How to choose a dissertation topic

So, as my second year at Oxford draws to a close, a big moment for me happened. I selected my dissertation topic and I have now heard that it has been approved! Finals are now a very real thing… So, in the spirit of gratuitous oversharing and list-based posts, here is my guide on how to pick a dissertation topic.

WARNING – Some points in this post are pretty music specific. I’m sorry, but as a music student, this cannot be helped.


This should seem obvious, but so many people have written on things that simply don’t interest them, either from the start or as the dissertation progresses. This project is going to be a lot of work, so staying interested in it is key. You may also pick a topic because there has been a lot prior written about it, but it still may not be what really fascinates you. If you’re not interested in Mozart but you decide to do a dissertation on him, it’s not going to be good. You have to be engaged with this topic from the first book you read to the very last footnote you write.

  1. When starting reading, don’t have a specific title or idea, just a general area

Sometimes, pre-existing literature can massively influence what you write about. For my first year research project, I went in with one really strong idea but after reading, I ended writing on something completely different. If you are interested in hip-hop, starting reading about hip-hop and see what sticks with you as especially interesting

  1. Realise that humanities and arts subjects are much more open ended than you think

Now, as a music student, I had no idea that my subject would come to cover aspects of religion, physics, history, philosophy and even visual art. Sometimes, the history behind a piece/genre/composer is much more interesting than the thing itself. Comparing one form of art to music might also interest you. Music is such a weird subject in that, theoretically, nearly anything can be linked to it; this is a subject with pieces written for helicopters and cacti. So, broaden your horizons to include what you think could be viable to write 10,000 words on.

  1. Your topic should be broad enough that you can flesh it out to 10,000 words but not too big that you leave out key information. It should also specific enough so that you do not go over the word limit.

This is quite a specific point, but a key one. If you want to look at the symphonies of Shostakovich, going in with a specific angle is probably a good way to encompass all of the genre (e.g. personal quotations and allusions in the symphonies of Shostakovich). However, if your topic is too narrow, you risk not having enough to write about. Writing about one sample on Beyoncé’s Lemonade is probably too narrow to get 10,000 words out of. There needs to be balance in your topic between being specific and having enough material to write about.

So, I hope those tips help. I am soon going be embarking on the dissertation rollercoaster, so wish me luck!

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