The Dissertation Journey: How to Get Started

How can you best choose a dissertation topic and then create a plan for developing it? Sonja K. Foss and William Waters recommend that you embark on a conceptual conversation.

September 30, 2015

You have decided that you want to take a trip. But where to? You begin to narrow the options almost immediately because of your own preferences and the constraints of time and money. For example, you have friends living in Australia, and staying with them would make your trip affordable. Or maybe you only have a week for a trip, so you want to go someplace close, like a national park near your home.

You have the same kinds of preferences and resources when you begin contemplating your dissertation topic. You have taken many courses for your graduate degree, and some of them were more interesting to you than others. Some theories appeal to you because they explain things in ways that make sense to you, and you like working with some kinds of methods more than others. You also chose to develop expertise in particular areas in your comprehensive exams.

But how do you bring all of your resources to bear to actually choose a dissertation topic and then create a plan for your dissertation? This is where a conceptual conversation comes in. It’s a conversation that you have with someone to funnel your knowledge and preferences efficiently and effectively into a dissertation topic. A conceptual conversation gives you a specific period -- usually no more than a week -- to make all of the key decisions about your dissertation.

A conceptual conversation is based on the premise that you intuitively know some or all of the key pieces you want in the research that you will do for your dissertation. Because no one has asked you to articulate these pieces, however, you often don’t consciously know what they are and haven’t pulled them together in a way that enables you to come up with a topic. Articulating the pieces you want in your dissertation out loud through conversation makes them evident to you and allows you to probe and explore them in a focused way.

The conceptual conversation replaces the serendipitous method by which most students pick their dissertation topics, which usually involves going off on your own to search through literature to see if something strikes you as interesting. Another variation is to get a vague idea of a topic and to write and write on your proposal, hoping to figure out what you want to research. A third version is when you periodically run into your adviser and chat for a few minutes about your latest idea, hoping for a response that affirms and solidifies your idea.

All of these variations on serendipity will significantly delay the completion of your dissertation because they delay its real start. A conceptual conversation, in contrast, gives you the start you need.

Selecting and Orienting a Partner

The preferred conversation partner is your adviser. She will assume the role of your tour guide during the dissertation process, and, ideally, she would be involved in helping you develop the topic for your study. Sometimes, though, your adviser is not your best conversation partner. Maybe you don’t know your adviser well and don’t feel you can ask her to have this kind of conversation with you. You might be intimidated by her or simply not feel comfortable with her, or she might believe the dissertation is something you should figure out on your own.

If you are unable to have your adviser as your partner, maybe another faculty member with whom you have a good relationship is willing to have this kind of conversation with you. Maybe a fellow graduate student will be your partner. If no one in your academic circle is available, a spouse, partner or other friend will work. People who don’t know a lot about research or your field of study are often good at asking the naive or “silly” questions during the conversation that can prompt you to design a good study.

Here are the key points to include in your invitation to your partner: you need a block of uninterrupted time for the conversation -- something in the neighborhood of two to three hours. If you don’t get the gist of your topic figured out in this amount of time, you and your conversation partner will want to schedule another session. If possible, this second session should take place within a few days of the first one so you can maintain the momentum you’ve developed and remember where you are in the process. It’s also key to hold this meeting someplace where you won’t be interrupted so you can focus just on coming up with your dissertation topic.

Asking and Answering Questions

So what exactly goes on in the conversation? Here are some of the questions your partner might want to ask to help you identify some key pieces or elements you want to include in your dissertation:

  • 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 course work did you find most exciting?
  • What theories and concepts are most interesting to you?
  • Are there some ideas 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 kinds of data do you enjoy working?
  • Do you have ideas for specific data, texts or artifacts you would like to study?
  • Are there resources to which you have access that could provide participants or data for your study?
  • Does your job offer any of these resources?
  • How about your volunteer activities?
  • Is there someone you know who could give you access to these kinds of resources?
  • Is there an archive, organization or upcoming event in your community that is ripe for analysis?
  • What kinds of methods do you like to use when you do research?
  • What are your career goals when you finish your degree?

As you answer the questions, your partner should encourage you to continue talking by asking exploratory, open-ended, follow-up questions. For example, he might ask you defining questions such as, “What do you mean by that?” He might ask you doubting questions that encourage you to think and explain more: “Why do you think that’s the case?” He might ask you to make connections between some of your ideas: “What connection do you see between theory X and theory Y?” Some of his questions will be probing: “Can you elaborate on what interests you about that theory?”

The purpose of these questions is to get you to articulate the key pieces you want in your dissertation. If you don’t know the answer to a question your partner asks, try to make a good guess. The point is less to provide a precise and correct answer to a question and more to use the questions to stimulate your thinking.

As you answer the questions, your partner will sometimes provide new input by introducing ideas, especially if she is also a scholar in your discipline. She might ask you, for example, if a particular concept is relevant to what you are thinking about: “This sounds a lot to me like how things were in the frontier days of the West. Is that an accurate way to think about this idea?” This new input might help you form dissertation pieces out of your interests that you didn’t see how to do before.

You want your partner to not only ask questions but also listen closely and carefully. If you aren’t recording the session -- which can be very useful -- encourage her to take notes as completely as possible so that you have a record of your ideas in the order in which they came to you.

Regardless of how you are documenting the session, your partner should note the ideas that seem most important to you to include in your study. He should not be telling you what he is noting as he does it because his goal is to keep you talking. But you want him, in effect, to do a meta-analysis of your talk, transcending the details of it to try to see the larger picture that is emerging for you and that will form the basis for your dissertation. If he has ideas about possibilities for your dissertation that incorporate some of the concepts you are talking about, he’ll want to note those, too, so he can share them with you later in the conversation.

The two of you don’t want to be doing any evaluating or sorting of ideas at this stage. None of the ideas that you or your partner articulate should be dismissed, as even the ideas that seem the silliest can lead you to new places and to significant new ideas. You might discover, as you answer your partner’s questions, that you are saying some ideas over and over again. Don’t stop yourself. These cycles help you understand what is most important to you. When you begin to repeat yourself frequently, with no new additions -- when you can’t think of anything else you want to add -- that’s an indication that all the pieces you know at this moment that you want to have in your dissertation have come out.

Identifying Key Pieces

Now is the time for you and your partner to identify the key pieces that you want to be part of your dissertation study:

  • Problem
  • Research question
  • Data you will analyze
  • Method for collecting data
  • Method for analyzing data
  • Areas of your literature review

Identifying your key pieces can happen in many different ways. Your partner might tentatively suggest what those pieces are from the ideas she has noted as the ones that seem most important to you. Maybe you both know what the pieces are as a result of your conversation and can name them together. You might know the data you want to analyze but not your research question or the categories of your literature review. Or maybe you know what you want to ask and a relevant body of literature with which you want to work but nothing else. That’s OK. The point here is to identify those things you know you really want in your dissertation. You’ll fill in the missing pieces later as you create the plan or preproposal for your study.

Your partner’s statement of the key elements you know so far will look something like this: “You want to ask a research question that gets at the role of culture in resistance strategies used in social movements, you want to use biographies of Native American activists and you know a lot about narrative analysis and would like to use it as a method. Are these key pieces you want in your dissertation?”

Maybe your partner suggests what he thinks are the key pieces of your dissertation and, when you hear him articulate them, you disagree. You might not be interested in what he names as those components, or maybe he is close, but his articulation of the ideas isn’t quite right. Or maybe he is articulating what he wants you to do in your dissertation but not what you want to do. (This occurs most often when your conversational partner is your adviser.) If he is pushing you in a direction in which you’re not interested, you both want to remind yourselves whose dissertation you are planning: yours.

If you can’t answer “yes” to your partner’s articulation of the key pieces of your dissertation, you need to articulate what is missing. What was not included in what he articulated? What was included that you don’t want to be there?

Together, sculpt and whittle at the key pieces to get them closer to your interests. In the end, with the help of your conversation partner, you’ll have made the first decision on where you want to go on the trip that is your dissertation.


Sonja K. Foss is a professor of communication at the University of Colorado at Denver. William Waters is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. This article is adapted from their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, to be published in October by Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

Back to Top