The Catholic University of America

Selecting a Thesis or Dissertation Topic

Some students enter graduate school with a very clear idea of their thesis or dissertation topic and follow through on that topic.  Others enter with a clear idea of their topic but end up writing on a different topic altogether.  Still others enter with no idea whatsoever and only gradually arrive at their topic.  

Clearly there is no one way to select a topic for such a major project as a thesis or dissertation, and this page cannot promise to offer the golden secret for success.  What follows is simply some general advice to guide you through this sometimes difficult process.

General Advice for All Graduate Students

Remember that selecting a topic is about more than just choosing subject matter; it is equally important that you identify a problem and formulate a specific question about it.  Draw upon the skills you learned in Research Methodology and honed while working on seminar papers; if necessary, refer to the relevant pages in Wayne C. Booth et al., The Craft of Research.

Perhaps the most obvious and oft-repeated (but still important) advice is to choose a topic that interests you enough that it will hold your attention for a very long time, through the good and the bad.  You want to ensure, even when stress weighs you down or you begin to grow weary of long hours in the archives, that you remain passionate about the topic and committed to seeing the project through to completion.
Another obvious but valuable piece of advice is to talk to your professors, other mentors, fellow students, and even your non-musical, non-academic friends about possible topics.  Do this even before you spend considerable amounts of time brainstorming on your own.  You never know what will come to the surface when discussing ideas with someone else, even someone who is far removed from your field. 
One very important piece of advice, however: Never should you choose a topic only because someone suggests it to you and you don’t have any better ideas.  Now, if someone suggests an idea that you absolutely love, that’s one thing, but you definitely do not want to choose a topic simply out of convenience.   Overwhelmingly, the students who drop out of graduate programs midway through their thesis or dissertation are those whose topics were simply handed to them by their professors.
Many theses and dissertations grow out of papers written for seminars or other graduate courses.  Sometimes the paper serves as the first step in a project on exactly the same topic, while at other times the paper may spark ideas for a similar inquiry in a related area.  While you shouldn’t necessarily write a paper as though it were a thesis or dissertation chapter, after a paper is done you should always ask yourself if this is something that is worth expanding or doing more with.  You should especially think about this if there is any one paper that you enjoyed more than any other.
If you have a vague idea of what you want to study but don’t have any ideas for the specific topic, read as much of the existing research on the general topic as you can.  General reference books such as Cambridge Companions and Cambridge Handbooks can provide an excellent overview of the state of research into a field and offer unanswered questions that have yet to be explored in depth.  Even just skimming titles and abstracts in RILM may help give you a good sense of the types of approaches that have been and are currently being taken to a given topic.
Another very helpful way to help define a specific topic from a vague idea is to attend conferences related to a specific field that interests you.  Not only will you be exposed to the most recent research on the topic, but you will also have the opportunity to talk to other scholars and to make valuable connections that will serve you well as you proceed with the project.  Some students have even met external committee members at conferences!  Always keep your ear to the ground for announcements about upcoming conferences (this website is a terrific resource), and consider attending even if the travel expense is more than you are willing to spend; keep in mind that the CUA Graduate Student Association offers funding to help defray the costs of attending conferences, even if you’re not giving a paper.
As soon as you have selected a topic, it is crucial that you arrange a meeting with your adviser to discuss research protocol, to start putting together a timeline, and to go over the adviser's expected procedures for submitting outlines and drafts.

Advice for Master’s Students

Most students pursuing an M.A. in musicology intend to continue their studies in a Ph.D. program.  In this regard, the thesis can serve one of two very different (but equally valid) functions:
1.    The thesis may serve as a prelude for the Ph.D. dissertation.  Similar to the expansion of a thesis from a seminar paper, the thesis may serve as the first step in a much larger project (for example, the thesis may explore one opera in detail, while the dissertation may explore an entire body of operas, including the one studied in the thesis), or the thesis may introduce you to a methodology that you then employ on a larger scale with a different but related topic.  Thus, when choosing your topic, you may want to think about what could be useful in laying the groundwork for your dissertation.
2.    In contrast, the thesis may offer an opportunity for you to develop a secondary field, one far removed from the topic of your dissertation.  In today’s competitive job market, it is very important for job candidates to exhibit expertise in a number of areas.  If you have vague ideas about topics in different fields, then you may want to consciously decide to pursue one area for the thesis and reserve the other one (whichever one you want to be your primary area) for the dissertation.

Advice for Doctoral Students

An important thing to think about when selecting your topic is the type of research methods you will draw upon while working on the dissertation. Many people have more focused time to research during the dissertation period than at any other point in their careers, so this is really the time to hone your skills in specific types of research methods. If you think you ever want to do archival research, work with sketches, do paleographical work, or any other specific type of research that takes many hours to learn, then make sure that your dissertation topic will give you the opportunity to do that kind of research.
Although it is important for musicologists to develop research interests in a number of fields, almost everyone is nevertheless identified by one primary field, which is typically defined by one’s dissertation.  It is thus very important when selecting your topic to think about your life and career beyond graduate school.  Your identity as a scholar—at least for the first decade or so after graduate school—will be very much linked to your dissertation, so it is important to make sure you are comfortable with that. Do you mind being pigeon-holed in this field (even if only temporarily)?  What opportunities are available for someone in the field? More importantly, what kind of opportunities for future research does this topic hold?  The dissertation is only the start of your scholarly career.  Does this topic have much potential for you to be able to extract conference presentations and articles from the dissertation?  Can you think of ways that you will be able to modify the dissertation into a book?  (Most academic publishers frown upon books that simply rehash the dissertation, so is your topic one that can be reworked considerably for a book?)  Can you think of other related topics that you will be able to explore in the same field?
Having said this, please do not use the current state of the job market as a prime criterion for your choice of topic; nor should you choose a topic based on what seem to be the “hot topics” in the field.  Although it may seem that there are countless opportunities for, say, Americanists or pop music scholars while you are deciding upon a topic, by the time you enter the job market the field may have shifted dramatically.  Just as you should never choose a topic simply because someone hands it to you, so should you never choose a topic based solely on what others seem to think are the sexiest, “hottest” areas.  As long as your heart is in the topic and you do good work, you can achieve great success, even in what others may perceive as an “old-fashioned” field.



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