Getting started with a thesis paper

The selection of a suitable topic is the first major step in writing a thesis or dissertation. For some students this is an easy task. They om the time they entered graduate school and perhaps even before, but for many others, selecting a thesis or dissertation topic is one of the most difficult parts of their graduate programs. The thought of developing a completely original idea for such a large-scale project may seem overwhelming to them. The notion that a dissertation must be completely original is a misconception, for no research is completely original. 


All research is based on the work of others to some extent. In fact, the most useful kind of research simply builds on research that has already been done. Some of the most successful theses and dissertations simply extend the knowledge base one step further in an area by examining a new variable within a well-established line of inquiry, collecting data on a different sample, testing a new methodology, or introducing a new statistical technique. Thus, as you begin to focus progressively on a broad search for a topic, you gain a more thorough understanding of what has been done in an area and what needs to be done.


Afterwards, originality may cease to be an issue. The Council of Graduate Schools (2002) clarified the point. The term original implies some novel twist, fresh perspective, new hypothesis, or innovative method that makes the dissertation project a distinctive contribution (p. 10). 2 Students often ask when the search for a topic should begin. In some universities students do not begin to search for a thesis or dissertation topic until after they have passed the comprehensive examination. We recommend that a serious search for a dissertation topic start as soon as doctoral study begins. By selecting a dissertation topic early in the graduate experience, you can then use assigned course research papers as a means of doing preliminary work on your projected research. 

As soon as you select a broad area of study, you need to immerse yourself in the literature in that area, with an eye toward the dissertation (thesis) proposal. Also, you should read and review your universitys doctoral handbook, to see if there are guidelines concerning what goes into the proposal and how long it is expected to be. Most universities have very definite requirements for the dissertation proposal. These requirements can range from a 10- to 20-page description of your proposed study to the completion of the first three chapters of the dissertation. In some universities, the dissertation chair (or advisor) is the only one who has to approve the proposal. 

Other universities may require a formal oral defense of the proposal before the entire dissertation committee. The purpose of the proposal is to get agreement on the merits of the proposed study before the student begins to collect data and makes formal application to the universitys Human Subjects Committee. Even schools or colleges within the same institution may have different requirements. The proposal requirements for masters theses may be less rigorous than they are for doctoral dissertations. 

Our institution decided that most dissertation proposals should consist of Chapter One, Two, and Three of the dissertations. Typically, Chapter One is titled Introduction, Chapter Two, Review of the Literature, and Chapter Three, Methodology. However, for some qualitative dissertations, the proposal may appear differently. In most cases, after you collect and analyze your data, your Chapters One, Two, and Three will require only minor revisions to be ready for the final dissertation. Even if you must edit some later, you should be writing the proposal and the dissertation simultaneously. 

For those of you who are doing a qualitative dissertation, you may have to do some major rewriting of the first three chapters as your data emerge.