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 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