Begin by Choosing a Topic or by Choosing an Advisor
Your dissertation topic may gradually creep up on you. A professor may say in a seminar, "That would make a good dissertation topic." And there are the fellow students who have started work on their dissertations, and you begin to wonder what you will write about and whom you will choose to work with. You may pick a topic which is dear to your heart. It may be a topic about which you have written a paper and you know you want to learn more, or it may be an idea that you have been mulling over for a long time and feel this is finally the opportunity to explore it.
Don't underestimate that there are strong feelings about the topic that you pick in this way. You may feel quite protective of it, vulnerable if you discover that someone else has already written on it, or sensitive if an advisor casually suggests that you modify it. Take time to explore your feelings and connection to the topic. The good thing about picking a topic with personal meaning to you is that it is likely to sustain your interest and you may well be open to building a career on this initial research.
The other way to begin work on the dissertation is to select as advisor a professor who has a good reputation for helping students complete their dissertations. Henry Rosovsky, former dean at Harvard, advises in The University: An Owner's Manual, "Choose a thesis adviser with great care. It is one of the most important decisions that you will make as a student..[M]ake a very careful choice and do not be tempted by glitz. Find out who has the most students and why. Find out what fellow students and former students have to say. Ask questions. Ask more questions." (p. 151, 153) This advice could not be sounder. Rosovsky himself describes his advisor as a paragon: "All my letters were answered by return mail.. He made me feel that my work was important and that he enjoyed learning from me! During a difficult period he put me up at his house for a week while we discussed my results for many hours every day." Then Rosovsky asks, "Do they still make them this way today?"
In the years that I have helped students over dissertation obstacles, I have in fact run into only one student who had an advisor who extended himself to that degree. He is the rare exception. Look for the professor who has the reputation for helping students finish. I would add that if you hear many bad things about the track record of an advisor, but you still want to work with him or her, you must ask yourself why you would presume to be so special as to be treated differently by that professor.
After picking the advisor, look for an area of his research or expertise that interests you. Often you can design a topic that promises to hold both his interest and yours.
Sorting Out Sources of Discouragement