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How to Find a Doctoral Dissertation Topic

by Lee Grayson, studioD

Candidates for a doctoral degree at most accredited universities must write and publish a dissertation to demonstrate the knowledge learned during the program. A dissertation is formal research on a subject related to the student's major field of study. The length and research requirements depend on the school issuing the degree, departmental regulations and the subject field. The student's doctoral advisers and university mentor offer valuable advice and guidance for selecting a dissertation topic. Mentors traditionally guide the doctoral student in the dissertation topic selection.

Literature Search

Many doctoral students have a broad idea for a dissertation topic after completing written exams required for the degree and some programs require submission of a prospectus for the topic prior to taking the doctoral program exams. A field literature search helps narrow a general idea into a focused study and also offers an idea of the current material published in the field for students without any potential dissertation topics. A new dissertation should provide an original study or research idea and surveying the current research helps eliminate any duplication with other researchers and published scholars.

Primary and Original Research

A suitable dissertation requires the use of primary materials and original documents, but not all topics have this research potential. Some topics also require the student to do experimentation or collect survey materials to use in the formal paper. Many topics require students to do research in libraries and archives or to interview subjects. All of these considerations restrict topic selection for students unable to travel to remote libraries or to collect primary sources. Special research funding and grants, however, may allow students greater access to research materials.

Topic Scope

The literature search helps shape your topic and also offers suggestions for the wording of the dissertation topic. Some potential topics address current theories or counter popular interpretations held by other scholars in the field. Dissertations typically require a general overall summary of the research field and an in-depth development of the specific dissertation topic. Unusual topics have the option of covering a large overview, but dissertations featuring topics with a body of prior publications and numerous dissertations must focus on more minute details of a topic. Narrow topics also require less research to cover the scope of the topic.


The results of the literature search sometimes disappoint when the researcher locates another student with a registration hold on a topic. Many study areas, including history and music, require doctoral students to register dissertation topics before submitting the final paper to prevents duplicate research. This doesn't necessarily mean the topic isn't available, but it may mean the student needs to research another facet of the topic to keep the focus of the dissertation on a unique study and not duplicate research. This requires contacting the original topic registrant directly to discuss the scope of the registered topic.

About the Author

Lee Grayson has worked as a freelance writer since 2000. Her articles have appeared in publications for Oxford and Harvard University presses and research publishers, including Facts On File and ABC-CLIO. Grayson holds certificates from the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.

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