Congratulations! You’re at the point in your graduate program where you get to choose a topic for your doctoral dissertation or master’s thesis. Yea! All those classes…all those dollars spent on tuition…the pages upon pages of mind-numbing journal articles…now you finally get to choose a topic for the final requirement necessary to hang that degree on the wall! You’re energized. You’re ready to get started on your research. You have some interests in mind. Now to choose your topic…easy right? Not always so, as I learned this past year.
Here I will share a few of my own experiences and suggestions regarding choosing a general topic area for the dissertation. Hopefully reading this will spark some interest, clear up some confusion, inspire some great ideas, or even help you to avoid some of the time-wasting mistakes I made early on. (Feel free to leave comments or questions.) I also plan on following up with blogs that go through things like narrowing the general topic, deciding upon the problem statement, designing the research, drafting the dissertation chapters, etc.
Keep in mind as you read that I am referring to my own personal experience with a doctoral dissertation that requires an independent human subject research endeavor. Your academic program might require a dissertation or thesis with a different task, such as an in-depth review and critique of existing literature or a theoretical solution to a problem. Be sure you thoroughly understand what is expected of you so you can choose wisely and won’t waste precious time researching a topic that simply isn’t compatible with your task at hand.
First and foremost, think of an area of your field that you are really interested in. I would not advise choosing something that you just heard about because you might realize you aren’t so interested once you learn more. But what does your gut tell you? Also keep in mind throughout your decisions that you must be practical in your choices. You aren’t going to have a large research team under you to assist, so what is realistic for you to take on? And be in constant contact with your dissertation chair and committee members—make sure you aren’t coloring outside the lines or you could really waste some valuable time. Trust me, I know!
To do this, here are a few suggestions. (I think it’s a good idea to jot down notes as you do these.) Go to a website for an organization in your field of study such as the American Counseling Association. Go to the area where they have their divisions, interest networks, or clubs listed. Look at the list. Which ones grab your attention? Which ones would you want to get involved with? Which ones would you want to learn more about? This might help you realize what general area of psychology interests you most. Perhaps it is abnormal psychology, or Veterans issues, or multicultural studies.
Another way to realize what broad area interests you most is to browse listings of psychology-related journals. You can Google search “psychology journal list” and then click on links to browse the lists. I definitely recommend looking at several listings, because I have yet to find a list of absolutely everything. Wikipedia has a list, the American Psychological Association has a list if you click on “Browse Journals by Title,” and another list I found from a university in Massachusetts listed 50 psychology-related academic journals, etc. While browsing the lists, write down the journals that interest you the most right off the bat. They don’t have to necessarily be in the same area. Maybe what piques your interest is Behavioral and Brain Science or Schizophrenia Research or Child Development or Educational Psychology or Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. Looking at your list of journals that interested you, you might then start to become more comfortable with choosing one area that interests you the most.
Once you’ve narrowed down your choice of broad area of psychology, browse existing literature in that area. The best place to do this is via a database provided through your school’s online library. If you don’t have that option, Google Scholar is a great substitute. You can get to this search engine by typing in “Google Scholar” in the regular Google bar, or you can look for the link from the Google homepage by clicking the “More” tab at the top, clicking “Even more” and then scrolling down the listings until you locate the Google Scholar link. Think of different words or phrases you might want to study. For instance, if you chose psychological trauma as your broad area of interest, type in things such as “psychological trauma” or “resilience” or “disaster recovery” or “coping in trauma” or “trauma counseling,” etc.
You might already have journals or other publications in an area that interests you. If so, open up a few and scroll down their tables of contents. What grabs your attention? Which article is the first one you would want to read over the others listed? This may help you to further narrow your general topic. Remember, whatever you choose you are going to eat, drink, and breathe for at least a year. So you will need that sincere interest to drive you in those moments when you are not feeling highly motivated.
I recommend doing these kinds of searches and really putting some thought into your choice of general topic area because it may actually save you time. When I first started to approach my dissertation endeavor, I chose a general topic that interested me—psychological trauma—but after that I didn’t put a lot of thought into the specifics and I chose an area that I was familiar with (Veterans issues) and that I knew would not be too complicated for me once I actually began the research. However, once I started doing my literature review, I became a bit bored—I already knew a lot of what I was reading. Sometimes even better than the researchers and authors because I myself am a Veteran and they were only studying Veterans. Later on, I chose something I knew less about which has helped me to keep my interest while also challenging myself as well.
So I’m going to end on that point: Take YOU into account as well as you go along making your decisions. Do you need challenge and new information to keep you interested and motivated? Are you so pressed for time that you need a simpler endeavor? Do you shrink under pressure so should go with a topic you are already comfortable with? Do you simply want to get it over with—or do you want to make the most of your time and learn as much as possible?
Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.