University of Portsmouth's History Blog

How I learned to stop worrying and chose my dissertation topic

Third year student Sophie McKee gives some frank and timely advice about the process of choosing a dissertation topic.  I’m not bitter that she rejected my topic, really – ed.

When Rob James asked me to write a blog post about writing about dissertations we both enjoyed a wee chuckle. For I, after going back and forth between centuries and subjects, had only just, very recently at the time, settled on a topic.

Now wait a minute. Dissertations? You’ve just come into second year.  You haven’t had a chance to process Star Wars, or Christmas, or the general election yet! How dare someone ask you to think about a dissertation! But here we are. It’s arrived. It’s time. I want to promise you though, it’s all going to be okay.

Rob has asked me to write about the way in which someone might go about deciding on a dissertation topic. I’m going to be honest with you. I can’t. When I say I can’t it doesn’t mean that I won’t try. Of course I will try. What I will say though is that no one can. No one can tell you what the “right” dissertation topic is and I’ll tell you for free, as someone who spent a long time thinking about what the right thing to do was, it’s not about that. It’s absolutely though about what you WANT to do. For this is your project for a year. You have to want to do it. And that’s worth thinking about now.

Was there a topic that surprised you in first year? Or inspired you to pick something in second. Did military history interest you more than you thought, or found yourself doing more reading on 20th Century cinema? Those are the places where you find your topics. I’m a mature student, I came to University with lots of ideas. I knew I wanted to do something with gender, and as that progressed I had this grand idea I was going to do homosexuality in the early modern period. Sounds fascinating doesn’t it? But when I looked into it, I found there was little written about it and finding primary sources to work on would be challenging. Yet I knew gender was my thing, so I kept soldiering on.

The burning of the knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg with his servant before the walls of Zürich, for sodomy, 1482

The burning of sodomites, Zürich, 1482


I’m telling you this boring story because honestly if you’ve no idea? Or maybe too many ideas? That is okay. This is how you whittle them down. No one is going to ask you to decide tomorrow. However, it’s something you should definitely start thinking about as you work through second year. Play on your strengths. Find lecturers you like. Meet with those lecturers and get feedback on your work, which will allow you to engage with the actual people you’ll have to work with. Although it’s an individual study, the dissertation should never seem like a lonely mountain to ascend alone. There are lecturers, tutors, your peers and the eve the library staff, who are fun and hilarious and helpful too. I have found more than anything else that I couldn’t have managed my degree, let alone the dissertation without the Portsmouth Uni History team. They are a genuinely brilliant bunch of people, who want you to succeed just as much as you do. I know this because I have bothered them all for the last 3 years and they’ve all been very polite about it.

When it all boils down to it, I can’t tell you how to feel about Star Wars or Christmas or the General Election; because honestly, a month later I’m still trying to process all of them too. But I can tell you that it’s worth it to start thinking about your dissertation now, because this is about you and for you and all the lecturers are ready to help you through it.

I know I speak for everyone though, when I say we can’t wait to see where this adventure takes you.

Best of luck,


p.s. Remember that Early Modern British History dissertation I was so sure I was doing.

Yeah, it’s on New York City in the 1980s. (Sorry, Fiona)

English: Gay Pride Parade, New York City, 1989

Gay Pride Parade, New York City, 1989, photograph by Joseph T. Barna, Smithsonian Museum, Collection AC1146, Box 97; Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmuseumofamericanhistory/18271108150/

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply