Choosing a Doctoral Capstone Project: Where Do I Begin?

Having trouble identifying the perfect topic for your doctoral capstone project or dissertation?  Well, rest assured that you are not alone.  Those of us who are now writing our dissertation or have finished it have also been in your shoes.  However, the process of identifying a topic for your doctoral capstone project is easier than you think.  Really!

Sure, I can provide you a list of potential topics you can choose from, but you would be closing your internet browser by the time you are less than halfway through the list.  I mean, the possibilities are endless, and I cannot imagine that skimming through a long list of possible research ideas would be a “walk through the park.”  That is just not ideal.  A dissertation or capstone project is birthed by you; it has your identity and professional expertise embedded in it.

Therefore, no generic list of “potential dissertation topics” would cut it.  Instead, follow these four simple steps to identify a topic for your doctoral capstone project:

Step 1: Think in terms of social problems or phenomena.  You cannot begin a capstone project without knowing what problem needs resolving, what phenomenon you want to learn more about, or in what way you would like to effect positive social change.  Forget about theories and variables at this point.  All you want to do is identify where and how you can make a difference.

Step 2: Keep in mind that no topic is confined to a specific field or profession.  It does not matter what doctoral program you are enrolled in.  The truth is that no social problem or phenomenon is confined to a medical, psychological, political, or economical perspective.  Every situation has the potential to affect every aspect of humanity, whether it be economical, political, medical, psychological, social, or spiritual.  Hence, one social problem or event can be studied from multiple perspectives.

Step 3: Be receptive to your surroundings.  Turn on the news, read the newspaper, listen to what coworkers and friends are talking about, or just look at what people are sharing on social media.  You would be surprised to find how much is going on around you that could serve as a dissertation topic.

Step 4: Consider how a phenomenon or social problem fits within the framework of your field.  No matter what program you are in, the truth is that two students in the same program will not look at the same phenomenon in the same way, let alone two students in different programs.  So, ask yourself: How does this phenomenon impact my field?  How would an educator, social worker, nurse, psychologist, business manager, etc. perceive this phenomenon?  What questions may my field have about this social problem?  How would an educator, social worker, nurse, psychologist, business manager, etc. try to resolve this problem?

Let me use the current COVID-19 crisis as an example and put it into perspective.  While one student in the criminal justice program may be compelled to investigate how COVID-19 has increased the workload of law enforcement officers and its correlation with police brutality, another student in the same program may want to learn about how first responders are coping with the increased workload. Likewise, students in different programs can look at the broad topic of COVID-19 from many different angles. Here are just a few examples:

  • A student in the nursing program may be interested in studying the effects of fear of COVID-19 contamination on the quality of patient care.
  • A student in the public policy and administration program may want to explore how their state’s approach to social isolation impacts decision making and problem solving.
  • A student in the psychology program may want to explore the effects of balancing remote work and home schooling on parents’ anxiety and depression.
  • A student in the education program may be interested in investigating the relationship between recent transitions to virtual learning and elementary students’ academic performance.
  • A student in the business management program may want to learn how the closing of non-essential businesses has affected the way society consumes goods.

You see? There is no one way to view a problem, and so identifying a topic for your capstone project or dissertation can be relatively easy to do.  So, start thinking about your topic now so you can begin researching, learning more about it, identifying potential gaps in practice or the literature, and developing an idea of what your study will look like.

Also, become familiar with the capstone experience so you know more about what to expect and explore your program’s capstone requirements. Keep a note pad handy because you are going to want to jot down everything your mind will throw your way once you have found “the” topic. Finally, rest assured Walden will prepare you for the doctoral capstone experience through residency program requirements, specialized course sequencing, and excellent faculty and research support.

Once again, you are not alone, and you will get through this.


Luis Sanchez is a Peer Mentor with Walden University’s Academic Skills Center and currently enrolled in the PhD in Clinical Psychology program. Luis has hosted a number of live webinars on doctoral identity and procrastination. To see those recordings and more about Luis, visit Luis’s bio on the ASC website.

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