VII. Getting Your Dissertation off the Ground: Staying Focused

Determining the topic of your dissertation is a minefield, or perhaps a “mindfield,” for some students.  Many students set off on their dissertation journey to explore new territories but never find the path that leads to a single, manageable destination.   Let’s look at two fatal, but sadly common, mistakes that some students make in trying to focus on a dissertation topic.

The Boomerang Topic

Mary never would settle on a dissertation topic.  How would she ever find the perfect topic?   She had a million interests. Every year she changed her topic, and when she changed her topic, she had to change her committee.  Soon she had worn out the faculty in her department with her inability to focus. Her interests were no longer related to the interests of the faculty in her department; although she was seeking a doctorate in Education, her interests ranged from History to Architecture to Libraries to Computers.  So each year, she began with a new topic and was forced to create a new committee.  Mary became resentful and found fault with each of the potential faculty sponsors.  She blamed her inability to complete her dissertation on the inflexibility of the university she attended.  Eventually, Mary reached the time limit allowed and the extensions expired.  Mary, with all her ideas, had run out of time!

The Magnum Opus Topic

A common mistake students make is to identify their life’s work as the subject of their dissertation.  Noble intentions, but if you plan to succeed, zoom in on a small and manageable piece of your life purpose to begin with as your dissertation focus.  Jim is typical of many students who zealously committed to a set of ideals, and although he realized it was not practical and was against the advice of many supporters, he began a qualitative study on a topic so broad that it would take years to complete.  Nevertheless, he could not be persuaded, and so, over the long time he worked on his dissertation, the predictable, as well as the unpredictable, crises arose.  His program was shut down by the university; his faculty advisors left his university; and his financial aid was discontinued.  Gradually, Jim lost his enthusiasm for his subject as he lost his support, and with no end in sight, he gave up!

Capturing It!

To avoid such topic disasters, quickly and practically choose your topic area and then focus down to a researchable problem.  Sometimes it takes several attempts before all the necessary elements are in place.

Once you have aligned your research question, your method, and have found an advisor to support you, a good exercise is to create a working title to guide your study. The working title may change over time, but it will be a constant reference point to keep you on your course.  Make it brief, clear, and to-the-point.

In a quantitative study, define your research variables and their relationship: which is the cause and which is the effect?  For example, you might use the following formula:

The effect (type of relationship) of _________________ (independent variable/cause) on ___________(dependent variable/effect) in _____________ (who are the subjects in your study?).

For example, I might apply the quantitative formula to create the following study: The Effect of Dissertation Coaching (independent variable) on Time to Dissertation Completion (dependent variable) in Doctoral Students in the Social Sciences (the subjects in the study).

Similarly, in a qualitative study identify your specific research approach, your informants, and the phenomenon you will study.

For example, I might design the following qualitative study: A Narrative Study (method) of Why Women in the Sciences (informants in the study) Persist in Completing Their Doctoral Dissertations (phenomenon you are trying to understand).

Now it’s your turn to create a title for your dissertation.

Exercise 8

The Working Title of My Dissertation

The working title of my dissertation is: _______________________________________________

Dr. Sally Jensen

I am Principal and Founder of, which launched in 1997, to help academics achieve their goals.  At the time, I had seen many doctoral students floundering and often failing because of the lack of guidance.  I decided they needed a Dissertation Doctor to help them succeed without “bang-ups and hang-ups” (to quote Dr. Seuss).

I am a master certified coach and I help dissertators by nurturing and developing what I call the Creative Scholar.  I have guided over 200 Dissertators to successfully complete their doctoral journeys.

Contact Sally Jensen

About drsally

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4 Responses to VII. Getting Your Dissertation off the Ground: Staying Focused

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  2. You nicely summed up the issue. I would add that this doesn’t exactly concenplate often. xD Anyway, good post…

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  3. Ron Tedwater says:

    Really nice post,thank you

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