Picking "the" dissertation topic

I'll admit it. It took me nearly four years to pick a dissertation topic.

I started looking for a topic in preparation for my master's thesis in 2006. Due to a variety of circumstances, in the end I didn't have to write one. I settled on a dissertation topic in early 2010 and wrote a practice grant to prepare for a full round of applications in the fall, but SURPRISE! I got the first grant I applied to. So there I was in the field by November of the same year the topic was chosen.

How did I come to my dissertation topic? I was doing pre-dissertation fieldwork on political parties during the summer of 2009 and I came to the concerning conclusion that no one cared about political parties in Morocco and neither did I. At the same time, I was living with an Islamic education teacher who worked for the public schools and had a lot to say about recent reforms being made to the curriculum. In the end, I decided to write about the politics of educational reform in Morocco.

But the irony is that, in the end, the politics of educational reform are intimately tied to party politics! I came full circle, but in the end had a much stronger understanding of how party politics shaped the lives of Moroccans, whether or not they were party members.

My experience suggests several lessons:

1. Just pick something. You'll refine it along the way. I would never have gone to the present diss if I hadn't just arbitrarily picked a starting point.

2. Stay open to what other people think and especially those who know more about the subject than you do!

During my pre-dissertation fieldwork, I interacted with a lot of people who expressed their apathy about party politics. They were the ones who helped me realize that I had picked a subject that was interesting to political scientists in America, not political scientists in Morocco. Once I settled on studying educational politics, Moroccan political scientists frequently expressed their jealousy:  "I wish I was writing this paper!" one of my respondents moaned. That was my sign that I had found a subject worthy of my attention. Those who knew the subject best found it interesting.

3. Think about your passions that you don't consider related to your research.

I spent my years in high school writing after-school programming for children the American public schools were failing. I compulsively read articles about the politics of education in America. I am mentally writing the "perfect" elementary school public school curriculum at all times. It makes sense that in the end I was drawn the politics of education.