the experience I expected! The truth is that finding a suitable journal for your work is just part of the battle won when writing your dissertation.
If you walk into a bookstore there are probably thousands of books about research methods, statistics, qualitative inquiry, ethnography, mixed methods approaches………. the list goes on. How do you know which of this mass of research to read? Who has time to plough through all of them?
So I would say one key skill in choosing a topic is knowing not only what research has been done but also what research you could do yourself. This may seem obvious – because obviously if there’s already a lot written about a topic then it’s going to be difficult and time-consuming to write something new – but there are ways around this.
Firstly, not every article or book is going to be relevant for your dissertation because often fields will have certain areas that are core knowledge and areas that people rarely investigate. However, rather than thinking “so many books, not enough time” you could think “so many books, so many interesting ideas to explore”.
For instance, in my dissertation, I looked at how children learn about race. There are thousands of articles and books on this topic but most were written about the US context. A quick look through Google scholar shows there is one article in French on racialised learning in primary education but nothing else in any other language. No articles at all for Germany, Spain etc. So I was sure my topic was original – even though it had already been investigated elsewhere.
I suppose another key skill here is knowing what kind of data you want to get from your study. This sort of goes hand-in-hand with deciding whether or not an area has been researched to the extent that you don’t need to bother.
If I wanted written articles, I knew there may well be a lot of literature on my topic if it had already been researched by others – but if their research was based on surveys or interviews then I would have problems finding suitable data myself. On the other hand, if children’s drawings were used as evidence then this could offer an original angle because I could collect data for myself. Again, not every book will give you these clues so do your own investigations too!
Having said all this, let me share some practical tips about how I found out what kind of dissertation might suit me and my interests. My first tip is probably one everyone knows: talk to your supervisor and academic friends. I had a dissertation topic in mind before I had even started my PhD and I knew that my supervisor might have some suggestions for literature to read. She did, but perhaps more importantly she also gave me a lot of advice about what kind of research design would suit me.
As I had already done a lot of action research in my few years as a teacher, she suggested this was something I should look at more closely. In turn, one day when we were having coffee, she happened to mention how many books on action research there were – and the subject just clicked! This is not meant to be discouraging by any means – you may get no such clues from your supervisor or friends so it’s important to do your own research too.
However, I am simply emphasising that knowing what research has already been done is the way forward. So, based on my interests and previous experiences, here are some ideas on how you can find out more about your options for dissertation topics –
Read journal articles: This may seem obvious but often journals will have a list of ‘topics considered’ or ‘areas under investigation’ which tells you what kind of work they are looking at. It’s not always made very clear though so it’s worth checking back issues too to see if there are certain keywords cropping up.
Use Google scholar by subject area: Just click on one of the tabs at the side once you’ve googled a topic and type in keywords into the search box. This is great if you know what words your supervisor might use to search for relevant literature. If in doubt, type in keywords related to your topic but also consider adding ‘literature review’, ‘research design’ or ‘sociology of education’. I found some articles this way that seemed interesting for my dissertation but also realised the topic I had in mind was too narrow – so I broadened it!
Visit your local bookshop: If nothing else, do this to remind yourself of all the great new books out there! Books are a good bet if you have little experience of researching because they can give you an overview of what’s already been done. For instance, Hilary Pilkington wrote a whole series on sociological research methods which I read before thinking about my own topic. It contained ideas for projects and practical tips for getting started. Of course, she focused on qualitative research design rather than action research but these books are definitely worth reading even if they don’t give you any original ideas.
Read some recent dissertations: Although I had been studying for a PhD for a year, I only visited the library to read my first dissertation after I had been stuck on my topic for about six months. In fact, it happened by chance because as I was walking into the James Graham building there was a poster advertising an upcoming thesis presentation on ‘actions contributing towards social justice’. This seemed so relevant and made me realise that action research could be a way to show how teachers can work towards social change in schools. So if you’ve got stuck with your dissertation topic, look at who’s graduating this year and try to get hold of their work – often the library will have copies on display.
Having said all this, what is your research area, your keywords and your focus is really up to you. If you have previous experiences which are relevant for this dissertation, these are definitely worth bringing in. It may mean something different now after working with secondary school teachers instead of primary children or it may be about the same but with a wider focus on social justice. You also need to think about your own comparative advantages – what do you know most about? What resources do you have access to? Who will be able to help with answering particular kinds of questions?
And finally, leave yourself some time! Don’t rush into starting an action research project without considering all the options open to you. I hope this helps any PhD students who are stuck on ideas for their thesis topic!