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How to choose a dissertation topic

Choosing a topic to write your dissertation on can be a tricky task. There seem to be so much choice that, unless you have some advice it may seem impossible to narrow it down. Try not to think of the task of choosing your dissertation topic as simply a pain that must be gotten over with. You should enjoy your dissertation, so your search must include the element of enjoyment. A dissertation topic, if badly chosen can cause a negative impact on your completed thesis and therefore you should think carefully about it and not try to get it over with as soon as possible.

This piece aims to help you through the task of choosing your dissertation by breaking down the criteria for what makes a good dissertation topic. Don’t worry, this won’t be too course specific – we’ll only be dealing with the general components of what would be a good dissertation for any student, regardless of subject. Some examples from different subjects will be included but nothing that will impair your interpretation.

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The first area that you have to consider when choosing which dissertation topic you want to tackle is to look at your course specifications. There will obviously be differences between the various courses that are studied at any university but whatever your subject, it is wise to check the course specifications to see what they entail. Once you have a good grasp of what you could possibly do, then it is time to move onto something that is harder to pin down but just as important – can you find something different to write about with the topics presented to you? This is a vital element when considering how to choose a dissertation topic.

Finding an interesting and genuinely new angle for your dissertation is a tricky one. There has been so much covered in all fields of discipline that it is difficult to find something that is wholly original or has not been at least partially covered. Therefore, it is worth thinking about what to do and how to approach it in a series of different ways.

  • Develop on the research of someone else or follow their example. When thinking how best to tackle a dissertation topic, it is worth finding our what else has been done in that field of research. Try to look at both the current and past thinking in the area and see if there is something that you could bring to it. Try to read around the particular field of research of the topics that interest you and ask the question “How can I build on their work?” This is not to say that you should attempt to emulate or copy the work of previous academics in the field but merely to take inspiration from them and see where there may be a potential gap in at analytical field. For instance, if you are doing a history dissertation and the topic is economic history you could try to see what research had been done on the flow of capital in certain prominent industrial families – see how the money made during the Industrial Revolution had been passed down or whether it had been passed down at all. Similarly, if you were doing an economic dissertation and interested in economic geography you could see what research has been done into the economic geography of the Highlands and how the Highland clearances and other socio-economic events had impacted on the economy of that region and what results may still be felt in the area today. This way you would be able to take inspiration from previous research in the topic and therefore know that you would be able to contribute new research which would help to advance the field of study. This would be particularly useful in combined degrees as you would be able to use the other part of your degree to help narrow your field down and see if anyone has contributed to a topic that had connections to both parts of the degree.
  • Try to go left field. Another option you could take when thinking about which dissertation topic you should think is trying to go for an angle that is completely left field and hasn’t been done before. Try to find something that is different from anything that has been done within the topics you are thinking of choosing and see if it is feasible. This would, of course, involve a greater deal of research than building on the work of previous scholars, but it may provide some fascinating results. This type of research should only be attempted, however, if you are totally sure that you wish to go into an area that may not be as well documented or not be as well known – you shouldn’t pick a topic simply because there is an area that has been unexplored and you wish to be the first as this could result in you not dealing with it in the best way possible. This could lead to your dissertation being damaged and you losing marks which you would have otherwise had.
  • A different opinion. A further option is to try to have a different opinion on something that is seen as conventional – for instance, a history student who feels that Caesar’s part in the fall of the Roman Republic is overrated or that the War of the Roses had more to do with economic factors than with dynastic rivalries. This means that you are presenting something new to the discipline, but you aren’t in the dangerous waters of going entirely left field or the trouble of building on a point previously offered. This may be the safest option but if it doesn’t inspire you and the others don’t seem viable within the topic you are thinking about, it may be wise to reconsider which topic you do want to contribute to. A different opinion is particularly good, however, for showing off your intellectual credibility and bravery – by disagreeing with other academics, you are demonstrating you have the confidence and ability to think for yourself and not bow down to deference of opinion – this is a point that will certainly be in your favour, if you do it well, when presenting your dissertation to your examiner. It proves, almost more so than the other options, that you have a genuinely new angle.
  • A combination. You could try thinking about whether you can approach your topic through a combination of the above-mentioned methods, to show you have come up with a new angle. This could be a different opinion which builds on previous academic research that may agree with you or an opinion that is considered out of left field. The most important thing, however, when considering your dissertation topic is that you must be imaginative. If you don’t show off your intellectual imagination with your dissertation topic choice, you will be in trouble when you come to write it.

One thought that should never leave your mind when considering which dissertation topic to choose is – will you enjoy it? Lack of enjoyment is one of the major factors that harms dissertation students and it means that they feel like their work is a chore.

  • Never feel as if your dissertation isn’t enjoyable. This may mean you will never get it finished and your work will be marked down as a result. So, when considering each topic, you must think about how much fun it will be. This shouldn’t be your sole motivator of course – simply because the topic sounds fun doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult or that you’ll be able to find a suitable question in that particular topic for your abilities.
  • Balance the ratio between fun and ability evenly. This will mean that you won’t feel as if your dissertation is weighed too much in either direction. Similarly, you shouldn’t choose a dissertation topic simply because you feel it will be seen as incredibly academically impressive, but you won’t enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it then you’ve no hope of being able to put time and effort into researching it, analysing the evidence and ensuring that you write it well.
  • Consider whether you’ll enjoy the process of researching the project. You may enjoy writing within that topic but if you don’t enjoy doing the research necessary to create a concise, interesting and important dissertation then it is likely you won’t enjoy the experience and feel as if you have made the wrong decision – again, this will impact on your marks and may bring your dissertation down. This isn’t something you want so it really is important that you make sure you enjoy all parts of your dissertation topic when you are making the decision as to what to pick.

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