Noelle Sterne. Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. Her recently published handbook addresses graduate students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
If you’re beginning or in the throes of your dissertation, you may know from other long-suffering students that the work engenders a love-hate relationship, with all the exasperations, frustrations, teeth-clenching, and eye-rolling, and occasional affection, elation, and fulfillment (eventually) of a primary human relationship. Therefore, your topic, like your partner, should be one that initially excites you and sustains you throughout the inevitable rages and reconciliations, desires to divorce yourself from it or run back to its scholarly arms, and finally settle into a consistent satisfying relationship.
As a longtime coach of doctoral candidates, I’ve seen many students in their first passion commit to a topic that would take 50 scholars, even with laptops, group writing bootcamps, and resuscitating Netflix subscriptions, 75 years to complete. Other candidates take on topics because their professors suggest them and the students believe the professors will help get articles published. Or students think the topic is “hot” and they’ll have an even better chance of publishing. None of these reasons will support your passion for your topic.
It’s almost axiomatic that many people choose concentrations and careers because of early personal experiences. A woman becomes an oncologist because she couldn’t save her mother from Stage 4 cancer. A man raised in poverty becomes a financial counselor to help businesspeople succeed in neighborhoods like his own.
Such motivations also generally guarantee sustained interest in a dissertation topic. Here I offer you ten suggestions, with questions and examples, to help you narrow down the perfect topic you’ll be living with for a long time.
1. Revisit your childhood dreams. How did you see yourself? What “professions” were your play favorites? Many kids like to play “doctor” (not that kind), and Mary, one of my clients, loved to play “nurse.” She showed me photographs of herself at age five with an impressive collection of play bandages, ointments, even casts, and a doll house she’d made into a “clinic.” Today, with her doctorate, she’s director of a regional hospital.
2. Review your favorite undergraduate and graduate course papers. Which did you really like doing? Which did you get As in? What about your master’s thesis? Would you feel excited expanding it? Lynn was an elementary school reading teacher who really cared about those stuttering, struggling readers. When she leafed through her course papers and reviewed her master’s thesis, she saw that the comparisons of different reading programs were her best work. Her dissertation topic? A comprehensive comparison of two elementary school reading programs for their relative effectiveness. Now a Ph.D., Lynn is a professor who teaches aspiring elementary reading and literacy teachers to help even more struggling readers.
3. Think about troubling experiences you’ve had, as in the examples above. Would you like to help remedy their causes? Negatives can be powerful motivators toward positive actions and activities. And think of all the people you’ll help. Before Philippe immigrated to the United States, he had been a secretary to a government cabinet member in his native Caribbean country. He daily witnessed the poverty, illiteracy, lack of jobs, and suffering of so many of the people. His dissertation topic explored literacy programs that could be implemented throughout the country to help raise the educational standards. With his degree, Phillipe was appointed to a government position in education to institute large-scale national literacy and job training programs.
4. What topic has fascinated you for a long time? What do you want to jump into and explore? Jill, a registered nurse in her 40s at a regional hospital, observed how older nurses were discriminated against. She longed to explore the assumptions and possible myths that administrators held in hiring, making assignments, and firing these nurses. Jill’s dissertation and the article she developed from it became valuable additions to the literature—and helped change hospital policies.
5. What especially meaningful experiences have you had that you want to know more about and know will make a difference? During surgery, Derrick had what he swore was a near-death experience. He delved into the research, interviewed many people who had had similar experiences, and even scored an interview with a major author on the subject. Derrick’s dissertation dealt with near-death experience theories and testimonies. He is now revising his work into a book and has a publisher interested.
6. What would you like to be known for? The answer to this question is likely inherent in your choice. In the examples above, the students’ passion for their choices drove their ambitions. Don’t be modest. Think about what you really know you can contribute—like Lynn and Phillipe.
7. Don’t be deterred or discouraged if the topic has been “done.” Even if you discover that many scholarly articles have been published on your topic, your slant will be different. You can use those articles to show how your study is better, different, and worth not only the doctorate but publication.
8. Dream: Imagine how the topic can be used in your dream job and how you look forward to devoting your professional life to your interest. Sandra was a geriatric care counselor advising adults on the placement of their elderly parents in appropriate care facilities. She felt needed and fulfilled, knowing she was helping both generations toward the best choices. Imagining her dissertation topic, Sandra saw how she could identify and discuss the many elements involved in placement. Exploration of this topic would help her professionally to broaden her knowledge, enhance her abilities, and open her mind to new counseling techniques. After obtaining her degree, Sandra gave several presentations, published her findings in an elder care journal, and established a private consulting practice.
9. If you’re not in your dream job or career, paint mental pictures of the one you are aiming for. Observe and talk to others in this or a related career. What topic did they write on? How did it help their careers? What pointers can they give you about topic choice? Have they successfully transitioned from the dissertation results to real-world application? Do they seem happy and enthusiastic? You’ll learn a lot about the “right” and “less-than-wonderful” choices others made, what they learned, and how you can use their experiences to help make your own best topic decisions.
10. Finally, listen inside for the topic that’s right for you. If you meditate, in your sessions silently ask the question about topics. You may be “led” to certain people, scholarly literature, movies, or magazines that clarify or confirm your choices. If you don’t meditate, keep asking yourself the topic question and stay aware and open. Several possible topics may occur to you. Test them against the suggestions here and keep listening to your intuition.
Choose one or two of these recommendations to explore each day. Don’t push or strain but relax. Let your unconscious lead you. Remember how important the choice is and how it will influence and direct your career and life. You deserve the perfect dissertation topic, and you will reach your answer.
© 2016 Noelle Sterne
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).