Beginning the Process: Identify a Research Topic

Identifying a topic for dissertation research may seem like a daunting task. Often one will come into the program with a general area of interest based on professional experience or previous degree studies. How does one take a general idea/broadly-framed topic and translate it into a topic that will be feasible for dissertation research?

The first step is to read about the topic. The very task of doing a literature search using library databases and catalogues will reveal (by the number of citations appearing) whether your search terms are too broad, too narrow or about right. Reference librarians with subject area expertise are invaluable resources in suggesting appropriate search terms and databases.

Once you have identified relevant, promising articles and books, read them to determine what dimensions of the topic pique your intellectual curiosity, and what you wish to know more about. Ultimately the goal is to select a topic that is researchable, and that will hold your interest and keep you motivated throughout the entire dissertation process.

The Research Question(s):

The next step is to translate the dimension of the topic you plan to study into one or more research questions. The research question(s) will serve as the foundation of your dissertation research. For example, a subtopic pertaining to the "management of technological change" is "worker training." Yet it would be far too broad a research question to ask: "What type of training is required to prepare employees for technological change?" A narrower question would be: "To what extent do plant-level training committees serve to improve the quality and cost of technical training for production employees?"

Operationally defining the ambiguous terms in the research question will help you to further narrow and explain your research topic. The terms that would need to be defined in this example are: plant-level training committee (e.g., labor-management committee as defined by the collective bargaining agreement in a unionized facility); training quality (e.g., relevance of training topics to plant operations; currency of training material; qualifications and experience of trainers); training cost (e.g., training vendor fees, release time for employees, follow-up vendor costs). The research question(s) will serve as the basis for hypotheses or research propositions, and for a theoretical framework, supported by the research literature.

Determining the Contribution Your Research Will Make to a Body of Knowledge:

An initial review of the literature can trigger self-doubt about one's ability to make a worthy contribution to the literature. Have no fear! Reading about what other researchers have done will surely reveal gaps in the existing literature—in the research questions asked, in the populations studies, in the methods used to conduct the research, or all of the above. Very few academics will develop ground-breaking new theories or paradigms, but we can certainly apply existing theories and concepts in new ways and to different issues.

Presenting Your Ideas to Your Academic Advisor:

It is important to solicit feedback from your academic advisor early in the process. Presenting your advisor with a written proposal containing a topic statement, research question(s) and operational definitions can serve as a basis of discussion about whether the advisor will serve as your dissertation committee chair, and next steps (e.g., determining the research design, data collection methods and research population).

Using Your Coursework to Refine Your Topic:

Early identification of a research topic offers one the opportunity to use program courses to refine the topic, identify relevant literature and begin thinking about an appropriate and feasible methodology for carrying out the dissertation research. Your topic may well change as you progress through the courses and become exposed to new bodies of knowledge from varied disciplines. Still, ultimately you will need to settle on a topic, and the earlier in your doctoral studies you can do so, the better!

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