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English Dissertation: General advice on choosing a topic

English Dissertation: General advice on choosing a topic



1. Develop a topic that has interested you throughout your undergraduate career.

For some people this is obvious. Some students come to the dissertation knowing exactly whom they want to work with and what they want to write about. For others, the dissertation is part of the process of exploring. It may help to look for your patterns of interest.

  • Make a list of classes you have taken as a student. Look at the essays you have written. Make a list of your favourite texts and authors. Make a list of things you like to read or think about. What patterns emerge? What topics and questions have continually interested you? Look for ways to connect seemingly disparate topics.

  • Start a file of topics that interest you. If you begin early, you'll have a jump-start on choosing a dissertation topic. If you're reading this because you are now at the dissertation stage already, a file can still be useful if you include ideas for later projects.

  • Most importantly, think about where you want to enter the conversation in your field. Few dissertations actually shift paradigms in their field. What you are looking for is a way to join and contribute to the conversation or critical debate. You must decide with whom and around which topics you want to enter the scholarly conversation.

2. Think about the top three issues you want to study and turn them into questions.

Sometimes we know the broad topic we want to write about, but need help getting an angle or determining the research questions we want to assess.

  • Conduct brainstorming or free-writing exercises. Write as much as you can for ten to fifteen minutes on a topic. Include all questions and comments you can think of. Don't worry about grammar and word choice. What you are aiming for is output of ideas. Do this several days in a row on one topic or on many. Then, go back and see what you've created. Do any of your ideas seem like promising topics?

  • Discuss them with fellow students, tutors, or friends. Can any be turned into workable research questions for a dissertation proposal?

  • Similarly, you may think about your top three issues and search for intersections between two or all three of those issues. This is often a fruitful path for dissertation writers to pursue.

3. Look for what other scholars say needs more study and conduct preliminary research.

You must of course find out what other scholars have said on a topic first. Then, you can begin to determine if the topic is exciting enough to you to grab your attention for a full years work. Then, decide where you can enter the conversation. A colleague of mine found that she had to narrow her topic because she had selected two nineteenth-century women authors to write about, but found herself engrossed by one and avoiding the other. Preliminary reading can, thus, awaken you to your own passions and interests.

  • Look at class notes; tutors may have pointed out potential research topics or commented on unanswered or interesting questions in the field.

  • Talk with tutors about possible topics. Many tutors are forthcoming with ideas for entire dissertations or for angles on a given issue. Talk to as many tutors as possible - not just subject specific tutors - as this can help you view your topic from a different angles.

4. Replicate somebody else's study.

Sometimes older, classic studies can be re-examined in a new context or with a more current methodology. But be careful not to enter into a debate that has long been resolved.


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