PhD graduates from online graduate degree programs offer advice based on their own experiences and successes.

Smiling man sits writing at a desk.

Your doctoral degree program culminates in a dissertation if you’re working toward an academic doctorate, or a doctoral study if you’re going for a professional doctorate degree. Both approaches are designed to bring new information to light through real-world research that addresses an actual problem in your field of interest.

Regardless of whether you’re earning your doctorate at an online university or in a more traditional academic setting, one of the first—and most important—steps in the dissertation process is selecting a topic. “You can’t do anything else until you figure out the basic focus,” says Dr. Susann V. Getsch who chose online learning and earned her PhD in Psychology from Walden University.

Within the context of PhD programs, there are a number of different approaches when selecting your dissertation topic. To offer you some direct insight, we asked four alumni of Walden’s online graduate degree programs to share their experiences and provide recommendations on the subject.

Dr. Susann V. Getsch, Walden University Alumna

  • Develop a topic that will hold your interest. Determine what resources you have available—time, money, people—and choose a topic that isn’t too resource-intensive. You’ll be spending at least a year on a dissertation (or any large research project), so it has to be compelling enough to keep your attention.
  • Read everything you can on the subject. Go outside of your required class readings and you might just run across something that helps you develop the framework for your research.
  • Find a theoretical basis to support your topic. Dr. Getsch was thrilled when she found theories that fit her study perfectly.
  • Look for a niche in which you can make a difference. Be sure you’re really offering something new to the field. You can’t change the world with one dissertation, so focus on the crux of what you want to explore and add something new to the field.
  • Let yourself shift gears. Frequently, the topic you start with deviates from your original plan as it evolves.
  • Fine-tune your topic based on input from others. Take every opportunity to seek constructive feedback and incorporate advice from experts.

Dr. Vicky D. Woodruff, PhD in Health Services
Dr. Kristal D. Ayres, Doctor of Education (EdD)

  • Study your passion. Start with a subject you’re passionate about and then look into the existing research conducted to help determine the next logical step.
  • Find available data. Use a previously conducted study to capture comparative data and develop good working relationships with the people who are in charge of that data. You may also need a written legal agreement—so sort through those details first.
  • Build a good committee. Interview your committee members first to ensure they understand and are passionate about your goals. After all, it would be impossible to do the work alone. With the support of your committee, you’ll have a great team on your side.
  • Only ask questions that can be answered. Use your rich, powerful data to your full advantage, and stick within its confines. Also, determine early on if there are any biases in the data. Your goal is to create an airtight study.
  • Think about your work as part of an international dialogue. What else is published on your topic? Understand your data in a broader context and be actively engaged.

Dr. Shane Fairbairn, PhD in Education

  • Take advantage of the resources available. Use the resources offered by your university to help with your decision making. This might include your research center or applicable seminars.
  • Tap into your peers. Meet with each of your cohorts and ask them to weigh in on your topic and plans for research.
  • Consult your mentor. A good and experienced mentor can be your best resource for providing straightforward advice and direction for moving forward.

Writing a dissertation is a rewarding experience. The research you conduct and present will not only greatly expand your specialized knowledge, but it could help others in your discipline and the greater community for years to come.

Man researching online education on laptop
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