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Finding a Topic for your Dissertation – Part Two

How Not to Find a Good Topic

Finding a good dissertation topic is probably the single most difficult part of getting a PhD in philosophy. It took me about three years to find a good topic — three years of completely spinning my wheels — and the vast majority of students I’ve seen have trouble finishing the PhD got hung up at this very stage. Why is it so difficult?

Prior to writing a dissertation, grad school taught you how to write individual papers. Finding a topic for a single paper is hard enough. Now, all of a sudden, you need to find a single, great book-length topic. Nothing you’ve done so far in grad school prepares you for it…and yet, somehow, you have to figure it out. Actually, things are much worse than this — for in my experience writing graduate level term-papers positively mis-prerares you to find a good dissertation topic. Let me explain why.

Let’s reflect for a moment on how one typically arrives at a term-paper topic. I’m probably oversimplifying, but if I remember right the process goes something like this: You read some papers in Field X. You find an argument/position in Field X that you don’t think works very well, but which you think you can improve on. What you do then is write a term paper laying out that argument/position, criticizing it, and finally, having your say. This is no way to go about trying to formulate a dissertation topic. I’ll use my own case to illustrate.

When I started out trying to formulate a dissertation topic, I decided I wanted to defend normative reasons internalism — the view that all genuine normative reasons depend on the subjective states of the agent to whom those reasons apply. This view, obviously, stands opposed to normative reasons externalism, which is the view that there are normative reasons that in no way depend upon said internal states. Okay, now think for a moment about what a dissertation on this topic would entail. I would have to learn, think through, and try to refute every argument out there — arguments already published by super-duper-smart people — in favor of normative reasons externalism. What a mountain to try to climb!

I’ve rarely seen a dissertation of this sort succeed. This isn’t to say it can’t be done…but I will say I’ve never seen it done. Here, then, is my first piece of advice:

Suggestion #1 — Don’t Focus in on a Big Issue or Big Position Prematurely: you’ll never get your dissertation started, let alone done, if you task yourself with having to refute everything that’s ever been written on a particular side of a well-established issue. That is too tall, and too steep, of a mountain to climb.

How to Find a Good Topic

Suggestion #2 — You have to find a Big Idea: Every successful dissertation that I’ve come across is based upon a Big Idea. My dissertation’s Big Idea was to systematically apply John Rawls’ original position to the domain of nonideal theory. Other Big Ideas I’ve come across include: viewing moral theories as *advice*-giving, understanding and evaluating political theories on the basis of cutting-edge empirical psychology, etc.

There’s a simple reason why it’s important to find that Big Idea: once you find it, the dissertation more or less writes itself. After all, once you find your Big Idea, you don’t need to “refute” every existing argument in the literature on your topic. All you have to do is show how your Big Idea illuminates the topic in ways that the existing arguments in the literature generally miss. In other words, the Big Idea makes things easy for you. Instead of attempting the near-impossible (refuting every other smart person out there), your dissertation aims to change the conversation (or at least show a different way of looking at the conversation).

Suggestion #3 — To Find a Big Idea, Read…and Read Widely: “Okay,” you say, “I realize I should try to find my Big Idea…but that’s easier said than done! How am I supposed to find it?” In my experience, one primary reason grad students have trouble finding their Big idea is that they ran afoul of Suggestion #1 above (“Don’t pick a Big Issue or Big Position”). After all, here’s what happens after you fix in on a Big Issue or Big Position. You read that literature, and try to come up with your Idea. The problem with this is: you might not have a Big Idea on your favorite Big Issue! I had this problem myself. As I said, early on I had my mind made up: I wanted to defend normative reasons internalism. So what did I do? I read everything I could on the subject and tried to come up with my Idea. And I failed. Much later on, after a rejected disseration topic, one of my profs at Arizona, Mark Timmons, told me, “Just read.” I took Mark to mean: don’t just read on your favorite issues. Read other things. And so I did. I set aside normative reasons internalism and started reading political philosophy. I read a bunch of stuff on legitimacy. Then I read, and re-read, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, and The Law of Peoples…and at last my Big Idea came to me.

The lesson I took from this is that you never know where your Big Idea will come from. If you have your mind made up about the Big Issue you want your dissertation to be about early on, you’re dramatically narrowing your chances of finding a good Big Idea. If you read, and read widely, about many different topics, the greater your chances of finding your Idea. The larger the net, the more likely you’ll catch a fish.

I hope you all found this discussion interesting, and I’m curious to see what y’all have to say. More later.

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