Choosing a History Dissertation Topic
Last month I posted a blog featuring my top tips for undergraduate history dissertations but didn’t touch on actually choosing a topic. The truth was, I’d come around to my dissertation topic pretty randomly after completely changing from the proposal that I’d submitted. After doing some thinking, I’ve come up with a few solid ways that could guide you towards your topic, especially if you’ve got to decide on yours during the summer holidays.
My focus on women’s history for my undergraduate dissertation was definitely influenced by the modules I had taken up to that point. My optional modules had all linked to women in some way, and I’d even tailored the essays I’d written for my compulsory modules to focus on the female side of things. Have a think about modules you’ve enjoyed and decide whether there’s a pattern to the things that you chose. This could be a particular time period, geographical area or even a type of individual. These ideas will be very broad to start with but will at least show you what areas of history you’re most passionate about. Having a genuine interest in your topic will help make the entire process significantly more enjoyable, so this is a great way to identify your favourite areas.
Not seeing a pattern? Not to worry, as it may be a little less obvious. If you’ve taken a spread of modules over the past couple of years, take a look at your essay titles. Most universities have a few to choose from for each module, or you might have been allowed to submit your own. Deciding to write an essay on a particular part of a module implies that you enjoy it to some extent, so investigate what you’ve favoured in the past and try to recall whether you enjoyed the research element of it. You may discover that previous essays focused on “bottom-up” history, conflict or politics, which will help to direct you towards your research questions. These are the main questions that you will need to answer through the course of your dissertation, and should be the main driving factor of your arguments and evidence. Your earlier submissions may provoke some questions you wish to answer, which makes a great starting point.
Studying a topic you’ve not had the opportunity to be taught at university is a route that many go down. I was interested in the female gender's role in war, and my modules had given me a good background knowledge of early twentieth-century Britain. Even though I’d never specifically studied women’s auxiliary forces during the First World War, my prior teaching gave me a springboard, as I found that my previous historiographical research could lead onto the specific secondary evidence I would need for my project. I’d also been researching my family tree at the time and had seen many mentions of war work during my studying of censuses and newspaper archives, so I knew that there would be plenty of primary evidence for me to work from. Narrowing down the topic into specific chapters involved a chat with my new supervisor, but it made logical sense to focus on the least researched auxiliary force: The Women’s Royal Air Force, as it only existed for two years. From this, I was able to plan my research in the London archives, as well as incorporate my previous work on perceptions of women in a discussion about female discipline and uniforms in the Air Force.
Please don’t let a lack of knowledge steer you away from choosing a topic that you’re passionate about, as long as you’ve got the resources to enable you to learn. Check the availability of books in your university library, as well as the resources held in archives that you’re able to access. This summer is the perfect time to do your background reading, as that will help you narrow down your topic even more. If your topic is really niche though, it’s worth chatting to a potential supervisor about your choice, as they should hopefully be able to give you an idea of whether it’s a viable direction to follow. Remember that your dissertation will have to be completed around the rest of your university work, so choosing something extraordinarily complicated may not be the most sensible option.
Local History and Heritage
Growing up in an area rich in history did open my eyes to the possibility of writing my dissertation about my local area. I ultimately decided against it, mainly due to the lack of access to records, and the unavailability of secondary evidence, even if I did gain access to primary material. Like me, you might find it impossible to plan out a dissertation featuring your local area, but if it is viable, it’s a great way to anchor yourself to a topic and get started on research this summer when you’re back at home.
If your area has a particular thing that it’s famous for, an important landmark or that it housed a famous person, don’t be afraid to do a little digging to find a niche topic that links you to your history. In terms of heritage, family trees are more difficult to incorporate into dissertations, and I’ve never heard of a dissertation being focused on a personal family tree. However, if you’re familiar with genealogy, you could incorporate this into research of a famous family with a bit of scandal. Consider your resources and remember that even if your dissertation doesn’t revolve around your local area, there still might be a way to make links to it, if that’s important to you.
Use your (potential) supervisor
Still stuck for ideas? It might then be time to chat to potential supervisors to get some suggestions. If you want to work with a particular member of staff, the odds are on that you’re interested in their area of history. Like the above suggestions, make a note of your favourite aspects of their modules, including any essay topics you enjoyed. Then, arrange a meeting to chat about some options. Your supervisor will have supervised many undergraduate dissertations and will know what works and what doesn’t.
The system of supervisor allocation differs between universities, so you might already have been assigned yours. If your supervisor doesn’t research an area that you’re interested in, don’t be afraid to chat to other members of staff for ideas. On a personal note, some people at my university found their supervisors to be quite pushy, in the sense that there was an expectation that the student would do a topic that they were familiar with, instead of something that they weren’t. I don’t agree with this, but it honestly varied by individual. Despite not being a historian of women’s history, my supervisor was very helpful, and was happy to let me do my own thing. It’s just something to bear in mind though.
Ultimately, your dissertation will probably be the longest piece you’ve ever written, so it’s important to spend time choosing a topic that will hold your interest while you’re researching and writing. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, as my journey to choosing a topic was honestly quite random. My original dissertation idea was (to put it nicely) trashed by my original supervisor, even when I’d received good feedback from another member of staff who researched that area. I’d had to submit a proposal that counted towards my module grade, and when I received that negative feedback, I honestly couldn’t see myself researching that topic when my original supervisor wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it. My supervisor ended up changing during the summer, but by then, I’d already moved towards my study of women in the Air Force, which ended up being an equally interesting topic overall. Take my advice and try and find a nice balance between studying a topic that you have some prior knowledge in, enjoy the supervision of the member of staff and be something you’ve always wanted to find out more about.