Criteria for Topic Selection

In selecting an appropriate topic for a thesis or dissertation, the following criteria should be considered as important:

 (a) interest, 

(b) significance,

 (c) available data, 

(d) knowledge and skills,

 (e) manageability, and 

(f) funding. 

Lets examine these criteria to see why they are considered important.



It is the fortunate dissertation student who investigates a topic that is both professionally and personally compelling. Writing a dissertation is hard work. Try to find a topic for which you have substantial curiosity and perhaps even passion to sustain you though the process. Here is an example from one of the authors of this book. When I began my career as a high school teacher and coach, I was selected to be a member of the school districts teachers collective bargaining team. While serving as a member of that team, I came in contact with many teachers. In talking with them, it became apparent to me that, in some schools in the district, teacher morale was high and in other schools it was low. I was curious why this was so. At the same time, I was a masters student in educational administration at the local university. 

I began reading about organizational climate. In my graduate classes at the university, I heard about a new instrument developed a few years earlier for measuring climate called the Organizational Climate Description Questionnaire (OCDQ) (Halpin & Croft, 1963). Furthermore, the concept of organizational climate and the OCDQ was getting a great deal of attention in the professional literature at that time. There was also some controversy about the eight dimensions of organizational climate and the six climate categories conceptualized through factor analysis by Halpin and Croft, who originally developed the instrument in their study of 71 elementary schools chosen from six different regions of the United States.

 The university I attended required a thesis as a requirement for the MA degree in educational administration. I chose as my MA thesis topic: “A Validation of the OCDQ in Elementary Schools” (Lunenburg, 1969). 

I drew my sample from 35 elementary schools in Newark, New Jersey, a large urban school district. The school was the unit of analysis. I conducted a factor analysis of the OCDQ with my sample of elementary schools and found seven discrete climate categories instead of six, and eight dimensions of climate. However, only three dimensions were particularly strong predictors of open and closed organizational climates for my sample of 35 elementary schools: esprit, thrust, and disengagement.

 My analysis was based on a description of these schools given by 1,050 teacher respondents and 35 principal respondents. In addition to conducting a factor analysis of the OCDQ, I examined climate in relation to school size, socioeconomic status of the community, and differences in perceptions of principals and teachers. Over the next few years, my interest in organizational climate led to my doctoral dissertation topic: “Organizational Climate, Dogmatism, and Pupil Control Ideology” (Lunenburg, 1972; see also, Lunenburg & OReilly, 1974). 

I personally administered three instruments (one of which was the OCDQ) during regularly scheduled faculty meetings in 55 elementary schools located in six urban, suburban, and rural school districts in Ontario, Canada. The analysis was based on a description of these variables by nearly 1,200 respondents. I have continued to work with doctoral students in the area of school climate using a variety of climate constructs, other variables, and a variety of research methodologies, including quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods designs.



Most university catalogs and dissertation handbooks suggest that the dissertation is a test of your preparation to conduct independent research and make a significant contribution to the field. This is not quite as true for masters theses, however. We view masters theses as limited scope dissertations. Basically, a significant topic has the potential to do at least one of the following: 

·         contribute to the development of a new theory, 
(b) test an existing theory, 
(c) uncover new facts or principles, 
(d) challenge existing truths or assumptions, 
(e) suggest relationships between phenomena, 
(f) provide new insights into phenomena,
 (g) suggest new interpretations of known facts,
 (h) alter other peoples perceptions about phenomena, and 
(i) extend a research methodology or statistical procedure.

Available Data

Earlier in this chapter, we discussed how some of our doctoral students were able to take advantage of existing databases. However, not all students will have the opportunity to use existing databases to collect their data. The ability to collect data needed for your study is a major consideration. Access to data is so important that you might consider identifying your research participants first and then seek to select a topic. Sternberg (1981) provided an excellent example of a problem with access to data. The key question Sternberg posed is whether a researcher can gain admission to topic-loaded samples or groups. 

He uses as an example a topic in social psychology to make his point. According to Sternberg, an apparently worthwhile and relevant dissertation topic would be The National Security Council as a Small Group: A Test of Baless Interaction Process Matrix.” “Bales and his associates, watching, recording, and videotaping Harvard undergraduates for decades through one-way mirrors have constructed a set of laws about how members will behave, which they assert are generalizable to all small task-oriented groups” (p. 48). However, it is not likely that a doctoral student would get a chance to set up shop in a room adjacent to the National Security Council conference room. 

Therefore, such a topic would have to be eliminated. Furthermore, you need to be certain the data for your dissertation will be available and accessible when you come to the collection phase of your dissertation. The timing of the data collection is just as important as the topic itself in the calculation of its researchability. If your topic-loaded sample or group will disappear in six months or a year; or if personnel who granted you access change, resulting in new personnel not willing to honor their predecessors offer of entry, you must drop the topic. These reversals do happen. We recommend that you get your commitments to data access in writing.



Knowledge and Skills


Selecting a topic consistent with your knowledge and skills is also important. First, you will save time, because you will be dealing with a familiar topic. Second, you can talk knowledgeably about your topic. Third, you are more likely to get support from your dissertation chair and committee for a topic about which you have some knowledge. Recall that the doctoral dissertation of one of the authors of this book was a spin off of his masters thesis. Even though masters theses are being phased out of many masters programs, you may have already done research papers and taken courses in a particular subject area.

 Thus, you may find that you have a considerable amount of work already completed regarding the literature search. Another example of a useful knowledge base, also akin to an experiential base, is observed in a recent dissertation proposal by Yu Fen Lin Li. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and has a masters degree in theology.

 Her PhD dissertation in counseling is qualitative and is based on her knowledge of the Bible and feminism, and her experience as a female pastor in a patriarchal culture. Her topic is the development of a feminist therapy for Taiwanese female pastors in the Presbyterian Church. In addition, selecting a topic that matches your skills is also important. For example, if you undertake a historical study, you must have some familiarity with documentary research techniques. Courses in historiography are helpful.

 Similarly, qualitative dissertations will demand knowledge of specialized qualitative research techniques, such as interviewing,observing, document analysis, textual analysis, focus groups, visual methods, autoethnography, data management methods, computer-assisted analysis, and applied ethnography (see Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Choosing a quantitative dissertation may not be a deterrent, for many individuals are available to help with statistical analysis. Many areas will require a combination of skills; all demand literary proficiency.



Most doctoral students, and masters students as well, begin with a topic that is too broad. Examples that illustrate what is meant by broad topic areas include the following: teaching methods, leadership styles, school improvement, bilingual education, or counseling theories. Your dissertation chair cannot provide useful advice until you get it clear in your own mind exactly what it is that you want to study. By narrowing your topic, you make the purpose of your research clear to yourself and others. Sufficiently narrowing your topic helps you organize your literature review and produce a specific problem statement with an accompanying theoretical framework. Part of this narrowing process is writing meaningful research questions. A further discussion of writing research questions can be found in Chapter 6.

 In addition, we recommend that you try to assess the amount of time you will need to complete the thesis or dissertation early in the selection process. From our experience, although you may have been working on your topic since you began the doctoral program, the average amount of time required for the final completion of dissertations is from one year to 18 months. The time may be longer if you work full time.

The average masters student requires from four to nine months to complete the masters thesis. We suggest that you select a dissertation topic that you can complete within a year or so. An example of a topic that does not meet the completion time criterion we suggested is a dissertation topic that proposes to study the development of high school students from freshman to senior years. This is a longitudinal study, which would have to extend over four or more years and, therefore, would not meet the one-year completion time criterion.



Most thesis and dissertation research is not funded, so you incur all of the expenses associated with the project. These financial constraints greatly limit the scope of the research you can undertake. You may check with your department, college, or university for internal funding opportunities. Many federal agencies and some private foundations offer grants for graduate students to pursue degrees and write dissertations. Grants are usually not available for writing masters theses.

 Topics that are current and have some unique approach are usually more likely to receive funding. We provide a sampling of grant opportunities related to education and psychology (see Table 1.1). These grants are extremely competitive. Therefore, when considering specific grant applications, you should seek assistance from grant specialists in your university or elsewhere to help you prepare the application.


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