Things They Don’t Tell You About Grad School:  Choosing the PhD Dissertation Topic

These posts will pop up on Humanities Attic occasionally.  They’re just my way of sharing my recent experience getting a PhD so others might be more prepared than I was.  To give you a bit of context, as I write this, I’m in the process of getting an exact date scheduled for my PhD dissertation defense.  For the inaugural “Things They Don’t Tell You About Grad School” post, I wanted to start with the entire process of choosing the dissertation topic.

When I got settled in my PhD program, I was surprised and worried that a lot of my classmates seemed to already know what they wanted to write their gigantic paper on, while I had no real idea.  I guess I had assumed that was something that the PhD program would help me with.  In actuality, in my particular program, by the time you get to the last third or so of the program, they expect you to at least have a fairly good idea of what you plan to write about.

So, what did I do?  Well, I like to shop so I shopped a bit for my topic.  Nearly every class I took required a 20-30 page paper, so I picked different topics that I thought might make a good dissertation topic.  My operating theory was that if, after 30 pages, I got tired of the topic and never wanted to see it again, I would not want to choose that to write a 200+ page paper.

I eventually narrowed it down to 3 topics, and I did not end up choosing my favorite (which, by the way, dealt with English gardening history).  This may sound weird, but I am eternally glad that I did not choose to follow my heart and pick the topic that I am the most passionate about.  The topic I chose (on an aspect of pre-twentieth century culture and literature) was a close second in the passion category; but it turns out that after writing 200+ pages (only to have it dissected by the members of my faculty committee), performing numerous rewrites, and editing—editing—editing, I basically never want to see anything to do with my topic ever again (I’m hoping that this will change once I get some distance from the process).  I’m glad that I didn’t ruin gardening history for myself, and I’m now planning to do some unofficial post-PhD study on those gardens.

So, my advice on how to choose a dissertation topic is this:

  • Start thinking about your topic early
  • Don’t be afraid to shop for you topic
  • If you get tired of a topic after 30 pages, you are going to have a hard time making it to 200 pages—save yourself some grief and choose something else
  • Write about something you love—but consider avoiding the topic that you love more than any other (that one could be your hobby later)

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