How Good Dissertation Topics Go Awry

Investing time upfront to formulate a thesis question, statement, or hypothesis is well worth the energy. When a good idea goes awry, it is usually for a handful of reasons that relate back to how well the thesis is stated and how well the writer is prepared to carry an idea to fruition.

Either in the proposal or dissertation stage–or both–the task sometimes feels futile and never ending. This may be an indication your thesis is too broad, too vague, or too boring. If it doesn’t address a specific problem or question, which can be stated in one sentence, then the process can become overwhelming. At some point, you may lose sight of what you are doing. This is certainly a feeling common to many dissertation writers and a reason why so many dissertations languish in an incomplete state.

When feeling overwhelmed by the writing and structuring process, take a step back to assess where you started losing control of your idea. What is your thesis? Did the topic start shifting and losing focus after you dug into more research? Have you read so much theory and research that you have lost track of your own thoughts? Do you have a difficult time determining what should and should not be included in the introduction and literature review?

A successful dissertation is, of course, a completed dissertation. This is a cliche repeated over and over and, yet, holds sage wisdom. To complete a project, it must be doable in the first place. If you are overwhelmed, then your topic and thesis are likely too vague or broad. Without clear delimitation, you will swim in circles in a vast sea of literature. You must have an idea of what will and will not be part of your dissertation. What is the scope of your inquiry? After the introduction, each chapter must also have a strong focus and each chapter should build towards the next chapter.

Three questions can help narrow the scope of your inquiry: Who cares? How will I know when I’m done? If I imagine my dissertation completed, what is the outcome or what would I like to have learned? If you’re bored by your own topic, chances are the reader will be bored, too. The significance of your work is why you and the reader should care about your dissertation inquiry and an elevated interest level on your part provides momentum for completion.

The thesis helps guide the structure of the paper and the boundaries or scope. When you lament not knowing what to do next, you have likely lost sight of the argument structure and have no way to judge what should be left out. What you leave out and knowing why you are not including certain aspects of the topic are just as important as what you include in the dissertation. Post your thesis statement where you can see it every time you sit down to write and you will be less likely to become overwhelmed and more likely to know what it will take to be done with the paper. Sometimes knowing your starting point and then envisioning the end point, makes the pathway more visible and increases the succinctness with which you learn what you need to learn through the process.

A dissertation is a scholarly piece of work, an important piece of work, where the author makes an original contribution to ongoing debates, conservations, and questions. It is not a survey or summary of everything that exists on your topic. Get clear, get done, get a Ph.D.


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