How to Choose a Topic For Your Dissertation

Study Tips

April 04, 2020

For most degrees in the UK, the dissertation is an integral part of your studies and curriculum. Most importantly, it is likely to make up a substantial part of your final grade. Dissertations also perform the function of imparting academic rigour and crucial critical skills in the students. 


Usually undertaken in the last semester — or last year, the dissertation is supposed to reflect your understanding of your field and your ability to dig deeper into themes that were hitherto unexplored. In short, a dissertation is an extensive piece of work.

Dissertations at the undergraduate level are often limited to 10,000 to 12,000 words, whereas postgraduate dissertations can range from 15,000 to 50,000 words. There is also a structure to the dissertation — certain essential components like literature review, research question, methodology, data analysis, conclusion, appendices, bibliography.

The exact format may be different in different Universities and departments, but the broad framework is the same. Since dissertations also test your scholarship and persistence, they are also often a talking point in interviews and application tests. 


The bottom line is this: your dissertation is a very important part of your student experience, therefore you should choose the dissertation topic carefully. Here are a few tips to help you with this exercise:


Align your interests

Here’s the thing: you are going to work on your dissertation for a stretch of three to six months, depending upon the course requirements. During this period, your research is all you’ll be thinking about. So if you are going to spend so much time in the research, the topic should be able to hold your interest for a long time. 

The first principle of finding a good research topic is to pick something that you find genuinely interesting - something that you would want to engage with for a long period of time. 


Choose the road not taken

The topic of your dissertation should be unique. You will need to walk down the road not taken, which means that your topic should not have been researched on before. Your research should contribute to the current body of work in your field, not just repeat what is already there. Even if you want to look at a theme that has been done to death, consider approaching the idea from a different angle. Or try to find a unique segment in the interstices. Better yet, choose a niche or novel idea that hasn’t reached saturation in research!


Balance between soggy and crisp

In choosing a topic that holds relevance in your field, make sure you are neither too ambiguous (saying your dissertation will be on start-up funding practices) not too narrow and specific (saying that your dissertation looks at the product pricing strategies of SaaS start-ups in the UK). Being vague with your topic keeps you open to a deluge of possibilities -  several directions that a broad topic can take. And if you make it too narrow, you could struggle with finding enough data or content on the same to be able to draw well-rounded conclusions. Find a balance between the two extremes. Effective research will help you scan the business environment while keeping your focus pointed and your report succinct.


Research and then some

The practical step in finalising your dissertation topic is researching your topic. One, it will help you confirm if your topic is unique, what research has been done before in similar contexts and whether you can replicate studies done in another country/set-up.

Two, you will gather literature on the subject that can later help you in your final report. 

Three, this preliminary reading can act as a test for whether this subject/topic really interests you enough for you to stick with it for months to come!


What are the resources you can use for preliminary research? Skim through journals in your field, hit up Google Scholar, your University library databases, read the works of the eminent scholars in the field. Find more resources by digging through the references of these texts and then some. 


What will your dissertation contribute to academia

At the undergraduate and Taught Masters level, it may not be compulsory to publish your research, but your dissertation should still make some unique contribution to the academic body in the field. It is just as important for your research question to have wider academic relevance as it is for you to have an interest in the topic yourself. 

It should fill a gap in the academic body or contribute a relevant argument in the existing debates. This test of relevance is usually something your supervisor will guide you through, as well.


Is the research relevant to your personal career?

Apart from its scholarly relevance, the research also needs to be relevant to your own career. If you choose a topic in the field where you eventually want to work, it can have twofold benefits.

One, you learn more about the field and learn to look at it critically.
Two, you can link your academic experience to the field in the course of future employment.

In a job interview, you can talk about your findings and other insights. In the job itself, you can critically look at the theory in practice and apply the lessons learnt. 


Feasibility of the research 

Before finalising your dissertation topic, it is also important to consider the plausibility of the research. You only have a limited time frame of a few months and geographic and other restrictions in that period as well. 

The topic should be narrow enough to be executed within the limited time frame and broad enough to enable you to churn out reasonable conclusions. 

It should also be logistically feasible - you cannot fly to the US to interview relevant people. You cannot conduct a longitudinal study within 3 months. 


Ultimately, the rule of thumb is simple: choose a topic that you can stick with for months to come, that can add value to both your resume as well the academic discourse and can be practically executed, all logistics considered!

Featured Photo Source: Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash​


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