To pick or not to pick . . . a dissertation topic?

I'm terribly indecisive. Being an academic and frequent customer at Subway tends to reveal my indecisive nature all too well. Picking the right dissertation topic is as nerve-racking as picking the right meat to go on my sandwich (and let's not even talk about how long it takes for me to pick the perfect cheese). It takes me forever to choose. Whether it be choosing the right angle for an article, or choosing the perfect come back during an argument, I simply cannot escape momentary stagnation. Eventually things do get accomplished. Sandwiches get made. Papers get written. That said, however, with the third year of doctoral studies looming, I realize that I have to embrace decisiveness so I can move forward with my work and the rest of my life. My goal this summer is to work on, maybe even complete, a literature review for a dissertation topic.

[Awkward pause]

No, seriously. This is my goal.

It's not that I don't know what to write about when it comes to a dissertation topic, it's that I have too many ideas to focus on. One day I want to conduct a cross-cultural study on civic engagement using digital video, and the next day I want to write an in-depth analysis on networked technology and identity (re)making. Not to mention that I still could write an entire dissertation on the relationship between Donna Haraway's cyborg theory and Gloria Anzaldua's idea of mestiza consciousness, but in the context of networked technology. Nonetheless, the time has come for me to zero-in on a topic that is narrow enough for me to tackle in a full-fledged dissertation. If I fail to identify and narrow my focus, then I fear that I may end up being a doctoral student for the next 10 years of my life. #HellToTheNoooooooooo

My plight is nothing new, however. For ages, doctoral students have grappled with wanting to find the perfect dissertation topic that is all at once relevant, accessible, and engaging. My friend Allison summed up this desire quite nicely on her Facebook status update:

is obsessing about a dissertation topic. needs to be so many things (timely, accessible, creative, transdisciplinary, useful... to name a few) and not take forever!

To which I replied:

Join. the. club.

To which she then gave me one of these:


Facebook is awesome.

I know I'm not alone when it comes to obsessing over the right research topic that will keep me engaged for at least 2 years. I genuinely want the work to be right however long it takes. That said, I always come back to this image I snapped while at a technology and 'race' conference at Columbia University last fall:



I may have come across something that could steer me in the right direction. Yesterday, I found an article on Jezebel that discusses female cyberactivists during the Arab Spring conflict (you'll notice that I'm the only person who commented on the article. That's me, "Friday025"). A few years ago I wrote about a similar topic but I discussed virtual volunteers and women's resolved during hurricane Katrina. I'm still in the process of reading Radsch's entire research, but upon coming across the topic of this study, something familiar within me was ignited. I think they call it a spark. All along I've been passionate about all of the things that I've already been passionate about, but I just haven't been able to make the connections--until now. I tweeted my response to the article and indicated some of these connections in less than 140 characters.


With that, I do believe things are coming together. In fact, I am further along with identifying and narrowing down my ideas than I was at the beginning of the year. I just have to remember what a friend of mine who is in my program recently told me (paraphrased), "Think back to why you wanted to be here in the first place. That's where you'll find your topic."

Here's to thinking backwards to find the right topic.