How to Select a Dissertation Topic in the Humanities
Whether you intend for it to or not, your dissertation will define your public identity as a junior scholar. You will devote at least a few years of your life to researching and writing it. You will become known or remain unknown in large measure by virtue of its quality. No pressure… but you do have a lot riding on that one piece of work. It had better be good. Here are some recommendations for setting yourself up for success by choosing the right topic.
Make it Writable
Your dissertation needs to be interesting to you. Boredom is the great enemy, inevitably spawning mediocre work. Some have embarked on research that was more feasible than that of their peers only to falter on the rocky shoals of indifference, because they simply did not care anymore. Do not let that be you. Do an inventory of what you find interesting and make sure that your dissertation meets those criteria.
Your dissertation also needs to play to your strong suits. What are you good at? Do you have gifts with foreign languages? Do not bother with an English-only topic. Are you talented at describing physical objects and environments? You should consider any aspect of your potential topic involving material culture, even for just a chapter of the final manuscript. By definition, a dissertation is a work of narrow and precise analysis, but some topics permit particularly narrow focus for the true specialists at heart, while other topics lend themselves to diverse modes of analysis, for the jacks- and jills-of-all-trades among us. Regardless, this is your opportunity to shine.
Key questions to ask yourself when considering any book-length project: Are there adequate sources? Are they accessible? And are they relatively pristine? That is, are they relatively untouched by prior scholarship? Or, barring pristine sources, is your approach sufficiently ground-breaking to warrant a book-length treatment?
Make it Defendable
Your dissertation needs to be interesting to your committee and play to their strong suits, as well. Be sure to understand their research agendas and the potential diversity of their prior work. They are not there to hold your hand and give you step-by-step instructions. It is better to think of your advisor and committee members as research consultants rather than as project managers. They are specialists in their respective areas who can help you troubleshoot key aspects of your project.
You are proposing a contribution to the Big Conversation in your field. By engaging in dialogue with those who are well established voices in the Conversation – and various side conversations – you will gain significant insight into what questions to ask, what style of discourse to use, what theories and methodologies to incorporate, and how to overcome unforeseen snags in research.
You should always have questions for them on these issues, especially “What books should I be reading?” Remember, though, you are your own pilot through the straits of dissertating. Your committee members are those who can help you draft a better chart, but you are at the helm.
Make it Publishable
Your dissertation needs to be plausibly interesting to academic readership and, preferably, to the broader public, so that a publisher will be interested in publishing it. Be provocative. Be engaging. Be interesting – and be cognizant of what is interesting to people who are not you.
Originality helps. You may save years of your life by plotting your own course, rather than attempting to shed new light on a well-trodden topic. The last thing you want to produce is the scholarly version of Fred Armisen’s proposed Beatles documentary – to be one of 700 available on Netflix (Portlandia season 4, “Bahama Knights”).
Make it Hire-worthy
Yes, the explicit goal of a dissertation is to contribute original research to your field. But, in pragmatic terms, particularly in today’s job market, the goal (let’s be honest) is to get you a job. If you can write your dissertation, defend it, and publish it, you have hope. A quick glance at last year’s job posts and who was actually hired reveals that many successful entry-level new hires for tenure-track positions had a book in-hand, in addition to several years of full-time teaching experience, when they are hired. Put yourself in a position for that to be you.
Because your dissertation will define, in large measure, your areas of expertise and competence both as a researcher and as an educator, you should be attentive to what sub-fields are relevant today. For example, in my field (theology and religious studies) global Christianity is a fairly popular sub-field of late for hiring departments, defined if not in principle then at least in practice as “Christianity in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.” It behooves you to figure out these issues and factor them in to some extent into your topic decision.
You Are the Work
None of these practical concerns should cause you to lose track of the ultimate promise of the dissertation: it will define who you are, not merely how others perceive you. If you fail to complete it, then you will insight into who you are; and it is okay not to be an academic. If you do complete it, by the time you are done you will be a scholar in ways that you were not before. The research and writing processes themselves draw those who undertake them to become more than mere students. You were not a literary critic, critical theorist, philosopher, linguist, historian, or theologian – but now you are. That is the promise. Even the most pragmatic among us should not lose track of the joy of that process of becoming. Do the Work and let the Work work on you.