How to Choose an Original Doctorate (PhD) Dissertation Topic?
The number of doctorate candidates has recently been on increase for various reasons. A doctorate is the highest pillar of higher education, and the person completing the doctorate is deemed to have reached a certain academic level in science. I started by stating this because the people who continue to the doctorate after accomplishing the master's are often having difficulties discerning these two levels of higher education for their academic significance and objectives. They mistakenly think of the doctorate as a longer version of the master's, in which you are required to write a more comprehensive academic work consisting of 200-300 pages instead of 50 pages of the master's thesis. However, it is not about the volume of the work, nor the page count.
In this blog, I am trying to cover the important points which must be taken into account while picking a doctorate dissertation topic and partly while drafting a research proposal. Despite my personal experience has been limited to legal research, I find this blog helpful for other fields of research as well.
For someone who has completed a master's thesis before, a doctorate dissertation may sound easy. Those who have been acquainted with the tricks and demands of academic writing and written self-contained academic work during their master's studies may find writing a doctorate dissertation easier because the rules do not change. The main difference lies in the results and scope of the academic research produced by master and doctorate students.
Most universities do not really demand a high-quality (as in the doctorate) dissertation for the master's degree. For example, though desirable, master's students are not expected to come up with a new theory or reapply the existing theory in a novel way or to a novel problem and to contribute to the state of art in their field of science. What is expected, though, is to get to learn about theoretical and practical issues in the given field, systemically analyze the issues and come up with a solution to one of the issues or pick up some of the solutions already introduced in the literature. For this reason, the solution presented by a master's student maybe not come as novel as expected from a doctorate candidate. Besides, the topic in the master's dissertation is often more specific (or it must be so). However, despite the doctorate dissertation does not come with an expectation about the specific character of the chosen topic, candidates often prefer the topics with a large circle of subjects and a set of jurisdictions. For example, instead of a topic like "smart contracts as sale contracts" (a topic that studies the legal nature of smart contracts as a sale contract), a topic like "legal nature of smart contracts" (a topic that studies the legal nature of smart contracts from multiple perspectives, as well as, in comparison with many contract types).
The significance of this comparison is that a doctorate candidate must already know while choosing a topic that they are expected to say something never said before or come up with a new solution to the existing issue. For example, in my case, the professor with whom I often share the progress of my research and repeat my research arguments almost automatically asks me who else has come up with the same approach as mine or similar to mine in legal scholarship.
Regarding the topic selection, you can wisely hunt dissertation topics among the recently emerging problems or the problems that existed before but have been exacerbated with the involvement of technology. Because since the state of scientific research is infant, it is easier to come up with something new. Yet, due attention must be paid to the risk that the lack of scientific research in the recently emerging issue may be to the detriment of your research. Although this can be overcome by expanding the scope of your topic a little, it is always safe to pick up a topic in which you can lean on a rich set of scientific literature.
The most optimal media to choose a topic are recently published scientific publications in your field or if you are a master's student, paying attention to the lecture given by your professors. Lecturers often touch upon in their presentation the issues that are controversial, therefore, in need of thorough scientific research. Besides, especially, the concluding parts of scientific articles sometimes signal the "dark" sides of the issue discussed, which needs further research. If you are a master's student, it is recommended to carefully read the articles you're studying for your master's dissertation or class presentation and attempt to look for a research topic from the material you are reading.
Today it is an undeniable fact that such topics are often about the Internet and other technologies. For example, while reading an article on e-contracts, you can come across the statement about smart contracts concluded on the blockchain which argues the need for scientific studies to solve the legal nature problem of smart contracts. In addition, if you are a social scientist, I would strongly recommend delving into other social science methodologies, because even if your topic is not original, the methodology, which is hardly applied in your field of study but could be more useful if properly applied, can save the day.
Your work is not over with choosing a good topic. Many students make the same mistake by calling it a day after writing down the research proposal upon a short literature review. However, in order to write the research proposal, you should read as much literature as possible on your field of study, be aware of the discussions or debates and the state of art delivered by other scientists, including what has been solved or yet to be solved in legal scholarship. Admittedly, you are not expected to read over everything about your research or excel in your research questions or find the answer from the very beginning at the stage of drafting a proposal. Nonetheless, you are expected to deliver such pre-research that the thesis (argument) you are bringing up as a result and research questions are immune from changes after you start your actual doctorate research.
Let us assume that you have come up with the following research argument as a result of your initial (but quick) research:
“The legal nature of smart contracts must be defined by the choice of parties in the contract because determining the legal nature of smart contracts by law in advance is not compatible with the dynamic nature of smart contracts.”
Let us also assume that the legal scholarship on smart contracts supports, in contrast with your approach, the determination of the legal nature of smart contracts by law in advance and often concludes with legislative proposals. In this case, you are lucky on the one hand that your argument is original in itself – you bring a new approach and substantiate it with a solid reason. Everything is alright until this moment. However, on the other hand, once you start researching about your questions in the legal scholarship, read more thoroughly or if applicable, conduct your empirical research by collecting data from practice, it is unfortunate but possible to find out that in practice the parties are not defining such rules in smart contracts because it is impractical in a contract written in codes (remember, this is an assumption). Even though you defend and justify your arguments from the academic perspective, your result is likely to contradict the dynamics of the practice and will mostly be criticized for this weakness and called merely theoretical.
If you are lucky, you will find out about this fact at the early stage of your doctorate stage and immediately adapt your research argument and questions accordingly to the findings. Otherwise, there is a risk of lost months or years for poorly drafted research questions and arguments. Changing your research argument and questions is not a simple problem. To avoid this, it is recommended at the stage of developing a research plan, as well as, after completing and submitting the plan to stick to initial research, defend your research plan in front of another professor and researchers and rethink your argument and questions as much as possible.
In this blog, I mainly touched upon originality in doctorate research. However, of course, doctorate research is more than ensuring originality. There is another issue as important as your research argument and questions - methodology. This will be the topic of the next blog.
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