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Humanities
Mary McGroarty

Dissertations in the Humanities: Seven Steps and Three Axioms

Identifying an appropriate topic for one’s dissertation is an essential part of a doctoral program. Here are seven specific steps and three axioms to follow, starting from your first semester, to enable you to progress towards topic definition and degree completion without losing sight of the rationale for any dissertation.

Seven steps towards focusing on a dissertation area and specific topic

Recognize that defining a suitable topic is YOUR responsibility: not your advisor’s, not your other instructors’, not your graduate program peers’, and not your significant other’s, although all these parties can be helpful. In general, the sooner you start thinking about good possible topics, the more efficient your progress. (Notice the plural here—there are many reasonable topics within any field.)

As you plan your graduate program, confer with your advisor and each course instructor about how any class project could help you define a dissertation area. Here are some steps in formulating a dissertation topic and ensuring that you develop the research expertise to pursue it:

1. Consider the expertise of the faculty members in your department. Look at their publications in the last five or six years; see what kinds of research they are doing at present.

2. Examine the last 10 to12 dissertations done in the department in some detail. Read the abstract and last chapter of each and note what kinds of research methods they used.

3. Ask a few, maybe four to seven, current PhD candidates (NOT simply PhD students, but those who have completed coursework and advanced to candidacy) how they identified topics for their dissertations. Get their input on processes that helped them.

4. Read, read, read in your major discipline as you take graduate classes. Become familiar with two to four major databases in your field; ask your faculty to identify these.

5. Use databases to identify research articles and dissertations done in the last 10 years on topics related to your interests; see where they were done and what kind of research methodologies were used. Reference librarians in Cline Library will help you locate these.

6. As you complete graduate classes in your major area, reflect on research skills you have used for projects done; consider whether you are developing or refining additional research techniques that might be needed for topics of constant interest to you.  For each article you read, ask these questions:

            A. What methodology(ies) have been used as the basis for any findings presented? Are these appropriate for the type of data and research questions at issue? Could they have been complemented by any other research techniques? Could I use these methods?

            B. What types of research instruments, tests, checklists, observational records, or documents have been used in this research? Is it feasible for me to use, adapt, or develop any related modes of inquiry for the questions that interest me?

7. Identify the access to data and/or participants that would be needed. Access is essential, whether to documents or human participants, and does not happen automatically. Learn how Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements pertain to your field. Also determine by consulting your advisor, classmates, or professionals in your field whether there are ethical and practical constraints beyond those included in IRB guidelines that would affect access to relevant data or participants.

Three general axioms to keep in mind 

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Remember the spirit of three general axioms that frame dissertation work:

1. Good topics are ‘made, not born;’ they do not present themselves to you in a flash but are generally the result of conscientious, persistent effort.

2. The dissertation is simply one component of a person’s professional profile. The more an individual wishes to seek a research position with responsibility for ongoing investigation and the training of other doctoral students, the more important the dissertation. For a person desiring a position that involves mainly teaching or administration, a completed dissertation provides the needed professional credential.

3. Never forget that, above all, a good dissertation is a DONE dissertation.

Good luck!


—Mary McGroarty, Professor, Department of English