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How to Pick a Dissertation Topic

Posted Friday, 27 January 2012

What makes a good dissertation topic? GSAS’s resident expert on the subject is Cynthia Verba, the longtime director of fellowships at the Graduate School, whose own PhD (from the University of Chicago) is in musicology. Her answer:

"One of the most important factors in choosing a dissertation topic is to work on something you really love, enough so that you can contemplate staying with it over a fairly prolonged period of time – well after you have received the degree. It also doesn’t hurt to have some innate talents in the chosen area. I personally turned to music in my early school years, even before piano lessons, because I found I could sit at the piano and play every popular tune that I knew, along with the harmonies that I apparently heard along with the tunes. Once in college, I developed what has been my lifelong scholarly musical interest, and that is the relationship between theory and practice. Much of my work has revolved around the figure of Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was both a leading theorist and composer. [Verba has a new book Rameau forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, entitled Dramatic Expression in Rameau's Tragedie en Musique: Between Tradition and Englightenment.]

I keep hearing very similar tales from graduate students: once they find a topic they thoroughly enjoy and acquire the necessary skills to tackle, they seem to thrive as scholars.

It would be naïve not to add some of the more practical considerations that also help students and scholars to thrive: It needs to be a topic of potential interest to others in the field, not necessarily the “latest fashion,” but at least on themes that have proven to be compelling. And it needs to take into account the dissertation as a genre, meaning a work that makes an original contribution to the field, but by no means striving to be the definitive word on the subject.

To put this in another way, a good dissertation topic should be one that will allow you to produce a professional polished piece of work within a limited amount of time and with a limited amount of cost. In this regard, it is most helpful to get advice from experienced scholars on how to limit the scope of a project without limiting the significance of the questions addressed."

Share Your Thoughts!

GSAS is starting a community-wide discussion on the subject of how to pick a dissertation topic. Share your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter (#dissertation), and look for advice from faculty and deans in the next GSAS Bulletin. How do you home in on a topic that will prove engaging and fruitful, while avoiding dead ends? How do you know that what fascinates you today will be fascinating three years from now? What roadblocks did you encounter, and what surprises?

Surviving the Dissertation

Get tips and advice on everything from finding a mentor and choosing a topic to getting your writing done.