“What should I write about?”



This is a question I’m asked a lot, by those preparing for a big undergraduate essay, those preparing a doctoral application, and everybody in between. So here’s my answer.

First, though, I should say that we all feel your pain. Everybody reading this will have encountered the same situation: a free choice, and no idea what to choose. And we know how much it preys on your mind when you don’t know which way to turn.

So what should you do? Well, you should conduct an in-depth literature review of the publications in your subject area, identifying possible gaps and opportunities. That’s the usual advice.

But that’s not what I would do.


my way

My advice is to start with an in-depth review of yourself: your job, your family – even your home. Look around you: what do you see? Imagine that you’re a stranger who has never been in your home before: what would stand out to you?

Perhaps you have a huge walk-in wardrobe: that might suggest to you that research in the area of dress and identity would be a natural fit for you. Maybe you have a whole wall of Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders box-sets: perhaps crime and policing are your passion. Are you a wine buff? Do you speak many languages? Maybe you read romance novels, maybe you used to work as a builder, maybe you really like the colour blue. Perhaps you’re a carpenter, or a farmer, or one of triplets, or in the Armed Forces, or you’re a Trekkie, or you once got caught in a storm during a Mediterranean cruise…

In my experience, people tend to get caught up in the academic mind-set: they look for their answers in books, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. But books aren’t the source of the best ideas. You are. No matter who you are, there is something about your life, your experiences or your passions that gives you a unique perspective and unique questions to ask. If you tap into that, it will carry you through the challenges ahead.

Every project has an origin story, and it’s very often non-academic. For my own PhD, for instance, I looked at visual description in the historical works of Tacitus. Sounds sensible? Perhaps – but it didn’t start that way. It started with my job at the time. I was trying to make ends meet by designing tat for tourist shops: T-shirts of the Loch Ness monster, baseball caps with Vikings on them, that sort of thing. I was commissioned to design a Romans vs. Britons chess set, based on descriptions from primary sources. Easy, I thought, with my nose in the air: I’m a classicist! So I sat down with Tacitus, ready to note down lots of descriptive details about Boudicca & Co. Several days later I closed the books with a thump, fuming because, as it turned out, Tacitus is absolutely no help to struggling chess-set designers. My PhD was powered by professional annoyance, not by academic curiosity.

So follow the Delphic Oracle, folks: ‘Know Thyself’. Write about what makes you happy, or about what makes you furious. Don’t go looking for a gap you can fill by pursuing something you don’t care about. Look instead for an area where you, as you are right now, can shine. That’s the dissertation I want to read.




Cora Beth Knowles

5 thoughts on ““What should I write about?”

  1. Hi Cora,

    Thanks for the advice. Nice to hear the kind of dissertation you want to read is the one I want to write, I hope you’ll be my tutor next year! I’ve already had a few dissertation ideas brewing for a while (supposing I make it onto MA part 2) and one of them even fits quite well in with ‘The Body in Antiquity’ theme, so it seems the fates are pushing me towards that one! I still want to keep my options open for now though, who knows what else I’ll come across by next year!

    I’d be interested in hearing more about your Tacitus work, did you find what you were looking for in the end? How about the chess set? Did it get made? I suppose the Brits portrayed in the new ‘Britannia’ series look at bit different!


  2. Leigh, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that I get to keep some of this year’s group for the follow-on module! Yes, the chess set did get made, along with a Viking one, a Battle of Stamford Bridge and one which I think was based on Culloden…

    I actually enjoyed spending three years studying something that wasn’t there! It still wasn’t there at the end of the three years, but I had a much better idea of why. The nice thing about looking at something that didn’t exist was that nobody else had written about it, which really cut down on the amount of secondary reading I had to do!


  3. I guess not having any secondary sources has its advantages sometimes! I like your idea of looking for visual references in texts (if I’ve understood you correctly). Is this approach widely applied to other prose works in classics? I’m trying to think of visual descriptions in others’ (obviously, poetic works are far more descriptive, but may not count as factual accounts?) I often find that histories in particular do not go into these details and the images I have in my head of the places are purely from my own received assumptions (or maybe, they really are there but I’ve just not paid particular attention to them!) What did the clothes, temples etc really look like? We know these things mainly from archaeological evidence, but are there many direct descriptions of them in texts as well? Without going and researching it properly the first one that comes to mind is Pausanias for his ancient tourism niche in the literary market.

    I hope that my ideas for the dissertation will also have something original to contribute. They’ve developed from a little pet project I had, based on the curiosities which were what led me to try learning Greek in the first place. They seem fascinating enough to me, but maybe they’re nothing but commonplaces or cliches within the field. Next year will tell…


  4. There are a lot more visual details in Suetonius and Dio, and even in later historians like Ammianus, so they get more attention. Livy, too, has quite a propensity for describing places, and lots of things have been written about that. But Tacitus usually slips under the radar…

    I’ll be interested to find out about your pet project. It’s often the case that really good dissertations have been bouncing around in somebody’s mind for years!


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