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How to pick a thesis topic? The Conceptual Conversation

by Sonja Foss and William Waters - authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation

Everything you've read that's piqued your interest - or not - during your academic career has contributed to the first step of writing a dissertation: selecting a topic. Prepare to spend a total of 10 hours (about a week) engaging in a conversation that brings to light the key pieces of the research for your dissertation that you already intuitively know. This "conceptual conversation," like all conversations, requires a partner. Your advisor is the preferred partner, as she will guide you through the dissertation process as a whole.

What should each of you bring to the conversation? Bring your interests developed during coursework and enthusiasm, along with tools to capture the conversation ? pen and paper; laptop; or even a tape recorder. Your conversation partner brings a commitment to spend time with you and excitement about the intellectual journey ahead.

Step 1: Questions to Ask

  • What are your major interests in your discipline?
  • What personal experiences have you had that were particularly significant or meaningful for you that are relevant to your discipline?
  • What coursework did you take that you found the most exciting?
  • What theories and concepts are most interesting to you?
  • Are there some ideas that you have studied that you are curious about and want to explore more?
  • What bodies of literature have you encountered that intrigue you?
  • Are there some theories you want to avoid?
  • With what kind of data do you enjoy working?
  • Do you have ideas for specific data, texts, or artifacts you would like to study?
  • What kinds of methods do you like to use when you research?
  • What are your career goals when you finish your degree?

Once you and your partner have begun cycling through certain ideas over and over again in your conversation, repeating the same ideas with fewer and fewer additions, that's an indication that you're ready to formalize the key pieces of what you want to be a part of your dissertation. These elements will be used to form the proposal for your dissertation.

Step 2: Indentifying Key Pieces

  • A research question to guide your study
  • Some data you will analyze
  • A method of data collection
  • A method of data analysis
  • The areas of your literature review

Adapted from Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters (2007).
Related resources:
ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis Database

Sonja Foss and William Waters

About the author

Co-authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, Dr. Foss is a professor of Communications at University of Colorado, Denver and Dr. Waters is assistant professor of English at University of Houston-Downtown. They are co-directors of Scholars' Retreat, a program to support progress towards completion of your dissertation, thesis, or writing project.

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