From Coursework to the Dissertation

Some students start their doctoral program knowing (or thinking they know) exactly what they want their dissertation to be about.

But it is important to be open and not restrict yourself to a specific dissertation topic when you are just beginning. This can be liberating.

Your degree, from coursework through the exam-dissertation sequence is a

Journey of Discovery

You might be asked throughout your regular coursework to consider a dissertation topic, but this is simply to help you begin exploring and having something to use as you practice. Do not feel obligated to stick with that topic.

You will ultimately choose your dissertation research question during step three of the Exam-Dissertation Sequence – which is about two years after you start your program.


  • Maintain a database of your sources that you use for all of your papers or projects (Mendeley, Zotero, etc.)
    • Tag the sources with anything that you feel may be useful in the future, including topics or themes, demographics, theories, methodologies, or findings
  • Consider each paper you write or project you work on to be an opportunity to reflect on your topic:
    • Explore your topic more deeply
    • Explore your topic from a different angle, demographic, or theory
    • Determine if you are passionate about the subject
    • Determine if you can make a contribution
  • Consider each paper you write or project you work on during your regular coursework to be an opportunity to improve your writing; strive to do a little better each time
    • The Literature Review Genre is enforced during the Exam-Dissertation Sequence