Avoid topics in which you are overly emotionally involved-such as research on depression if you or a family member is depressed. Such emotional elements can interfere with your research, Cone says. To narrow your focus, identify what within your chosen topic area interests you, says Foster, a psychology professor at AIU. Bounce ideas off a mentor and consult the literature to determine what has been done before, she advises.
Also, consider choosing a topic that you've already been exposed to, such as through your master's thesis or a research project. That's exactly what sixth-year doctoral student Jody Ernst did. Ernst-who is in the University of Texas at Austin's individual differences and evolutionary psychology program-has spent her entire graduate career researching behavioral genetics. In particular, her dissertation investigates the genetic factors that influence problem behavior development over the life span.
But, make sure you have passion for the topic. Nate Tomcik-a fifth-year doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at the University of Tennessee-has an interest in his research on therapists' views of couples therapy because it allowed him to integrate research with his clinical work with couples. Once you've identified a topic, the next step is to write a review of the literature in the area. The lit review section will include a brief introduction to your topic, introduce key concepts and review the existing literature.
The lit review often is the most difficult part of the dissertation, Foster maintains. Determine how experts in the field have organized their thinking by reading chapters or integrative articles they've written. Find meta-analyses, journal articles or books on the topic and scan their reference sections for other references. Identify key journals that cover the topic and scan their table of contents from the past five years for material.
Search electronic bibliographies-such as PsycINFO which contains nearly 2 million citations of journal articles, books and dissertations in psychology or the Education Resources Information Center, or ERIC, which offers a database of journal and other education literature. Identify major authors in the area and search for them by name in databases, such as PsycLIT, to determine if they've written on other related items. For example, Foster says in her research on girls' aggression, "aggression" as a keyword didn't cover it.
Without trying other keywords, she would have missed key information on "delinquency" and "conduct disorders," which use similar criteria to define the population. Jennifer Reese-a fourth-year doctoral student in the PsyD program at the University of Denver-used what she calls the "scavenger hunt" approach for her lit review; she scanned reference sections of relevant books and journal articles and then found those referenced sources as well.
She is validating the use of Jane Elliott's Blue Eyes Brown Eyes exercise, a behavior training method that uses discrimination against a person's eye color to teach Caucasians about prejudice and oppression. Reese even spoke with Elliott-a retired schoolteacher who created the experiment in the s-to get background on what similar studies had been done.
So how do you know when you've gathered enough for your lit review? Once you feel confident that you've covered the literature, identify the rationale for your study, why it's important and what hasn't been studied about it before, Foster says. To do that, Cone suggests writing a paragraph or two summarizing the literature review. Then, determine what unresolved issues are identified in the most recently cited studies-and most relevant to your study.
Select one of these issues and formulate one or two research questions and associated hypotheses. When formulating the research question, consider whether you'll be able to recruit enough participants, Stoops says. Ask your dissertation committee-which usually comprises three or four faculty members you choose when you first begin your dissertation-for feedback on whether they believe you'll be able to recruit enough participants or obtain animals, if needed, dissertation advisers suggest.
After her extensive lit review, Ernst was able to pinpoint her research questions for her dissertation on problem behavior development, including: Are there predictable developmental trajectories for problem behaviors? What factors influence the development of problem behaviors for vulnerable individuals across the life span?
She identified these questions by finding the gaps within the problem behavior development literature. Both the statement of the problem and research questions will be lumped in the introduction of your dissertation, which provides an overview of your study.
But, while the introduction is sometimes the first chapter in your dissertation, don't feel compelled to have it be the first thing you do, says Framingham State College's Stoops. She didn't write her introduction until after doing her lit review and methodology. Most of the time students select a broad topic that ultimately becomes unmanageable for students.
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