Picking the Right PhD Thesis Topic

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As a copyeditor who specializes in academic publications, I have worked with many doctoral candidates in various stages of their dissertations. About half of the students who come to me for help need it because they chose a PhD dissertation topic that violates at least one of the three recommendations below.

Picking the right PhD thesis topic is a matter of ensuring that you haven’t attempted more than that which you are capable of. This includes choosing a topic that is both doable and yet significantly advances the knowledge of your subject area. Read on to learn about three recommendations for picking the right PhD thesis topic.

1 - Your Topic Doesn’t Need to Change the World

Many doctoral candidates get starry-eyed at the beginning of the dissertation process and try to take on a topic that is both too complex and almost sure to give the student trouble down the road. Your PhD thesis topic does not need to change the world or alter the current view of your area of expertise to advance knowledge.

As someone at the beginning of the scholarly research process, it is unreasonable to think that you are responsible for creating an earth shattering study. Look at contemporary issues in the journals that pertain to your subject area and choose a topic that is timely and yet doable. Remember, when it comes to scientific research, complexity does not guarantee sophistication.

Some doctoral students make the mistakes of choosing a topic that is so bleeding edge that there doesn’t yet exist enough extant literature to a) support the direction of the thesis, and b) prove that the study is worth undertaking in the first place. These two points are the heart and soul of the PhD thesis.

This recommendation may seem counter to the first recommendation above; to some degree, it is. You need to choose a topic that is contemporary but not so new that no one knows what to make of it. Look to journals in your area that are about one to two years old. Look for a topic that was brand new back then and where the authors called for more research. In subsequent journal issues, look for that response for more research. If no one responded, it is a dead topic. If many authors responded to the call for more research on the topic, then it is a good topic candidate for a doctoral student.

3 - Do Not Choose a Topic that Simply Replicates Extant Literature

Again, this may seem contrary to the second recommendation above; to some degree, it is. While looking for a topic that is grounded in extant literature, make sure your topic is similar to, but not a complete replication of what has already been done with the topic.

The purpose of the PhD thesis is to prove to qualified committee members and the chair of your committee that you have made the transition from student to independent scholar and researcher. Copying what someone has already done does not prove this. Your PhD thesis doesn’t have to change the world, but it can’t be insignificant either. Pick a topic that balances what’s already been done and what needs to be done to improve the scientific community’s knowledge of the subject.


You may have noticed that each of these recommendations strike a balance between one extreme and the other. Whereas you topic need not change the world, it also can’t be completely mundane because it’s been done to death. Similarly, your topic can’t replicate what others have done but is also can’t stand alone with no way to justify doing the research. Picking a PhD thesis topic is one of the first hurdles a doctoral student must overcome; look to the literature and see where it takes you.