Picking Your Doctoral Topic

How to pick a topic and stick to it

Picking Your Doctoral Topic

Before I begin spitting the advice, let me introduce myself. I am Dr. Jhoanna Amigable. I am a Doctor of Business Administration with a concentration in Healthcare Administration. I am currently a business analyst in a public healthcare facility and worked full-time (and then some) during my doctoral journey. I'm probably like you - I have a family, friends, a career, pets, etc. etc. and I've been trying to navigate this thing called "adulthood" for quite some time. Balancing anything extra on top of a career and family is far from easy, but it's possible! I have a passion for helping people get through things that might be weighing heavy on their shoulders (like a doctoral dissertation) and leaving a positive effect on people that I encounter. So I hope this helps you in one way or another.

Small disclaimer: This isn't a "how to" article with all the fluff from other dissertation manuals and writing manuals you've probably already encountered. I'm not here to use big words or to prove I am highly educated. I enjoy writing that is highly relatable and easy to read. I'm just writing as if I'm having a normal day-to-day conversation with you. I'm not going to tell you which descriptive statistics to use, which t-test to use, how to use SPSS, etc. There's plenty of helpful information out there to help you with this kind of stuff. I'm not going to sit here and tell you what to bold, what your margins should be, what font to use and I definitely wont be telling you how to format your paper for serration and bulleting. Why? This is because all schools are not alike and their requirements are not alike. One school may ask for a 350-word abstract, while another may limit you to 500 words. The formatting you must follow might be different from the formatting I had to follow. Also, elements of required sections may not always be the same. The whole goal here (or at least my goal) is to give you a little bit of advice on how to approach a section of your dissertation or paper. I thought this would've been most helpful for me when I was going through this. While my Dissertation Chair was an amazing support resource, I realized that not all schools have great dissertation committees. Thus, my article will not be a fool-proof, scientifically-backed, plan or approach. It is merely a recollection of a lived experience to maybe get the wheels of that mind of yours spinning. Just know, I relate, I've been there, and I'm here to try and give you some perspective.

So, let's get to it. Picking a topic isn't the most exciting thing ever and I'll admit, my advice may be a little cliché, but have some faith in me.

Why is choosing a topic important? Let's face it. This isn't the most interesting content I could've possibly provided you, but it's the start of something you'd be committing to for years. FOR YEARS. Therefore, it's important to choose a topic, an interesting one, and something you can really commit to.

Choosing a topic was one of the most stressful things during my doctoral classes. If your university is programmed to be anything like mine, you sort of get a glimpse of current issues in your field that can kind of nudge you into picking a topic. For me, a lot of my classes before my dissertation courses delved deep into healthcare topics and conversations. This allowed me to create an entire list of possible dissertations. The problem? A lot of it was interesting to an extent, but nothing stood out to me as something I could commit to for years. And if it did, it was topics with such extensive literature available that I became overwhelmed. So, if you can’t already tell, I had issues picking a topic. I was stressed that I wouldn’t be able to find an interesting enough topic that I could carry out. I kept thinking, “Well, I could go with this topic but what if down the line I couldn’t get enough literature or information to see me through?” All these doubts filled my brain. I remember not even being close to my dissertation courses and feeling a significant amount of pressure. What I didn’t realize was that these courses were here feeding me all these topics so that I could start on a dissertation topic.

If your school is set up the same way, pay attention. My biggest advice for you would be to look at the topics and papers you have written so far in your concentration and do some quick research on those topics. If you find anything interesting, such as an ongoing problem or issue, write that down. Once you have gotten a short list of topics, do some further research and see if it continually interests you because if it doesn’t and you get bored and tired of looking all available literature, you will be bored with your topic and you’ll lose interest. Remember, you’ll be engaging in this specific topic for a long time. I don’t know about you, but if I lose interest, I lose motivation. If your master’s degree is in the same or similar field of study, go back to any saved papers you have or assignments that may help you strengthen your list and strengthen your topic list. Also, when you look at your topic, are there any calls for future research or limitations in the available literature? If so, you may able to take an existing topic and aim at a different angle using limitations and what type of future research should be done. This may also help those that are doing applied research doctorates into identifying a problem in their field that can be solved.

Once you have your short list and you’ve done a little bit (or a lot) of research, I suggest looking at the available literature and determining whether your topic is too vague or too narrow. There are several reasons for this. If your topic is too vague, you will be getting a lot of related articles and in my opinion, too many articles. I think this is overwhelming and very difficult to deal with because somewhere in that analytical mind of yours, you’ll be relating it to multiple keywords and themes. If your topic is too new or narrow, there may not be enough scholarly articles for you to refer to. This is also dangerous. Remember: The key to your research is scholarly articles. Not having enough articles may prevent you from reaching the minimum page count or reference minimum in your literature review. If your topic is too narrow and you don’t have enough research to reference, you may be choosing a new topic after you’ve already started. Do yourself a favor: DO NOT DO IT. Do not think, “Oh, it’s a fairly new subject and not a lot of research has been done but I’m going to challenge myself and be that person to do it!” I repeat, DO NOT DO IT. It’s not worth the added stress. You have everything else going on in life and trying to make something of nothing will only frustrate you and kill your spirit.

And now that you have taken my advice so far, keep track of those articles and references you have already collected on your topic. I suggest bookmarking them or creating a bank of research in an Excel sheet that has the article title, short summary, link, and date. It will help you in the long run. I suggest spending 20-30 minutes a day reviewing your topic and doing some on-going research. The internet is vast, and databases are ever-changing. It’ll also tell you if you’re continually interested in this topic or if you’re losing touch with it. If you find yourself picking a topic and then only referring to it when your classes require you to, you’re probably not very interested in that topic. You should ask yourself, “What’s something I can continually learn about and not feel resentment or disinterest in it?” Think of it like this, if you’re a basketball coach and don’t want to learn anything about basketball, what are you coaching for? (Plus, you must really suck as a coach… just saying.) If you’re going to pick a topic in your field and you really don’t want to learn about it, how do you become an expert in it?

So, to summarize all that fluff:

1) Pick a topic that interests you and will keep you interested.

2) Look at the “limitations” section of existing literature or “recommendations for future research” sections to help you identify any new angles you can take or problems you can address.

3) Pick a topic that’s not too vague or and not too narrow.

4) Do not add any un-needed stress to your already stressful life. It’s only going to get worse. Save yourself the grief.

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Read next: The Unconventional College Life
Dr. Jhoanna Amigable

I am a Doctorate of Business Administration, a Master of Business Administration and have a Bachelor's in Biological Sciences.

But all in all, just a regular millennial navigating through career, education, family, social circles, etc.

See all posts by Dr. Jhoanna Amigable