Choosing a dissertation topic
Are you struggling with choosing a dissertation topic?Choosing a topic can be one of the most important choices you will make in your professional career because it determines the first major piece of research for which you’ll be known, provides a focus for the group of professors you wish to solicit for your dissertation committee, and it is the first thing (along with the text of your letters of recommendation) that future colleagues will scrutinize when considering you for a job in their department.
The bad news is that all this can make choosing a dissertation topic pretty overwhelming. The good news is that I try to make the process somewhat easier by explaining to you how you might get started and avoid certain pitfalls. I have four pieces of advice to offer that I hope you follow, plus a tidbit that is not mandatory.
First, “push the envelope.”You’ve probably heard a gazillion times that new research should “push the envelope, ” but I’d bet that the likelihood that you had a clear explanation of what that means has not been given to you. Well, I’m going to explain it, right here, right now.
It is a phrase with a mathematical reference. An envelope is a term for the curve that encloses all other curves in a family of curves. When the term was used in aeronautics, it referred to the outer curve describing the limit of an aircraft’s performance. Test pilots were encouraged to push the envelope in order to test the aircraft, and the phrase made it to the common lexicon in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about test pilots, The Right Stuff. (Thanks, for the info, Michael Quinion, at !)
Envision the whole of sociological knowledge as contained in one big dataset, complete with keywords and subject headings. Surely, you would contribute something to the dataset that would ostensibly fit under a subject heading, and possibly a set of existing keywords, but to push the envelope your topic should meet meet three criteria.
- It doesn’t repeat something that’s already in that dataset.
- It is something that sociologists interested in the topic will want to read when searching on information on the topic. That is, your research is not just different from the other work on the issue, but also has an interesting take.
- It is research that actually teaches researchers in your area of interest new information and will be useful to them when they are framing their own research projects. That is, not only is your research interesting, it shouldn’t be ignored if other sociologists want to do research in the same areas.