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Choose your perfect dissertation topic

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Noelle Sterne with a guest post on dissertation writing. Dissertation coach and nurturer, editor, academic and mainstream writing consultant and soother, author, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University), has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues. Her monthly posts appear in theTextbook and Academic Authors blog Abstract and the literary blog Two Drops of Ink. In her academic consulting practice, Noelle helps doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion. Based on her practice, her handbook addresses students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life, Noelle shows readers how to release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Noelle also shares her knowledge with ongoing community writing and meditation workshops and university academic presentations. Visit

Dan sat in the library, his dissertation materials spread out before him. On the table, his laptop was open, ready to go, and papers, open books, and note cards were strewn across the table. He had promised himself that today he’d actually start writing. But all he could do was to stare at the wall clock. Dan had made the mistake of trying to leap into the dissertation without enough forethought or real passion for his topic.

It’s undeniable. The dissertation engenders a love-hate relationship, with all the exasperations, frustrations, teeth-clenching, and eye-rolling, and occasionally all the affection, elation, and fulfillment (eventually) of a primary human relationship. Therefore, your topic should be one that initially excites you, during the process sustains you throughout the inevitable peaks and gulleys, and eventually morphs into a satisfying career.

Topic Considerations
As a longtime coach of doctoral candidates, I’ve seen many, in the heat of first passion, bite off a topic that would take 40 monks without tablets 60 years to complete. I’ve seen other candidates take on topics because their professors suggest them or they think the topic is “hot” and they’ll have a better chance of publishing. None of these reasons are the right ones.

Right Topic Considerations

It’s almost axiomatic that many people choose concentrations and careers because of early personal experiences. A man becomes an oncologist because he couldn’t save his mother from Stage 4 cancer. A woman becomes a social worker specializing in cases of battered women because in childhood, every night from a crack in the closet door, terrified she watched her father beat her mother. A man raised in poverty becomes a financial counselor to help merchants in neighborhoods like his own succeed in their businesses.

Such motivations generally guarantee sustained interest in a dissertation topic. Whether or not your motives stem from earlier suffering, you don’t want to be like Dan. From my extensive experience, and the success of many graduate students I have counseled, I offer you ten suggestions, including questions and examples, to help you identify the perfect topic you’ll be living with for a long time.

  1. Revisit your childhood dreams. How did you see yourself? What “professions” were your play favorites? Many kids like to play “doctor” (not that kind), and one of my clients loved to play “nurse.” She showed me photographs of herself at age 5 with an impressive collection of play bandages, ointments, even casts, and a doll house she’d made into a “clinic.” Today, with her doctorate, she’s director of a regional hospital.
  2. Review your favorite undergraduate and graduate course papers. Which did you really like doing the work for? Which did you get As on? What about your master’s thesis? Would you feel excited expanding it? Lynn was an elementary school reading teacher who really cared about those struggling, stuttering readers. When she shuffled through her course papers and reviewed her master’s thesis, she saw that the comparisons of different reading programs were her best work. Her dissertation topic? A comprehensive comparison of two elementary school reading programs for their relative effectiveness. Now a Ph.D., Lyon is a professor teaching aspiring elementary reading and literacy teachers.
  3. Think about troubling experiences you’ve had. Would you like to help remedy their causes? If, like the social worker, your pull toward the topic originates from an early traumatic experience, accept it. Negatives can be powerful motivators toward positive actions and activities. And think of all the people you’ll help.
  4. What topic has fascinated you for a long time? What are you passionate about? What do you want to jump into and explore? A client in nursing and leadership and with many years experience at several hospitals, Jill observed how older nurses were discriminated against. Other than the obvious chronological reason (Jill was in her 40s), she burned to explore the assumptions and possible myths that administrators held in hiring and making assignments to these nurses. Jill’s dissertation and the article she developed from it became valuable additions to the literature—and helped change hospital policies.
  5. What especially meaningful experiences have you had that you want to explore and know will make a difference? During surgery, Derrick had what he swore was a near-death (NDE) experience. He delved into the research, interviewed many people who had had similar experiences, and even scored an interview with a major author on the subject. Derrick’s dissertation dealt with NDE theories and testimonies. He is now revising his dissertation into a book and has a publisher interested.
  6. What would you like to be known for? In the examples above, the students’ passion for their choices drove their ambitions. The answer to this question is likely inherent in your choice. Don’t be modest. Think about what you really know you can contribute. 
  7. Don’t be deterred or discouraged if the topic has been “done.” Even if you discover that many scholarly articles have been published on your topic, your slant will be different. You can use those articles to show how your study is better, different, and worth not only the doctorate but publication.
  8. Dream: Imagine how the topic can be used in your dream job and how you look forward to devoting your professional life to your interest. Sandra was a counselor in a geriatric care agency advising adults on the placement of their elderly parents in appropriate care facilities. She felt needed and fulfilled, knowing she was helping both generations to the best choices. Imagining her dissertation topic, Sandra saw how she could identify and discuss the many elements involved in placement. Exploration of this topic, she saw, would help her professionally to broaden her knowledge, enhance her abilities, and open her mind to new counseling techniques. After obtaining her degree, Sandra gave several presentations and published her findings in an elder care journal.
  9. If you’re not in your dream job or career, paint mental pictures of the one you are aiming for. Observe and talk to others in this or a related career. What topic did they write on? How did it help their careers? What pointers can they give you about topic choice? Have they successfully transitioned from the dissertation results to real-world application? Do they seem happy and enthusiastic?
  10. Finally (and maybe this should be first), listen inside for the topic that’s right for you. If you meditate, in your sessions, silently ask the question about topics. You may be “led” to certain people, scholarly literature, movies, or magazines that clarify or confirm your choices. If you don’t meditate, keep asking yourself the topic question and stay aware and open. If several possible topics occur to you, test them against the suggestions here and keep listening to your intuition.

Tiptoe to Your Topic
Choose one or two of these recommendations to explore each day. Don’t push but relax and let your unconscious lead you. Remember how important the choice is and how it will influence and direct your career and life. You deserve the perfect dissertation topic.

© 2017 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site:

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