How to Find Your Undergraduate History Dissertation Topic

Stuck on your History dissertation? Help is at hand!

This blog post is one in a series dealing with the most commonly issues faced by students researching and writing their final year History dissertation or thesis.

Author: Caroline Nielsen, Programme Leader for BA History at the University of Northampton.

This blog post deals with a very common issue for undergraduate students: how to select their History dissertation topic out of a wide range of potential topics.

“Help – I’m interested in too many things! How do I narrow it down to find my dissertation topic?!“

A very common issue for History students, especially those just about to enter their final year of undergraduate study!

The final year Dissertation, project or thesis is one of the most significant pieces of assessment that most students will do at university.

For most undergraduate History students, it marks the high point of their degree. It is a chance to explore a topic of interest to them at length. The dissertation offers the opportunity to uncover an area or aspect of History that they may have encountered in passing in class, or possibly never researched at all.

But the sheer scale of our discipline of History, and our enthusiasm and curiosity about the past, means there is an overwhelming amount of potential dissertation topics out there. Most historians have long lists of topics that we would like to devote more time to study. Sometimes the list is in a physical notebook or an app, or it is just in our heads.

Having a list of many potential topics or areas that could potentially be your dissertation research topic is actually quite a good position to be in. (I appreciate that it may not feel like it at the time!)

Don’t worry though if you don’t have such a list. This blog post has some tips to help you make one.

So what methods can you use to help go from having many potential topics to one or two serious contenders for you to research in more depth?

The following questions are used by supervisors to help guide students through the process of selection and focusing down on potential topics.

Step 1: Create a physical list of History themes and topics that you enjoy studying, or have previously enjoyed studying.

For this initial stage, let’s take the dissertation part out of it. What do you actually like and enjoy studying and reading about?

This enjoyment factor is important as you will be working on your dissertation for a long time. Dissertation research is independent – it is led by you, no one else.

Don’t select a dissertation topic based on the fact your friends may be doing a similar topic or because it is an area that someone else in your family is really, really interested in (more than you).

Or because you think the topic is so different or ‘out there’ than the ones selected by everyone else you know and therefore more likely to ‘win’ higher marks (note: dissertation marking doesn’t usually work like that – see my previous post about the importance of checking your institution’s requirements for your dissertation).

If you are not genuinely interested in the topic from the start, you will find it very difficult to motivate yourself in the final stages of the dissertation or when the research is going very slowly.

Step 2: Select your top two or three from the list. Research what the key academic authors in the field or key works and do some general reading.

Your course tutors or reading lists will be able to help you here. Many university libraries also have specialist librarians who may be able to help you find materials. Northampton students can book an appointment with our Academic Librarians here.

This stage is likely to take a while. It is therefore important that you start your dissertation research as far in advance as you can. Many university courses have a dedicated dissertation skills module or dissertation tutor, who can offer you guidance on the timelines expected by your institution. We currently have two of these modules on the BA programme at Northampton.

The topic probably isn’t for you if the idea of reading one or two of the recommended books on a subject isn’t appealing, or you read a few of the key works and absolutely hate them.

It is not a disaster if this happens and it is not wasted time, generally speaking. This preparatory research is helping you maximise your time.

If you don’t actually like the subject from the beginning and find studying it dull, better to find out in the dissertation process whilst there may still be time to change topic.

Step 3: Think about the practicalities of, and potential barriers to, studying a particular topic or area. Are there any specialist skills or equipment that might be needed to study the topic at undergraduate dissertation level? Talk these issues through with your tutors.

I admit that this is not a pleasant aspect of the dissertation to think about. But there is no getting away from the fact that some topics may have barriers which might make it more difficult for you to access materials.

Maybe you discover that an object or special archival collection you wish to research only exists in one location and that location is at the other side of the country. Or even in an entirely different country altogether.

Financial implications and travel can be major barriers for some students.

Or maybe all of the sources and the majority of the scholarship are in languages you cannot understand.

Some of these realizations are only possible to consider once you have done a bit of the above preparatory research mentioned above.

Realising early that your ability to study a particular topic might be affected by something like a language barrier or geographic location is not a disaster. It is not a bad thing.

For many topics, there may be a way around this issue….

Step 4: Talk to your university tutors before making a firm choice to reject or go ahead with a topic. Or if you have a few areas and can’t decide after doing the research mentioned above.

University tutors often supervise a wide range of student projects and regularly conduct research themselves.

This means that as researchers, they may know of ways around the barrier such as edited translations, digital sources or other authors.

Our tutors may recommend a slightly different approach which would allow you to study the topic from a different angle.They may offer suggestions for topics or point you in the direction of other tutors who may be able to help you.

Please do not worry about asking tutors questions about research. Ask for help if you are unsure. It can make the world of difference.

Our next topic will be on the subject of working with a dissertation tutor or supervisor.

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