Navigating the Post-Candidacy Abyss: Locating the Elusive Dissertation Topic

by Erika Martin, PhD, MPH


Congratulations, you have achieved candidacy! Now what?

The first couple years of a doctoral studies are arduous but predictable: slogging through tough coursework, learning new theories and methods, juggling academic work with teaching or other responsibilities, attending seminars, and trying to figure out academic culture. After some core milestones (such as coursework, comprehensive exams, candidacy papers, etc.), you gain a new “PhD Candidate” status and can breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, the thrill of achieving the All-But-Dissertation (ABD) status is short-lived. You now face the terror of identifying a dissertation topic—the research that will shape your professional identity. My own mentors called this the “Wilderness Year.” Personally, I felt All-But-Dead. For many students, the process of selecting a dissertation topic is far more anxiety-provoking than their pre-candidacy work. The stakes are high: it signals your professional identity, selecting the wrong topic may result in no publications or extra years in the program, and you need to find three faculty sufficiently committed to your topic to advise you. In my past post on the PhD Knowledge Lifecycle, this wilderness year can be one of the lowest points in the program.

Reproduced from: Erika Martin, The PhD Knowledge Lifecyle: Actual Versus Perceived Knowledge

Below are five tips to help you navigate the selection of your dissertation topic.

1. Think strategically with your long-term objectives in mind.

Take a personal strategic retreat to develop your professional vision. How do you want to contribute to the field? What inspires you? Who is your target audience? If you had the opportunity to speak with anyone (dead or alive) about your dissertation research, who would it be? Who are your “academic crushes”? What about their scholarship is so exciting to you? Why are you doing a PhD? Where do you want to be in 5, 10, or 15 years?

Use these reflections to frame your dissertation as a pipeline, where your thesis is the start of your lifelong research journey. Your dissertation topic will signal your professional identity when you are on the job market. If you go into an academic position, you will likely be continuing research in this area for many years. Don’t settle for a topic that is convenient but doesn’t support your long-term vision for how your research will contribute to society.

2. Focus on Building Concrete Skills.

A doctoral program is a research apprenticeship. As busy as you feel, you will have even less time to learn new research tools in your next job. Think about what kind of researcher you want to be, and pick a dissertation topic that will help you develop relevant skills.

If programming SAS, R, and Python code excites you, pick a topic that will allow you to work with some complex databases and do sophisticated statistical modeling. That will further develop your coding skills while also helping you learn more quantitative methods for causal inference. I meet a lot of students and job candidates who are really good programmers, or really good at statistical modeling, but having both skills plus content expertise in a specialized health area will make you stand out from the crowd. If you like program or policy evaluation questions, consider a mixed-methods dissertation so you can also develop qualitative research skills. If you want a more practice-oriented career such as working in a state health agency, consider a topic using agency data so that you can gain experience with collaborative research partnerships and communicating with diverse audiences. Don’t confine yourself to a topic using specific techniques that you learned in your courses—the dissertation is the best time to teach yourself new techniques such as latent class analysis, qualitative comparative analysis, creating datasets of state laws, or conducting interviews.

You cannot tackle everything in a dissertation, so think of other ways to develop the skills you need for your future career. For example, consider methods workshops at other universities and conference (such as ICPSR summer workshops, HERC cyber-seminars hosted by health services researchers from the Veterans Administration, and methods sessions at the AcademyHealth annual conference). Talk to your dissertation adviser and other mentors about opportunities for other non-dissertation research projects to gain experience with other datasets and collaborations — so long as these activities won’t detract from your dissertation.

3. A Good Dissertation Is a Done Dissertation!

In our courses and research seminars, we train students to critique the quality of research, the generalizability of findings, and the contributions to the field. It is not surprising that I frequently see students fraught with anxiety about whether their dissertations are worthy of attention. Reality check: Most likely, you will not win a Nobel Prize for your dissertation. The dissertation is simply the beginning of your research career. A good dissertation is a done dissertation! There is a tipping point after which further expanding the project scope harms your prospects on the job market, as many employers will interpret a lengthy time-to-completion as a signal of low productivity.

Reality Check:  Most likely, you will not win a Nobel Prize for your dissertation. The dissertation is simply the beginning of your research career.

When developing ideas, talk to your mentors about how to make them more manageable. Think about the data sources available to you, and how they impact your timeline. Using publicly accessible data is logistically easier, but you may get scooped if someone else publishes a similar project first. Government agencies and healthcare organizations may have excellent data but you will invest time in administrative matters such as data use agreements, publication rights, data security protocols, etc. You may also need to find resources to purchase data. Collecting primary data solves problems about data ownership and getting scooped, but it is time-consuming.

In developing your timeline, keep in mind that you need a stellar job market paper, which is typically the first empirical chapter of a three-paper dissertation. Ensure that your project is sufficiently manageable that for your job market paper, you can have all analyses completed and a solid draft written by the summer before you go on the job market. If you are aiming for a spring graduation, you should be able to have all other data collected and analyzed in the fall so that you can finish writing in the spring.

4. Develop a Publication Strategy.

Journal articles and grants are academic currency. While I believe there are other important markers of success- such as good teaching and making an impact on public health practice- the reality is that peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations are the most critical part of your CV for job search committees. Getting your work published is also critical for becoming visible in the field and making yourself competitive for grants.

In selecting topics, review the existing literature in your content area to identify gaps, unanswered questions, and limitations of current studies. Sign up for email alerts from the top journals to see what kinds of papers are being published. Keep up with current events—for example, I sign up for health policy digests from Kaiser Family Foundation and the HIV.gov blogs. Read National Academy of Medicine reports—they have great literature reviews and describe future directions for the field. Collectively, these sources can help you identify critical questions for the field, rather than questions that are simply interesting to you.

If you have a choice, select a three-paper dissertation format rather than a book format. In developing your prospectus, think ahead about what each paper will look like as a standalone contribution. As you refine your ideas, ask your advisers and other faculty for honest feedback on how to make your ideas more publishable.

In thinking about selecting publishable topics, be careful of two traps. The first trap is that just because there is a literature gap doesn’t mean that it needs to be filled. In other words, while identifying open questions is a great way to find a niche, not all “gaps” are inherently interesting, theoretically important, or relevant to practice. Perhaps there is a good reason why others have not studied that topic. The second trap is to avoid picking a topic simply because it is trending. Opioid overdose is a hot topic which

Be careful of two traps. The first trap is that just because there is a literature gap doesn’t mean that it needs to be filled. The second trap is to avoid picking a topic simply because it is trending.

improves its appeal to journal editors, but so many scholars are working in this space that you are likely to get scooped, particularly if you are using publicly available data. The field is nearly saturated with evaluations of state prescription drug monitoring programs. As another example, survey experiments on public service motivation are trending in the public administration field and journal editors are clamoring for experimental studies. My public affairs colleagues have polarized opinions on this publication trend, with some excited about opportunities for new study designs, and others deeply skeptical about this being a fad.

5. Pursue Your Passion.

Finishing a dissertation is hard. It requires patience, perseverance, and persistence. You have likely never had so much unstructured time before, and it is easy to get distracted and fall off your research and writing timelines. You will experience many obstacles along the way, from dealing with messy data to managing your committee.

Pick a topic that will keep you energized throughout this process, even on days that you don’t want to work on your dissertation. (Spoiler alert: You will have many of these days!) In narrowing down your ideas, ask yourself the following questions: Will this topic get me out of bed in the morning? Will I gush enthusiastically about this topic during my job interviews? Do I love this enough to stick with it through the publication process? Can I envision working in this area for the next 5 to 10 years after my dissertation?

This assessment is highly personal and only you can decide what is interesting — not your adviser, not your friends, not your significant other, not your mom, and not your cat. Selecting a topic that is interesting to your adviser (but not you) is a recipe for a disaster.

Wrapping Up Today’s Hack

It is completely normal to feel anxious about picking a dissertation topic. Everyone struggles at this stage, and if you were already good at finding the “right” topic, you wouldn’t need to get a PhD. However, these strategies can get you a little closer to finding a dissertation topic that will suit your interests, skills, and career goals. Happy sleuthing!

Read all columns in this series:

PhD Knowledge Lifecycle

Erika Martin, PhD, MPH

Erika Martin, PhD, MPH, is Associate Professor and PhD Director at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of MedicineJournal of the American Medical AssociationHealth AffairsAmerican Journal of Public HealthPublic Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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