Choosing a research topic

Philip Jenkins’ recent post on choosing a subject for a book or research project is well worth your time. If there’s anyone who knows how to pick a topic, it is Professor Jenkins!

From my own time in a Master’s and Ph.D. program, through the present as I advise Baylor doctoral students, I am mindful of the challenge of picking a good topic, especially when you are just starting as a researching scholar. The dynamics of picking a topic change over the course of a career: senior scholars don’t have to worry so much about the novelty of a topic. (We don’t wake up in cold sweats at the thought of someone publishing a book on our exact topic just as we’re preparing to defend our dissertation!) We also don’t have to be quite so anchored to the technical historiography of a given field, especially if we’re writing for a more general audience.

I’ll focus here on picking topics for graduate research papers, theses and dissertations (dissertations which hopefully will become first books). One of the best approaches is finding a distinctive contribution you can make to an ongoing discussion in a field. In my own dissertation, I knew there was a great deal of literature on American Puritanism and its decline in the seventeenth century, and there was also much written on eighteenth-century evangelicalism. But the time in between – in the era of the Glorious Revolution – was known as a relatively unstudied gap. I wondered, what would Puritan decline look like if you put it in context of the advent of evangelicalism? What exactly was happening on a religious and cultural level in those intervening 50 years? This question drove my dissertation, which became my first book, The Protestant Interest. (The cult classic is now available now in paperback!)

It can be tough to know how to find a topic like this until you know a fair amount about the literature in a field. This familiarity is what graduate seminars should (begin to) give you. Once you become familiar with the journal and book literature, you can speak more confidently about the shape of the literature, and what your topic can add. This rhetorical move is called framing, in which you say “these three or four prominent scholars have said X, but look how our understanding changes when you consider Y.”

Among the most common graduate student mistakes is that they try to fashion a final thesis before they have reviewed the relevant literature, or before they have really delved into the primary sources (documents from the time period in question). There’s nothing like getting into primary sources to reveal new contributions you can make.

I remember vividly the experience of reading the Boston News-Letter, week after week in its early eighteenth-century editions, and realizing that Bostonians were obsessed with international news on religion. Why was the number one news story in Boston in 1725 about a massacre of Protestants in Poland? It was because the old Puritan focus on internal ecclesiastical issues had morphed into a deep concern for the fate of international Protestantism. I could say with confidence that, as much as scholars had written about Puritanism in America, they had missed this transition.

Students should also realize that any writing is an exercise in trial-and-error, and the more ambitious your thesis, the more (productive) criticism it will likely elicit. This is why established scholars still have to go through blind peer review of their books and articles. While you don’t want to make gross factual errors in your writing, you should not worry too much about whether someone might disagree with your thesis. If your argument is interesting, someone almost certainly will disagree with it!

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