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How Do I Come Up with a Thesis Idea?
User: Admin
Date: 2/14/2012 1:46 am
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The years go by as you complete your classes. Each new class you get handed a syllabus and you follow each step. Towards the end of your course work, you begin to wonder what in the heck am I going to write a small book (doctoral dissertation) about. Many students then go to the library and they look at the rows of doctoral dissertations. Each is a small book and the student skims a few to see what is expected in order to graduate. Each completed doctoral dissertation is filled with advanced statistics, technical language and many references. Each is long, technical and very impressive. Many students at this point wonder “How in the hell am I going to be able to do this?”

The first couple of times that you read over someone else’s completed dissertation adrenalin will kick in. After a while this effect will go away. A lot of your doctoral work is like this, you see what the next step will be and get a jolt of fear. This is normal since the finished dissertations look daunting at first. But you will complete your own dissertation in a step by step manner. Your committee will help you and you are already a smart and motivated person to have made it this far in your program. Step by step is the key to finishing your degree and the dissertation.

But how do you come up with an idea for what to research? Some successful doctorates told me they looked up random dissertations in their field and read (skimmed) them like crazy trying to get an idea to jump out at them. This worked for some of them. Other successful doctorates looked in the doctoral dissertations and found suggestions by previous doctoral students for follow up research and that started them off in the right direction. Some read the peer reviewed journals in their field and looked for unsolved problems noted by researchers. Others went to various professors and asked them for ideas. I would not go to my intended future committee members because if one of those professors gives you a bad idea then it can get awkward. Go to other professors in the department, even ones you do not know or who you have never attended one of their classes. Set up an appointment and go spend 15 minutes picking their brain. Take notes, ask questions and be frank about where you are at in this process. One professor handed me a copy of a journal with several articles about my area of interest. At the end of every article was a wealth of related research articles. Those articles led to other articles and this was very helpful in giving me direction.

You see the big problem is figuring out what question you are going to explore. After you have a solid research question then you can find a wealth of information about this area. You do have to have a clear idea of what you want to explore. You have to clearly write it down or you will get lost. If you cannot write it down then you are still confused and unclear. Yes, you may change your target area as you move forward. If you do then you will cross out the previous written thesis statement and write the new one down. Keep these written statements in a spiral notebook and watch your thesis statement change as you discover more information in the journals. If you cannot clearly write down where you are going then you may be fooling yourself.

Years ago, I ran into a burning residential building to provide assistance. I followed the security guard in and lost him in the smoke in about 10 seconds. I had been in the building once since I had just started as the new Clinical Director for the three building complex the day before. I thought I knew what the building looked like inside and what I was doing. I could see less than a foot in front of me and ran into walls, tripped over furniture and went into a full panic realizing I could no longer even find the door that I had come through. Another security guard with a firm understanding (mental map) of the building came through the smoke and helped me exit. His internal map gave him an understanding of where he was even in thick smoke. Writing down what you are going to study keeps you focused on where you are at and where you are going. In my case, the smoke confused me. In your case, it will be hundreds of conflicting journal articles and experts in your field that will confuse you. All will point to different directions (See my how to use journals post). Experts will disagree with each other and your committee will have diverse views on what you should do. WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO STUDY AND LOOK AT IT OFTEN OR YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF WITH TONS OF DATA AND VERY LITTLE OF IT WILL BE WHAT YOU NEED.

In the book, I talk about your dissertation not being your best work and I still get flack about that but it is true. You will move mankind’s knowledge base ahead a small bit. You will learn to operate on a whole new level as part of the doctoral tasks but this is not going to be your best work ever. If you get too grandiose you will chance losing it all. Keep focused and keep it manageable. If your committee has you expand in a specific area then do it (with a smile) along the guidelines they lay out. Folks that take on too much in the doctoral dissertation can get into trouble fast. I have talked to people who had many boxes of data in their home office and others who had so much on their hard drives they could not find anything and had lost direction. In this situation an illness, family strife or ornery dissertation committee members can intensify the problem. Stay focused and do not try to make the world change due to the momentous dissertation you have planned. It is your first doctoral level work so take baby steps and get this done. Once you have your degree then move on to bigger and better things.

In my case, I was frantic with no idea of what to study. I had tried all of the options mentioned above and none of the ideas seemed to be the one I wanted to work on. One morning at work in two separate meeting, I had older people who were small time providers of mental health services complain about a meeting with the state mental health representatives. These small providers were told the state wanted only large providers for the economy of scale savings seen in other states. Later in a lunch meeting with our County Director, he slammed his fist down on the restaurant table and asked if any knew if the new policy direction of the state was based on actual evidence. I did not hear any more of the discussion because a huge light bulb had (in my mind) popped into existence directly over him. I think there was an angel choir in there somewhere too. All I could think about was his question and it kept rolling around in my head.

Once you have the big idea of what to research the rest of the tasks come together. Finding data bases that contain the information to be measured, designing the statistics, finding research and dealing with human subject review boards are a step by step process. You can complete each one of these steps well even though they can be challenging. (See my article on Human Subjects Review Boards being designed by Darth Vader) Start with your idea and then mold it into a good research question. Any alterations in your plan must be approved by your committee before you change any aspect of what you are doing. You will have guidance as you move forward. Step by step is the way you will move forward once you have chosen the core research question. Write it down! Read it often! This will keep you from being pulled into research that points away from your core question.