Kimberly Larson, associate teaching professor and director of Northeastern’s Doctor of Law and Policy program, shares her advice for students choosing the subject of their doctoral research.
Northeastern’s Doctor of Law and Policy Program (DLP) is focused on developing scholar-practitioners who wish to advance their field of practice. Students join the program from a variety of fields, such as government, human services, and higher education. During the program, professionals come together from their respective disciplines with the common goal of pursuing their passions through doctoral research and thinking deeply about how to advance their fields. The DLP Program provides legal and policy frameworks that students can use to pursue research in their respective fields and areas of interest.
Choosing a topic of study can feel daunting at first, but the coursework in the Doctor of Law and Policy Program, along with our expert faculty, are here to support you through this journey. Keep in mind—many students successfully navigate this journey every year. That said, below are a few tips to think about in considering what you might want to pursue within your doctoral research.
5 Tips for Choosing Your Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation Topic
#1) Think about the “fit” between your research and your professional goals.
Students returning to obtain a doctoral degree after gaining experience in their field often have specific career goals.
Is your goal to advance in your current position?
One might, for example, choose a topic that will be applicable within their current field, but in a more advanced role. Engaging in doctoral research and earning an advanced degree and provides these students the opportunity to showcase their ambitions to their current employer. Or perhaps, their thesis might help address a particular question that their current employer may be interested in.
Do you want to pivot in your current field ? Or are you embarking upon a new journey altogether?
Those looking to make a career change might utilize their thesis to establish themselves as an expert on a topic in the area to which they would like to make a shift. Students also often utilize their committee to make professional connections that can help support them in a career change or advancement.
Reflecting on your objectives and making strategic decisions can help you focus in on a topic that will help you reach your professional goals.
#2) Read more about your topic of interest.
Regardless of your professional expertise, students will need to read and master related scholarly literature as part of the thesis process. Why not get a jump start on this? Students’ best “ah-ha!” moments about their research question or methodological approach often come from reviewing recent literature in their area of interest. Explore available literature to see what questions are open and where there are existing gaps in the literature that you might address with your project.
#3) Consider what you are passionate about.
Students should choose a subject that they feel strongly about and that will sustain their interest over the course of the dissertation process. Is there an issue about which you are passionate? Is there a particular question that you don’t field like is being adequately addressed within your field? When choosing a dissertation topic, these questions are both good places to start. Then, you can continue your exploration by diving into reading on that topic.
One example that comes to mind of a student who parlayed their passions into research is DLP student Brent Musson. Brent is interested in housing policy—specifically around technological solutions to housing crunches for low-income individuals in urban areas. As such, this is the focus of his thesis in the DLP program. However, he has also started a factory and is obtaining patents to very practically effect change once he graduates.
#4) Contemplate the contribution you want to make to your field of study.
Some of the best research ideas come from one’s field of practice. DLP students often choose their doctoral thesis questions from amongst those that are currently pressing within their professional field. Examining a question from one’s professional area gives the student a competitive advantage, as they likely already have a depth of professional experience in that area, and also helps ensure that the issue to be addressed is a problem in the field that needs solving and has practical application.
#5) Work with the support of your faculty advisor to focus your research questions.
While it’s best to enter your doctoral program with an idea of what you’d like to study, the faculty is there to help support you and hone your question. After you’ve considered your goals and reviewed the literature in your area of interest, your thesis advisor and committee become invaluable resources in narrowing your question and developing a project that you’re excited about and can be completed during your doctoral program. Most students begin with a project idea that is very ambitious and it’s the iterative review, along with one’s committee, that helps them settle upon a project that both addresses an important problem of practice or gap in the extant literature and allows them to graduate on time. Always remember—this is just one study that marks the start of what will hopefully become your ongoing contributions to the scholarship in your field.
Examples of Past DLP Thesis Titles
Below are some real-world examples of theses pursued by Northeastern’s Doctor of Law and Policy students:
- New Models of Private Sector Financing of Not-For-Profit Corporations
- Department of Defense Source Selection Procedural Ambiguities
- The Impact of College Cost on Low-Income Students at Private (Not-for-Profit), Four-Year Institutions in New England
- Zero Tolerance Policing: An Evaluation of the NYPD’s Use of Stop and Frisk
- Social Determinants of Vulnerability Framework: Incorporating the Needs of People into Mitigation, Response, and Recovery
- An Evaluation of Integration Programs for Deportees in Latin America and the Caribbean
- What Can Higher Education Administrators Learn from the Healthcare Industry’s Experience with Regulatory and Policy Change? A Success Framework
- Social Media Legitimacy: a New Framework for Public Participation and the Behavior of Organizations
- Nuclear Arsenals at Low Numbers: When Less Is Different
- Federalism and Federal Food Safety Procedures: Implementing the 2010 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act Across the 50 States