Avoid Analysis Paralysis – Choosing a Research/Dissertation Topic

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Is finding a research topic for your dissertation or next publication more difficult than you expected? Read this article!

Writing Your Dissertation Proposal: #1 Selecting Your Topic*

Whether you are preparing to write your dissertation proposal or considering a new line of research as a professor, selecting the focus of that research may be the most difficult task of all. I will assume that you are in graduate school, although many of the principles mentioned here apply to anyone starting a new project.

For you visual learners, I have published a Mind Map of this article to my web site.

Here are some all-purpose hints to get you started.

  • Start as early as possible to brainstorm your topic. Keep a file and jot down ideas. If possible, choose coursework or writing to move you forward in refining your ideas. You will have the luxury of starting with general topics and continuously narrowing your ideas.

  • If your advisor offers you a topic, and it’s at all possible, take it.

  • Look at others’ dissertations (I seem to suggest this frequently!) This will give you an idea of the scope, quality, and expectation that exists in your field and in your department. Ask your advisor for recommendations of which dissertations to read.

  • Make sure that the topic you select is based in theory.

  • Ideally, the results of experimental dissertations should have the potential to be useful no matter what the results. Thus, research on “which method of training poodles to jump through hoops is superior” would give a useful answer, no matter which method works best. (OK, I admit it – I have 2 poodles.)

Starting the Search

I have been reading Completing Your Doctoral Dissertation or Master’s Thesis in Two Semesters or Less by Evelyn Hunt Ogden. Here are some suggestions gleaned from her chapter on selecting a topic:

  • At all times, be guided by your goal of finishing your dissertation according to your preferred timeline.

  • Focus on what you already know. If it is early enough in the process, choose your term papers so as to educate yourself about a potential topic. Or if you worked before graduate school, can you apply that knowledge to your topic?

  • Consider whether this topic will advance your career. Is there a glut of people studying your particular poet or enzyme? Will your knowledge of a specialized area make you attractive to potential employers?

  • How hard will it be to collect the data? Be realistic! If you cannot access your preferred population (e.g. need for signed consent from the anxious parents of pre-schoolers, or the difficulty of finding a place to live in Siberia) then pick a topic with more accessible research subjects! Consider also how long it will take for you to collect said data.

  • Make sure your advisor (or at least one amiable and helpful committee member) is interested in and somewhat knowledgeable about your area of interest.

Finding a Topic

Ogden’s Book also has some great suggestions for finding research topics. For many of you these are obvious, but for those of you new to research, here are some ideas:

  • Don’t shy away from a topic that incrementally builds upon previous research. Perhaps you won’t win the Nobel Prize, but you will be more likely to be successful and graduate in a timely manner.

  • Look at well-respected articles and books published in your area of interest. What questions are unanswered? Make a list.

  • “Mine” your topic ideas from other dissertations. Many have recommendations for further study. This is a perfectly valid way to get potential research topics. And some of the literature review has been done for you!

In Writing the Doctoral Dissertation by Gordon B. Davis and Clyde A. Parker, some further recommendations on finding a topic include:

  • Heed comments from authorities in the field on the need for specific future research – in particular pay attention at conferences.

  • Look for generally accepted ideas or unproved assertions that have never been researched or only weakly researched. The same goes for theories.

  • Replicate important findings with different methodology or subjects. In the humanities, do the same using a different time period, body of literature, or other variation.

Analysis Paralysis

I love this term. I heard it first on a late night infomercial for buying real estate with no down payment, but it applies to much of what mires the research process for scholars. There is no perfect hypothesis, question, solution, methodology, or conclusion for the millions of research possibilities that are available.

Yet some people act as if this perfect answer existed. Of course, to find the perfect answer, you must know everything. Therefore you must know all there is to know about the literature. So you read extensively. For years.

Somehow it is often this same person who avoids floating his or her tentative ideas past others, who won’t even attempt a first pass at a rough draft of the proposal. The whirling circles of possibilities are thus rarely interrupted by the feedback of others. This is analysis paralysis.

I guess you know where I’m going with this. If you are one of these people, stop!

Try the following so that you can stop deciding and start writing.

  • Choose an idea that is your current favorite and run it by at least three people, including your advisor.

  • Listen to their feedback! Your professors do have more experience than you, and if they don’t think it will work, there must be a reason. Or even more importantly, if they say it is good enough, stop searching for a better idea and start writing!

  • If you are extremely stuck and feel that you cannot come up with any viable ideas, ask for help from your advisor. If your advisor is decidedly non-helpful, consider changing advisors, or get help from a trusted mentor. There is a good chance that anxiety is getting in the way of your being able to think creatively. Perhaps a one of these people can give you some concrete choices to get you started.

Start Writing Now

Robert Peters, the author of “Getting What You Came For” recommends that as you evaluate whether the topic(s) that you are considering will work for you, start writing. Don’t wait until you have made a clear choice. Use your writing to clarify your thinking. Outline a tentative proposal. You can use this outline to discuss your ideas with others.

Maybe you already know more than you think.

Recipe for Success?

Here is an overly simplified formula: Take what you already know (term papers, life experience, areas of interest, reading,) mix with a hefty dose of reality (timing, career, available data, advisor advice,) look in appropriate dissertations or published articles (especially those written in your department,) allow for a period of befuddlement, and find a topic!

*(stay tuned for later installments on proposal writing)

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