In my previous two posts on choosing a dissertation topic, A “Flexible Evolution in Thinking” and “Asking the Right Question,” I wrote about the flexibility inherent in choosing a dissertation topic (you can change your mind along the way) as well as how to conceptualize your proposed topic (i.e. research begins with a good question.)
Now, I’d like to dive into some practical tips for narrowing down a dissertation topic. Keep in mind that there are a myriad of ways of going about this process. There is no right method. These are some things that have worked for me.
1. Read several dissertations to get acquainted with topic ideas and styles
In the Biblical Studies area, check out dissertations published by reputable presses (Cambridge Press, T & T Clark, etc.) and read them over carefully, especially their abstracts (one paragraph summary of the thesis), and the first chapter, which lays out the methodology for the study.
Your goal is to get into the dissertation topic mind set and begin to get ideas for your own topic:
- Notice how each dissertation is setup to answer one basic question with its ancillary sub-topic
- Notice the types of questions or problems the dissertation answers
- Notice the methodologies that are used to answer various types of questions (i.e. rhetorical studies when dealing with dialogue or speeches)
TIP: Find the dissertations on the Society for New Testament Studies site (or similar sites) and then jump over to Google books and search for the dissertations there. Many times you can preview the first chapter.
IMPORTANT: Dissertations also provide suggested avenues for further research
Look for suggestions for further research in the back of the final chapter of every dissertation. These are usually stated in the form of questions or topics which are germane to the particular study but which fall outside of its scope. This was how I discovered my dissertation topic.
2. Begin with your passion or interest
To the extent you have control in this (sometimes you may feel pressured by an adviser to choose a particular topic) begin with broad topics, texts, books or methodologies about which you are passionate or have a great interest.
I wanted to study leadership in the emergent churches and models which I could use for my work in preparing pastors in Latin America. This lead me to Acts, which lead me to the Miletus Speech and Paul’s discourse on leadership to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-38).
- Begin by reading dictionary articles (for subject or theme) or commentaries (for a book or text) that cover your topic. You want a broad grasp of your subject area.
- Read critically. You should begin to get a handle on the various debates that surround your broad topic. Who are the important scholars in the debate? As you read, try to formulate questions that can turn into a dissertation topic.
- Read journal articles (in the ATLA database for example) or book reviews of books that have been written by these heavy hitters. Your broad topic should now be splitting into more niche subjects. As you read, you want to formulate the argument of each article as clearly as you can, categorize them into different sub-themes, and begin to interact with the various scholars. Again, you want to ask yourself if there is a question embedded in the material you are reading? Do you disagree with a conclusion? Has someone left out an important aspect?
This is a lengthy process unto itself and you’ll have to check out some books that will walk you through the process. Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation contains a very detailed, step-by-step approach to doing a literature review.
Essentially, you must run through a quick survey of the scholarship in your topic to see if there is traction there. You are trying to get a feel for the lay of the academic landscape. Your goal is to try to situate your topic somewhere within that landscape. (This is getting into the whole concept of originality, which we’ll cover in a later post…)
TIP: Use book reviews to get a quick understanding of various titles and authors. There is no shame in reading someone else’s summary of a 300 page tome, especially one in German or French. Also, read the conclusions of each section (article) or chapter (book) to get a sense for the argument of written work.
IMPORTANT: The literature review is also where you begin to receive that all important training in reflecting and summarizing other scholars’ work.
4. Become super acquainted with different methodologies
I wrote about this in Post No. 2 of The (Dreaded) Dissertation Topic, but it bears repeating, probably more for my sake than yours. I have to say, this was probably the weakest area for me as I entered a biblical studies program. I couldn’t tell you the difference between redaction criticism and my elbow, and it was apparent to me during my application process when I had to put down a bunch of high faluting terms in my dissertation proposal that I had just learned.
Any text (well virtually any text) and any book can be approached from any number of methodological presuppositions. Unless you know what these are (redaction, source, tradition, form, narrative, post-modern, etc.) you will be very limited in being able to narrow down a topic.
5. Ask for help and read others’ advice
It may sound like cheating that I recommend someone or something else in a post of tips for finding a dissertation topic, but the truth is, that we do not go through this process alone.
Once again, the book Destination Dissertation, for example, contains a great section on helping you choose a dissertation topic. It tries to side-step the hit or miss approach that often accompanies a search for a topic. It has some great advice for setting up a meeting with a trusted adviser or professor in order to clarify your thinking and getting help in nailing down a thesis .
In addition, talk to professors or others who have trod the path before you and ask them to give you suggestions that you might be able to pursue.
A pastor friend of mine (we’ll call him Bill) mentioned in passing to another colleague (John) that perhaps he should look at Isaiah 55 in the Septuagint for his dissertation. This was only weeks before John was to fly over to Europe to meet with his advisers and his school. Wouldn’t you know it, that brief conversation was John’s eventual dissertation topic.
Well that does it for this post. I realize these tips only begin to scratch the surface of this very broad topic of finding a dissertation topic.
Still I hope they can be helpful in what sometimes seems like an elusive quest for a thesis.
I would love to hear about resources and ideas you have used in your PhD topic search!