How to Pick a Thesis or Dissertation Topic: Thinking by Writing

Dear Caneel,

Choosing a thesis topic is kind of crazy.  I feel like I’m committing to marriage or something. Is it the right one? Will I be happy? Will I get bored? Will it keep my interest? Is there something better out there? 

– A Masters Student

Writing at a Table (via Dylanfm on flickr)

Dear Masters Student,

I know, the decision can be crippling!!!  Don’t let it paralyze you.  The best way to pick is to write out your thought process.  Play with ideas.  Talk to yourself in your journal about the pros and cons of each idea that pops into your head, not worrying about the order.

Most importantly, free-write through your thoughts, feelings, fears, and fascinations relating to your thesis.  They are extremely relevant to your progress.  I like handwriting best as I have more access to my emotional evaluation of my ideas when pen touches paper. I go to a café where I can noodle in my journal without being lulled into the safe distractions of the internet.

THINK BY WRITING…  This is my biggest advice for the whole entire process!  15 minutes a day free-writing, every single day except Sunday. Let it flow, writing “I don’t know what to write” when you’re stuck – don’t wait till you know what you want to say. You figure out what you want to say by writing.

Feels disorderly?  That’s okay, and a necessary part of the process you need to push through.  Probably you don’t have a list of distinct dissertation topics or ideas that you could list and write pros/cons for at this stage.  There are probably many that are similar.  Or maybe you don’t have any ideas (or so you think!).  This method acknowledges that.  Instead, it allows you to investigate the blurry edges between ideas – the overlaps.

Don’t spend too much time on this process however (your subconscious wants you to procrastinate, waste time debating, because writing the dissertation is so much more threatening to the ego than indecision is… don’t give in to this temptation).  The best thing is to pick an idea and commit to it after allowing yourself a short while to debate. Any idea is always more interesting the more time you spend with it, making it yours.  So don’t worry too much about picking the right idea.

Remember the importance of constraints (the topic of my own dissertation!).  Pick a narrow enough idea that you can go in-depth in a way that is truly unique – there will be less reading to do and more room for your own creativity if you intentionally constrain yourself to a smaller scope.
A big hug to you, and best of luck!  Let me know how it goes and how/if this works for you in the comments section below.
Resources
While writing my dissertation, I joined the Academic Ladder Writing Club and found it invaluable. I also highly recommend the following books:
1. Destination Dissertation (Foss & Waters) walks you through the process from day 1 to completion, very concretely.
2. Completing your Qualitative Dissertation (Bloomberg & Volpe) walks you through what a dissertation should look like, and how the different sections should compliment each other and build on each other.
3.  Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day (Bolker) gives help with the writing process (and a reminder that the easiest and BEST way is a little writing of notes to self each day, BEFORE you are “ready to write”).
  1. You have literally put in to words everything I am currently going through for my research project! I feel as if I am almost going mad! Thank you for the above!

  2. Pingback: Preamble | My Nerdy Research and Life Blog

  3. Pingback: Preamble | My Nerdy Research and Life Blog

  4. Great advice! Wouldn’t have minded if I’d had some good thoughts like this at the beginning of the process. It’s amazing how many researchers are really left to their own devices to figure it out.