How To Pick a Dissertation Topic

At the start of my dissertation journey, I had a general idea of what I wanted to study: sustainability. Sustainability is a big word with many definitions – here are over 100 definitions of sustainability.

Sustainability is a complex idea that allowed me to explore different areas of interest: environmental, cultural, social, economic, agriculture, urban planning, organizational, structural, etc.

I used the definition from the Bruntland Report: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In other words, sharing resources between present and future generations.

Big Enough to Explore

In the back of my mind, I think I picked sustainability because it was big enough to allow me to explore my interests. For example, I framed my papers for my public policy courses around these topics:

  • Ecotourism
  • Conserving national parks
  • Wind farms
  • Permaculture

Exploration was my goal. One of the key factors in choosing your dissertation topic is a keen interest or passion.

You don’t want to get bored with your topic and lose interest. A loss of interest is a loss of time. The last thing you need is another delay in finishing your doctoral degree. I needed to explore to find my passion around my research topic on sustainability.

Light Bulb

One day, the light finally went on for me – I found a research topic that I could get excited about!! Believe me, it did not happen overnight.

I spent many hours talking to people, reading up on topics. But then I stumbled upon a discussion series on food systems in urban areas. The speakers talked about the challenges of feeding urban populations.

Lots of problems to address and opportunities for research innovations.

Finally, the light bulb went on for me! I wanted to learn more about food systems and possible solutions to feed people in densely populated cities.

Maybe I was lucky – food policy is a cross discipline topic, open to innovation and creative solutions, and I can study many different areas of the food system.

How to Find Your Passion

So, how do you find a dissertation topic?

First, think long and hard about a topic you feel strongly about. It has to be something you care about.

For instance, many students pick a topic that is very personal – a disease or condition that took the life of family member, a catastrophe in their own lives, cultural or social issues that they care about.

Second, be smart about your time. If you have to write a paper for a class, write about something you care about. It’s a great way to find out if you’re really interested in a topic. And you can build a reference list that might be useful down the road.

Third, look around your community. Is there some area that you would like to improve? Think locally and find a concern (youth unemployment, quality of life, gentrification of your neighborhood) that you can be passionate about.

Fourth, talk to your advisor, other students, and your network to get feedback on your idea. Remember your topic can’t be too narrow or big. Pick a topic that is doable and current.

Fifth, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel – just tweak. Take a new look at topic, create a new theory or explanation, find something missing and fill the gap.

Your job is to add new knowledge to the current database. That’s it. You don’t need to build the database.

Sixth, enjoy your topic. That’s where passion comes in to carry you through the roller coaster ride of your dissertation journey. Passion can get you through the rough times when you get bored and tired.

Keep your topic simple and focus on your passion.

If you reached the dissertation stage of your program, strap yourself in for the ride. It’s doable, challenging and rewarding. You can to do it!


Dr. Bessie

Fall seven times and stand up eight.
~~~Japanese Proverb~~~


Author: Dr. Bessie DiDomenica

Food Policy Researcher • Resilient Agriculture Advocate • Public Speaker • Public Policy Wonk • Writer • Teacher • Social Entrepreneur • Associate Editor

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