How to pick your Dissertation Topic

Dissertations are scary thoughts.  A 10,000 word essay on a subject of your choice.  And that’s just for undergraduate level.  For a post-graduate, you could be writing dissertations which could be as much as 20,000 words.  But an even scarier thought than writing your dissertation is picking what topic to write about.  Just how are you supposed to do this? Here’s some advice which should simplify this process.

You don’t have to be original

If there’s one thing that my lecturers told me, it’s that you don’t need to produce purely original work as an undergraduate.  There is nothing wrong in writing about a canonised book.  Think about Shakespeare, Voltaire and Milton.  The scholarships surrounding those authors is probably enough to form an entire library.

This is because of just how much these authors have to offer.  Countless academics have written countless books about these writers.  And this is what you can do too.  If you can bring a fresh perspective to a text that everybody has written about, then this will surely gain you some brownie points. 

If you do want to write about a less canonical text, then there’s nothing stopping you.  I knew one person who wrote about dystopias in the Hunger Games and another who wrote about mental health in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Your lecturers may find this refreshing to read. 

Stanford argues that while your essay doesn’t have to make any earth shattering contributions, it’s always good to take a fresh perspective that might not have been considered before. 

Write about what you want to write about

This may sound silly, but you’re going to be writing at least 10,000 words on this text.  You’ll be working on your dissertation for at least a year.  Do you really want to spend that time writing about a book you don’t like? You will find it difficult writing a 10,000 words on a subject that doesn’t interest you.

If you’re passionate about your text, then your lecturer will pick up on this immediately.  Remember, they’re the ones you need to impress.  Ivory Research argues that if you’re disinterested in your subject matter, this will be blindingly obvious.

This means that you have free reign to write about what you want.  If you don’t like the Romantic period then stay away from Coleridge and Wordsworth.  If you find the Liberal Reforms boring as sin, then stay away from Bannerman’s and Asquith’s governments.  Dissertations are what interests you.  Lecturers would rather you write about what you want to write about, not what you think would please them 

Use existing scholarship

A word of warning about writing about non-canonical texts: it may be difficult to find secondary critics to support your arguments.  This is simply because that these critics just may not exist yet.  Think about Chaucer.  He has six hundred years of scholarship surrounding him, because the Canterbury Tales were published in 1387.

Compare this with The Hunger Games, which only came out nine years ago.  While some scholarship might exist around these texts, it stands to reason that it won’t be anywhere near as extensive as the scholarship surrounding Chaucer.  Academic coach and writing argues that you should ensure your work is grounded in your scholarly framework. 

Of course this isn’t to say that you still shouldn’t try to write about a more obscure author or text, if that’s what you want to do.  If possible, you can still find scholarship around the social context of the author.  Perhaps your dissertation might start an academic renaissance around Suzanne Collins.

Narrow your focus

Start big.  Finish small.  When picking your dissertation topic, be careful in not being too broad.  Once you have your topic, you need to laser-down your focus, until you’re answering a few specific questions in as much detail as possible. 

For example, if you choose to write about feminism in Jane Eyre, this topic will be far too broad for you to properly explore in just 10,000 words.  Not to mention, it’s very generic too.  Writing about something specific allows you to nuance your work and write far more effectively about it.  The Student Switchboard also argues that it will make it far easier to find relevant secondary criticism.

Case in point.  My initial dissertation topic was the Romantisation of Organised Crime in the Godfather.  My dissertation tutor ripped this to pieces arguing that it was far too general of a topic.  I then refined my argument, until I was exploring how the Corleone characters and the mafia gangsters they represent were being portrayed as romantic masculine heroes.  Sounds a lot more like a scholarly argument right? That’s what my tutor thought too. 

Ultimately, when picking your dissertation topic, it’s most important just to stay true to yourself and what you want to write.  It’s an opportunity for you to write about your favourite book.  But of course, picking your dissertation topic is very different to actually writing your dissertation.  How do I actually write a dissertation? That’s a different article for a different day.

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