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Academic Coaching & Writing

IV. Zooming in on Your Topic

Oct 13, 2010 by Dr Sally

The exercises in the previous blogs laid the foundation for your dissertation journey. The next step is narrowing down your research interests. How will you find the topic that’s right for you?

When you think about the focus of your dissertation, imagine that you are holding a camera. If you have completed the previous three exercises, you have an image of the big picture of your life and where you fit as a scholar. Now you want to zoom in on the piece that mostly clearly details where you need to focus NOW!

You may already have a list of possible topics for your dissertation. Or maybe you just know the general area of research you are interested in. If you do not have a list, generate your list of options NOW! Instead of floundering in topic-no-man’s land, begin to think of creating a topic rather than of stumbling upon one. Think of research interests you have already developed in graduate coursework, your master’s thesis, research projects, or even in your job. And think ahead to the interests that will further your personal and professional goals.

Determine how well prepared you are to conduct a project in this research area. Some fortunate souls have had the clarity to select their research interest early in their coursework and have spent several years on the background reading for their dissertation topic; however, far more doctoral students find themselves without that kind of focus when the coursework ends. One of the most important considerations in selecting a research area for your dissertation is how well grounded you are in the scholarly literature so that you can position yourself in the field. One of dissertation advisors’ biggest complaints about their students is that they simply do not have the background in the literature. Without extensive knowledge of the literature, constructing a research topic suitable for doctoral research becomes an almost insurmountable task.

To increase your chances of successfully completing your dissertation, choose a research area as quickly and practically as possible. What is the general area that interests you? You may be considering two or three general areas but, as soon as possible, narrow down to the most practical one for you. At this point you may still want to think of it as “trying on” a topic to see how well it works. Only after you have made a preliminary choice, can you move forward to the next step in your dissertation journey.

Exercise 4: Choosing a Preliminary Focus

The research area I choose as my preliminary focus is:

What is critical is that you choose your topic interest. And even if your topic is assigned to you, consider how you will make it your choice. If you cannot in good conscience choose this topic area, you are in trouble before you begin. Choosing is the first step in taking ownership of your topic.

Once you have narrowed your focus to a specific area, you are ready to narrow down your research topic and to generate an original research question to guide your study. For many students, this is the most difficult step in the entire dissertation process, but it may also be the most important task of the dissertation learning process.

To address this challenge, you will need to rely on your Creative Scholar rather than on your former student self. The task at-hand is to generate an interesting question that no one has thought of or to generate a different solution to an earlier question. This requires imagination and creativity. Formerly, as a student, you may have been required to passively receive information or to analyze others’ solutions. The task here is profoundly different, and many students stumble simply because they do not understand the demands of the task.

To begin the topic generation task, you will need to be thoroughly steeped in the literature of your field of inquiry so that you know what has been written by those who have gone before you. You will want to immerse yourself in the existing literature, collect it all around you, read it, organize it, let it seep into the pores of your skin. And then, call up your Creative Scholar. Ask your Creative Scholar to begin to brainstorm novel ideas. What possibilities have not been previously considered? Generate as many ideas and questions as you can. During the topic generation process, do not be too critical about your ideas. Later on you can examine their merits!

Creative topic thinking requires searching for ideas and playing with your knowledge and experience. What are you curious about? You may try many different approaches, break the rules, and explore new ideas in unusual places. Here are some ways that have worked for others to create innovative topic ideas.

Exercise 5: Topic Challenge: Generating Original Topics

  1.  What questions have already been asked about your topic area? In one column, make a list of interesting questions that have been asked about your topic area. In a second column, make a list of answers for each of these questions.
    a. Now change your answers: generate a second, third, even a tenth alternative answer for each of the same questions.
    b. Now change the wording in your questions. Different words can lead to different directions in your thinking.
  2. Make a list of some of the concepts or problems associated with your topic area. Now create action metaphors for each of these concepts or problems. For example, some metaphors for “dissertation” might be: going on a journey, waging a war, being pregnant, running a marathon, climbing a mountain. How do each of these metaphors change your view of your dissertation? What questions do they raise? For example, what can we learn about ways long distance runners overcome loneliness that can help alleviate the isolation that dissertation writers experience?
  3. Asking “what if” questions is a powerful way to jumpstart the imagination. First, ask an impractical or improbable “what if,” and then finish the statement. For example, “What if time stopped?” “Then I would never finish my dissertation, but at least my advisor would never die.” Or stretch your imagination by asking yourself how others might answer the question. How would Einstein, Mother Teresa, or even Mickey Mouse answer the question?
  4. Write down on separate yellow (or your favorite color) stickies some of the key concepts that you associate with your topic area. Now combine these concepts differently than they may have been combined before. What interesting questions come to mind?
  5. Create your own technique for generating novel topic ideas.

Although many people opt for the expediency of taking on a research topic that someone else has created, you may be shortchanging yourself and your career if you do not seize on this opportunity to learn how to create a research topic. So should you decide to take the Topic Challenge, be patient with yourself. Your first novel idea may not meet all the criteria for a good dissertation topic. Allow yourself the time you need to generate creative topic questions.

Dr. Sally Jensen

I am Principal and Founder of dissertationdoctor.com, which launched in 1997, to help academics achieve their goals. At the time, I had seen many doctoral students floundering and often failing because of the lack of guidance. I decided they needed a Dissertation Doctor to help them succeed without “bang-ups and hang-ups” (to quote Dr. Seuss).

I am a master certified coach and I help dissertators by nurturing and developing what I call the Creative Scholar. I have guided over 200 Dissertators to successfully complete their doctoral journeys.

Contact Sally Jensen

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