Can you see the forest for the trees?

Choosing a dissertation topic may sound like a relatively simple task but for many it is one of the most critical decisions to be made before embarking on a successful doctoral journey. Planning for and reflecting upon the most succinct and concise, yet all encompassing, dissertation title may take months to perfect. The dissertation topic needs to be captured in roughly 12-15 words while reflecting the entire research design, methodology, the variables of interest, and the target population.

Choosing the dissertation title can be anxiety provoking partly because it will determine possibly three or more years of intense research and writing dedicated to that topic, and also because multiple revisions to perfection and approval may leave a learner under the impression that the dissertation itself may be much harder to complete than had been expected. This is particularly so when a learner has enjoyed high grades and a proven reputation for critical thinking.

The initial investment in time and money (notwithstanding the personal opportunity costs of engaging in a course of study requiring a dissertation) may leave a learner experiencing self-doubt and guilt about neglecting usual quality time with loved ones.

The dissertation topic, final product, should be sufficiently focused for the doctoral learner to concisely and accurately reflect upon the whole of the research (i.e., the overall concept, theoretical framework, methodological focus, and perhaps population) in a single statement…

My research focuses on exploring pay equity and commitment issues among registered nurses in the state of Virginia utilizing a quantitative approach via survey methodology.

…ignoring key elements can lead learners to get lost in the trees. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, for most, focusing too heavily on captivating phrases, the latest industry buzzwords, or too broad of concepts can spell disaster. This leaves the doctoral learner stranded or in the worst case scenario starting the writing process without clear direction in mind or even without an existing body of evidence upon which to build. Thus, effort is exerted in action that will later prove useless to the overall purpose.

Ensuring the learner appreciates the differing demands and requirements of, for example, quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-methodologies, is a vital component in helping individuals plan time, in developing strategies for accessing participants, and in ensuring full alignment from start to finish in identifying the problem and purpose statements, and in answering the research question using the appropriate statistical function.

Approaching the dissertation topic from an outline perspective aids the doctoral learner in understanding the intent of the research focus and the perspective that will determine how to draw upon current literature. One of the first questions I ask doctoral learners, during our introductory discussion(s), is to describe their population of interest. If the learner is still talking 20 minutes later…I know we have problems. Another approach might be for the doctoral learner to describe why they have chosen a qualitative research approach, over a quantitative one. This conversation often yields evidence of how much research the learner has read on a particular topic to yield a direction for their particular design.

The dissertation topic will form the initial trace of a researcher’s professional career as well as defining categories of interest for which authors may later be invited to speak as an expert in the field, or discipline. The dissertation topic reveals personal bias and preferences and is subject to lasting perceptions others hold on the quality and relevance of the eventual work produced. In essence, careers and character may be influenced by the dissertation topic.

Thoughts? What recommendations do you have as a doctoral advisor, professor, or past/current doctoral learner?

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