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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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How to choose a PhD, MA or DMA subject for a thesis

Finding a thesis subject

Choosing a subject for a PhD, MA, DMA or whatever thesis you are doing, can be a tricky issue. Many people start there research degree saying “I have no subject” or they speak about what they are doing in very general term. This is perhaps normal for most research students. Yet, it is expected that you will gradually find a focused and interesting subject for your research. Finding a research subject can be a painful process. If it is hard for you to explain to other (I have I mind people who know very little about music) what your research is about, then you are probably in the early stages of finding your subject. I remember that it was a very stressful period for me. I hope that some of the things that I will write here will help you make the process easier for yourself.

I remember that I spent a year of my life reading lots of articles and books trying to find my way in the world of writing about music. After a year my supervisor, Prof. John Rink, told me that it is about time that I find a real subject for my thesis. During that year I knew that I was interested in interpretation and performance studies. My thesis proposal during that year was about ‘music communication’ in very broad terms. I was fascinated about how musical communication happens between composers, performers and listeners. My supervisor felt that my proposal was too broad and he tried to encourage me to focus it. One of the things that I did during the first year was that I read books and then wrote a ‘reading report’ of a few pages which included a critical response to what I have read. This gave me some experience in writing and reacting to what I read.

A good thesis subject definition, like a good PhD proposal is essential for a successful dissertation. Yet a good research proposal depends on a good dissertation subject. It is worth while to spend much time on finding and developing you subject. In this post I will suggests some things that might help you arrive to a successful dissertation subject.

Explore what other people do

My supervisor is not the only one that gives his research students to read much literature during the early phase of research. Actually, it is a very common method of teaching in the USA (although I did my PhD in Royal Holloway, University of London). Apart of the experience it gives one with writing and criticizing, it is supposed to open the student to a vast number of authors, methods of doing research and styles of writing. It is good to see what people are interested in since it may give you ideas. It is good to keep a small diary where one keeps short notes about what one reads. Another way to get to know what people are doing is to attend conferences.

Be novel

Once you get to know what people write you may find ‘holes’ in their research. You may discover that they did not cover all aspect of a phenomenon or that there are other angels to treat an issue. I remember that in one of my ‘reading reports’ I wrote to my supervisor that it could be interesting to see how composers themselves perform their own music. I mentioned Schoenberg and Bartok. My supervisor said that indeed this could be an interesting path to take and that I should now explore what was written about Bartok, Schoenberg or any other composer that performed his or her music. The idea is to find a subject that nothing or very little was written about. Once you finish a PhD that is noval, this makes you an expert in your subject. 

Be in touch with your feelings

I told John that very little was written about both Bartok and Schoenberg. His reaction was that he feels that perhaps it would be wise to choose Schoenberg since he was a Jew and I am interested in Judaism. He said that although I will probably write now on performance, in could extend my research in the future so that it will relate to other issues such as religion.

Choose a subject that you love

Moreover, Schoenberg’s history is very much connected to the faith of Jewish people in Europe and USA, and this is connected to the history of my own family. The subject if European Jewish history was always something that fascinated me. Choosing a subject that you love is very important, since that are moments in your research which might be boring are hard. If you love your subject, it could compensate on this and help you finish you degree. Furthermore, you will probably invest more energy, emotion and time in something that you love.

Ask for advice from people that you appreciate

Another thing that might help you find a good subject is to ask Scholars about possibilities. You can ask you supervisor and other members of you department. You can also write to scholars in other places via emails. You will be surprised how people might help you. Yet, one should keep in mind that it is also good to struggle on your own. If you develop mechanisms to find things you are interested to write about, it will definitely help you in you future career as an author. It is interesting to examine the breath of writing or various authors. Some are focused. Others write about almost everything.

See how your supervisor feels about your subject

Once you have found one or more possibilities, show them to your supervisor and ask what he or she think. It is very important to choose a subject that your supervisor will agree to help you with. My supervisor told me that he does not like most of the music of Schoenberg. Yet he made it clear that what is important that I will like my subject, and that he will support whatever I choose. I am not sure that all supervisors are so generous. You have to be sure that your supervisor agrees that you will do research on your subject so that you can receive his or her support during the studying phase, when you defend your thesis and thereafter.

Keep developing and focusing your thesis as time passes

The normal thing that happens when you find a subject is that you need to focus it. When I new that I want to do research on Schoenberg and performance, I have to decide which recordings and pieces I will explore. I had some idea during my first PhD year, yet the PhD plan kept changing as time passed. Keep an open mind and take into consideration that things usually change once you advance in your research.

There are people who do reasearch of subject that they do not like. They were lucky to find something novel but unlucky that the subject was not close to their hearts. I strongly feel that a good subject must be novel, somthing that you love and something that your supervisor can support. Keep this in mind when you search for a thesis subject and you have more chances to turn into a good scholar.

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One Response to “How to choose a PhD, MA or DMA subject for a thesis”

  • Khalid Osman responded:

    Interesting. I am glad that I read this post, which gives me some ideas to enrich my terms of interests. Thanks.

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