By the mid-point of my second year of grad school I really needed to settle on a dissertation topic. I had a project idea—the history of the Confederate dollar—that I thought was good, but I was also interested in meat consumption in America, the history of dog-fighting, and even conspiracy theories. I told people I was writing about Confederate money, but really I had no idea. Most of the advice on choosing a dissertation topic that I found on the internet or received from friends and colleagues wasn’t very practical. I eventually settled on a project on beef in America, because it was the one I was most excited about, even if it didn’t seem like the most strategic choice at the time. It turned out to be a good decision and I ultimately learned a few things about developing a dissertation idea. Below are three suggestions for people trying to choose from a few different ideas as well as some scattershot (but effective!) suggestions for those of you with no idea.
1. Be strategic…after you have a topic.
Eventually, you are going to be sick of your dissertation topic. So you need to choose something you start out passionate about. At the same time, your dissertation also needs to fit into a wider scholarly conversation. But here’s the trick: any dissertation can fit into an exciting scholarly conversation. It’s all in how you frame it. So the key with a dissertation is to find the topic you’re excited about and then spend all your energy framing it in a way that’s strategic. To do that, you should…
2. Use draft project titles to refine your topic.
Take out a piece of paper. Draft ten different project titles for your hypothetical dissertation. You want titles that reflect both the topic and your approach, so use a “[TITLE]: [LONGER SUBTITLE]” format. Limit yourself to at most 10-12 words. You can take either a broad approach, brainstorming radically different titles, or start with a basic title and gradually refine it (the former is harder but more effective for a first pass). If you write ten different titles, you’ll get a sense of what you most want to argue, as well as how to convey it in the most succinct way possible. Its how I got from “Everything but the Moo: the Rise of the Cattle-Beef Complex” to “Red Meat Republic.”
3. Practice explaining your project.
People often view the “elevator pitch” as the key to promoting a project once its done, but its actually a great brainstorming strategy for the early stage as well. Explaining your project in conversation is a good first step to being able to write about it. Talk to fellow academics as well as nonspecialists. You not only get a sense of what people find interesting, but you can figure out what you really care about. When I was deciding between Confederate finances and the history of beef, it wasn’t until I started explaining the new idea to people that I realized how excited it made me.
If you really don’t have any ideas….
If there was an easy answer, you wouldn’t be in this situation. So all I’ve got are some scattershot suggestions. I have one core belief when it comes to good topic ideas: creativity is mechanical. A great idea doesn’t just spontaneously generate. It might hit you in the shower, but only after a few hours of reading or tearing your hair out in front of a blank piece of paper. That’s why I like the draft title idea: if you write ten titles, you get one interesting one. If you write ten more, you might get a great one. Try the strategies below and you’ll eventually get something.
* Make a list of the ten academic books you like most (half inside your field, half general books) and write a sentence about why you like each.
* Do the draft titles exercise but for completely different projects. Write five sample dissertation titles, then pick your three favorite and try developing two alternate titles for each of them. You end with three potential topics and three framings.
* Brainstorm topics that interest you outside of an academic context. The best thing about history is you can write about anything (as long as its in the past). Think about your interests and explore the historical context. You can figure out the strategic framing later.
* Talk to people about their work. It somehow helps get the creative juices flowing.
* Chill about it for a minute. You’ll think of something eventually. Any topic has potential. It’s all about how you frame it.