Monday, June 25, 2012

How to choose a dissertation topic

Note: This week, I am sharing with you a great post by Vilna Bashi Treitlerwhich has been posted over at the SREM Mentoring blog.

Are you struggling with choosing a dissertation topic?

Choosing a topic can be one of the most important choices you will make in your professional career because it determines the first major piece of research for which you’ll be known, provides a focus for the group of professors you wish to solicit for your dissertation committee, and it is the first thing (along with the text of your letters of recommendation) that future colleagues will scrutinize when considering you for a job in their department.

The bad news is that all this can make choosing a dissertation topic pretty overwhelming. The good news is that I try to make the process somewhat easier by explaining to you how you might get started and avoid certain pitfalls. I have four pieces of advice to offer that I hope you follow, plus a tidbit that is not mandatory.


First, “push the envelope.”

You’ve probably heard a gazillion times that new research should “push the envelope,” but I’d bet that the likelihood that you had a clear explanation of what that means has not been given to you. Well, I’m going to explain it, right here, right now.

It is a phrase with a mathematical reference. An envelope is a term for the curve that encloses all other curves in a family of curves. When the term was used in aeronautics, it referred to the outer curve describing the limit of an aircraft’s performance. Test pilots were encouraged to push the envelope in order to test the aircraft, and the phrase made it to the common lexicon in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about test pilots, The Right Stuff. (Thanks, for the info, Michael Quinion, at!)

Envision the whole of sociological knowledge as contained in one big dataset, complete with keywords and subject headings. Surely, you would contribute something to the dataset that would ostensibly fit under a subject heading, and possibly a set of existing keywords, but to push the envelope your topic should meet meet three criteria.
  • It doesn’t repeat something that’s already in that dataset.
  • It is something that sociologists interested in the topic will want to read when searching on information on the topic. That is, your research is not just different from the other work on the issue, but also has an interesting take.
  • It is research that actually teaches researchers in your area of interest new information and will be useful to them when they are framing their own research projects. That is, not only is your research interesting, it shouldn’t be ignored if other sociologists want to do research in the same areas.
Honestly, you need only come up with a question that, when answered, would shed new light on what others have done before – but the idea is for that new light to truly have us look at things in a whole new way.


  1. I live in a town with two closely-tied Sociology PhD programs, and between them both, they held a "How to choose a dissertation topic" workshop. It was interesting how much the older professors emphasized "Do what you love" while the younger professors said, "Choose a topic that makes you a viable candidate in the job market." I think the job market must have changed over the past decade to the point that choosing a dissertation topic is trickier than ever.

    One of the younger professors there said, "Even if you love the Sociology of bird watching, and even if that topic pushes the envelope, no one will hire you to do it, so steer clear!" One of the older professors talked next, and said, "I totally disagree. If you love bird watching, and it pushes the envelope, then do it." It was incredibly instructive to watch this exchange between them. They summed up the 'how to choose a dissertation topic' conundrum that many of us as students find ourselves in.

    1. Elizabeth: Thanks for sharing that very interesting insight. I wonder if there isn't a compromise. Perhaps you could study something you love, but couch it within a recognized subfield such as race or gender.

      I have heard that it is hard to get a job in "culture" these days, but I imagine those people must reframe themselves in a more marketable area.

      I can see both sides, but also feel as if being in academia isn't worth it if you can't do what you love.

    2. Thanks for your response. Funny that you mention culture, as I'm one of those hoping to be able to study culture,framed through the lens of religion. It's probably not as marketable as studying health/illness or crime, but I'm not at all interested in either of those.

      I constantly feel the tension you write about in your last sentence: do we love being in academia more, or do we love our particular area of interest more whether or not it's marketable within academia? It seems to me that it would be difficult for researchers to generate an internal "motor" to get our work done if we aren't passionate about it. I woke up this morning with my brain churning on problems with my data, and I popped out of bed eager to solve them. It takes a special kind of weird to think this is fun. As you wrote, academia just isn't worth it unless you really love it. On the other hand, there's no research job to love if you don't play the game of catering to the market some.

      I'll add that dissertation topics must also be chosen based on potential mentors. You can have the world's best, most marketable idea in political sociology, but if you don't have any political sociologists in your department, your dissertation process is much more likely to fail. Every successful dissertation and/or article is a group effort.

      I really like your suggestion to study what you love but "reframe" it. Maybe we can reframe our work to reflect marketability and to reflect the research interests of potential mentors.

  2. I am struggling to come up with a topic i love and which is marketable. Unfortunately, i don't seem to be getting clear directives from my mentors. I would just love for someone to say that idea is a loser, or you have a great topic if you add this aspect. Concrete advice is better than encrypted conversations that leave you more confused that when you started.
    As you can see i am at the corner of frustration and desperation.