Did you know the can opener was invented 47 years after the can? Seems a little overdue huh? However people still canned things and, most likely, they figured out some way to open them. I am almost certain people didn’t sit around for 47 years staring at cans until someone came up with an idea! However, your dissertation is not a can. You do need to come up with an idea first, even a general topic area is a good start. Why? Because your topic lays the foundation for selecting your committee, gaining expertise, and finding out where you can uniquely contribute to the field of counseling. It also gives you the push you need to begin flushing out your subject into manageable research question(s).
A good thing to recognize is that everyone, from employers to family members, will have ideas for you. Despite these well meaning people, some of the best advice I have received is that the dissertation belongs to you. Additionally, I found there is no right way to select a topic. All counselors take a different approach which typically depends on their area of expertise, populations they have access to, degree focus (school, counseling psychology, counselor education, etc.), faculty interests, or what they want to do when they graduate. With this in mind, here are three guidelines that I found helpful in selecting my topic. When reading keep in mind there is more than one way to open a can. Just ask those folks who didn’t have a can opener for 47 years!
Choose something you love – but not too much. You are going to be spending a considerable amount of time on your dissertation. Therefore, if you find a topic you love – go with it! Your quality of life will be much better if you find yourself effortlessly captivated by the subject matter. This passion will also be reflected in your writing; genuine interest which leads to rich discussion and compelling arguments cannot be faked. However, there is passionate and there is fanatical. When I am passionate about a topic it can grab enough of my attention so that I am able to focus on it for months, maybe even years without feeling indifferent or burnout. When I am fanatical about a topic I risk losing my objectivity and my ability to be flexible. It is valuable to be able to look at all sides of your topic. This neutrality is the key to a substantial and properly conducted research study. Also being flexible just makes life easier, as some aspects of the topic are likely to change as the research progresses.
Make sure it is unique. How can you contribute to the counseling literature? This is an important question. Not only is it a requirement that a dissertation be original research, but it serves the purpose of identifying gaps in the literature which allow you to create a personalized research agenda and establish your niche. It has not gone unrecognized that counselors, historically, shy away from research. It is my opinion that the counseling field needs more substantial and rigorous research so counselors can stop relying so heavily on information from social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and nurses. By conducting original research you are not only laying the groundwork for your own area of expertise, but also significantly contributing to the counseling profession.
Keep it manageable. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “a dissertation is just a small piece of the pie”. Where this “small piece of pie” is my life for the next two years - it made sense when I formed my research questions and began to review the literature. I found a dissertation topic has to be focused enough so that it can be studied within a reasonable time frame. A good barometer is whether you can easily identify a research question (or two) from your topic area. If you find yourself thinking in too many directions with numerous questions, you should continue to narrow it down. Selecting a special population to focus on or concentrating on a smaller piece of the topic is often good practice. Just be sure that your subject matter has depth and weight, thus allowing for an appropriate amount of complexity. Finding this balance allows you to select something you can build on at a later date.
Of course there are many other tips that your faculty members, mentors, employers, family and friends may recommend. Just reach out, ask questions and do your homework. If you lay a solid foundation the rest will follow. Good luck to all of you!
Stephanie Dailey is a counselor, adjunct faculty and doctoral candidate at Argosy University-Washington, D.C.