Dissertation Topic Selection: A Critical Choice Toward Doctoral Success or Failure

Dissertation Topic Selection: A Critical Choice Toward Doctoral Success or Failure

By Dr Lonny Ness

I was advising a student today in an introductory doctoral course about the importance of dissertation topic selection and thought I would share my thoughts here…

The reason why I say that topic selection is critical towards doctoral success or failure is that one’s dissertation topic involves numerous factors, including:

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  • The phenomenon studied (e.g., business, IT, education, psych, etc.)
  • The method (qualitative or quantitative – avoid mixed!)
  • The population
  • The geography
  • …and more!

Parenthetically, per APA, the topic title should be within 10-12 words. Quite a feat to get all the above within such a limited space – but it can be done! For more detail on the elements of the topic, check out my lesson topic selection and development…

Beyond the topic elements, the key point for this blog post is the importance of choosing a dissertation topic that will ultimately and successfully facilitate graduation within one’s expectations for time and cost. The key for success? DATA COLLECTION!!! Really? YES!!! Why? Great question!

Several topics involve difficult to obtain data, for several reasons. Here’s a few:

  • Too narrow of a topic, population, or geography – resulting in too few participants to satisfy the criteria for sampling
  • Too sensitive of a topic – restricting participation and/or responses. An example is unethical business practices – who wants to admit to being unethical? Another example is a protected population, such as minors, pregnant women, and prisoners.
  • Potential human harm – resulting in IRB delays or non-approval
  • Highly expensive data collection – count the cost!

Is it impossible to complete a dissertation given the above caution areas? Certainly not, but it does potentially make it much more difficult with lengthy time delays and cost. I’ve coached many students who breezed through proposal development and IRB only to hit a roadblock once data collection started – in some cases requiring extensive research design changes and re-approval through committee, school, and IRB to restart data collection. This should, and can be avoided early in the process by carefully choosing the dissertation topic and understanding the associated population and data collection criteria.


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