How to choose a dissertation topic

Choosing dissertation topics sounds easy. You’ve been given the chance to write about something you like, or at least something you feel is worth studying. It’s not like most of the essays you may have written before, which came with titles already attached.

However, before you can go rushing off to the library, you need a topic - otherwise you won’t know where in the library to look!

Struggling to choose a good dissertation topic?

  • Running out of time?
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  • Not sure if it's good enough?

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Beware, though – not everything you think would be a good topic for a dissertation will actually be a good topic. You might want to look at “Victorian Literature” or “Russian History”, which sound like perfectly valid academic subjects. But they’re too vast, and will mean that your finished dissertation will either be vastly over the word-limit, or else will only skim the surface. So it’s clear you need to carefully consider a few things.

The first thing to do is to write a list of subjects and topics that you yourself feel are interesting. This could include subjects you’ve already looked at in your studies, or it could be something you’ve never studied but want to. Once you’ve got a list of interesting subjects and topics, it’s time to do a bit of research.

“Already? But I don’t have a topic!” you might cry, but stay calm! Let me explain. The next stage is to see if the topics you’re thinking of writing about are actually worth writing about, and a great way to do this is to see what’s already been done. You should be checking journals, articles, text-books, anything that might contain previous work on the subject. If people have written about it before, then clearly there’s some merit to writing more on it. However, there isn’t much point in rehashing the same things that everyone’s written about in exactly the same way – if there’s a lot of material already, think about how you can tackle it differently to your peers.

That doesn’t mean that if there’s little, or nothing, that’s been written about those topics before that you shouldn’t write about it. For everything that’s been studied, it has to have been studied by someone first at some point – all the writing about Shakespeare didn’t materialise out of thin air! You just have to think very carefully, and discuss with your tutor if there’s going to be any academic interest in what you intend to study – and even if there is, you want to be sure that someone will be able to supervise the work.

Finding a supervisor is a big concern, so when you’ve got your list of interesting subjects and topics, and you’ve picked something that you really want to study, start thinking laterally. A piece on “Villains of Video-games” might sound good, but not many academics will be willing to tutor you. Instead, you might choose to stay in the broad subject area, and write about “Shakespeare’s Villains”, which might create a bit more interest. It’ll also mean that you’ll have an easier time finding research material, as you won’t have to spend a great deal of time doing your own qualitative or quantitative research. Trust me, you’ll be spending plenty of time doing research as it is!

Remember these key things when trying to find suitable dissertation topics:

  • Jot down your ideas of what you think is interesting, and what’s worth studying
  • Remember to not make them too broad, or too narrow
  • Do some research to find out what’s been done before and where your work will sit in the canon of work
  • Discuss your ideas with your tutor and potential supervisors
  • Choose something you’ll enjoy studying, even if it’s not quite what you first had in mind – some of the best dissertations weren’t the student’s first choice!

Have fun, and good luck with your dissertation!