Choosing a dissertation topic

Deciding on a topic for your thesis, dissertation or research project is the first step in making sure your research goes as smoothly as possible. When choosing a topic, it’s important to consider:

  • Your institution and department’s requirements
  • Your areas of knowledge and interest
  • The scientific, social, or practical relevance
  • The availability of data and sources
  • The length and timeframe of your dissertation

If you have no dissertation ideas yet, it can be hard to know where to start. Follow these steps to begin narrowing down your ideas.

Step 1: Check the requirements

The very first step is to check the practical requirements of your educational programme. This determines the scope of what it is possible for you to research.

  • What is the minimum and maximum word count?
  • When is the deadline?
  • Do you have to choose from a list of topics, or do you have to think of a topic yourself?
  • Should the research have an academic or a professional orientation?
  • Are there any methodological conditions (e.g. do you have to conduct fieldwork or use specific types of source)?
  • Are there any other restrictions?

Some programmes will have stricter requirements than others. You might be given nothing more than a word count and a deadline, or you might have a restricted list of topics and approaches to choose from. If in doubt about what is expected of you, always ask your course or department coordinator.

Step 2: Choose a broad field of research

Start by thinking about your areas of interest within the subject you’re studying. Examples of broad ideas include:

  • Twentieth-century literature
  • Economic history
  • Health policy
  • Online marketing

It’s a good idea to pick a field that you already have some familiarity with, so that you don’t have to start your research completely from scratch. You don’t have to be an expert on the topic, but if you’ve already read a few articles, that gives you a good starting point to find out more.

Step 3: Look for books and articles

Try skimming through a few recent issues of the top journals in your field, as well as looking at their most-cited articles. For inspiration, you can also search Google Scholar, subject-specific databases, and your university library’s resources.

If you’ve already read some articles in the field, check their reference lists to find more useful sources. As you read, note down any specific ideas that interest you and make a shortlist of possible topics.

Step 4: Find a niche

After doing some initial reading, it’s time to start narrowing down your broad area. This can be a gradual process, and your topic should get more and more specific. For example, from the ideas above, you might narrow it down like this:

  • Twentieth-century literature  Twentieth-century Irish literature  Post-war Irish poetry
  • Economic history  European economic history  German labour union history
  • Health policy  Reproductive health policy  Reproductive rights in South America
  • Online marketing  Social media marketing  Social media engagement strategies

All of these topics are still broad enough that you’ll find a huge amount of books and articles about them. Try to find a specific niche that not many people have researched yet (such as a neglected author or time period), a question that’s still being debated, or a very current practical issue.

If there’s already a lot of research and a strong consensus on your topic, it will be more difficult to justify the relevance of your work. But you should make sure there is enough literature on the topic to provide a strong basis for your own research.

At this stage, make sure you have a few backup ideas — there’s still time to change your focus. If your topic doesn’t make it through the next few steps, you can try a different one. Later, you will narrow your focus down even more in your problem statement and research questions.

Step 5: Consider the type of research

At this stage, it’s a good idea to start thinking about what kind of research you want to do. Will you mainly focus on:

  • Collecting original data (e.g. experimental or field research)?
  • Analysing existing data (e.g. national statistics, public records or archives)?
  • Interpreting cultural objects (e.g. novels, films or paintings)?
  • Comparing scholarly approaches (e.g. theories, methods or interpretations)?

Many dissertations will combine more than one of these. Sometimes the type of research is obvious: if your topic is post-war Irish poetry, you will probably mainly be interpreting poems. But in other cases, there are several possible approaches. If your topic is reproductive rights in South America, you could analyse public policy documents and media coverage, or you could gather original data through interviews and surveys.

You don’t have to finalise your research design and methods yet, but the type of research will influence which aspects of the topic it’s possible to address, so it’s wise to consider this as you narrow down your ideas.

Keep in mind that collecting original data takes a great deal of time. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend on your dissertation, it might be best to focus on analysing existing data from primary and secondary sources.

Step 6: Determine the relevance

It’s important that your topic is interesting to you, but you’ll also have to make sure it’s academically, socially or practically relevant.

  • Academic relevance means that the research can fill a gap in knowledge or contribute to a scholarly debate in your field.
  • Social relevance means that the research can advance our understanding of society and inform social change.
  • Practical relevance means that the research can be applied to solve concrete problems or improve real-life processes.

The easiest way to make sure your research is relevant is to choose a topic that is clearly connected to current issues or debates, either in society at large or in your academic discipline. The relevance must be clearly stated when you define your research problem.

If your programme is focused on professional training, you should also consider the professional relevance of your dissertation — for example, by choosing a commercial angle that will be useful in future employment. If you write your dissertation in connection with a job or internship, this will constrain your choice of topics, as your research will need to have practical relevance for the organisation.

Step 7: Make sure it’s plausible

Before you make a final decision on your topic, consider again the length of your dissertation, the timeframe in which you have to complete it, and the practicalities of conducting the research.

Will you have enough time to read all the most important academic literature on this topic? If there’s too much information to tackle, consider narrowing your focus even more.

Will you be able to find enough sources or gather enough data to fulfil the requirements of the dissertation? If you think you might struggle to find information, consider broadening or shifting your focus.

Do you have to go to a specific location to gather data on the topic? Make sure that you have enough funding and practical access.

Last but not least, will the topic hold your interest for the length of the research process? To stay motivated, it’s important to choose something you’re enthusiastic about!

Step 8: Get your topic approved

Most programmes will require you to submit a brief description of your topic before you are assigned a supervisor. It’s a good idea to discuss your ideas with your supervisor before you write a full research proposal.

Remember, if you discover that your topic is not as strong as you thought it was, it’s usually acceptable to change your mind and switch focus early in the dissertation process. Just make sure you have enough time to start on a new topic, and always check with your supervisor or department.

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Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

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