Sunday, August 19, 2018

On Finding a Dissertation Topic … or at Least, My Experience Finding a Topic

All graduate students do some hand-wringing and soul-searching when it comes time to nail down a dissertation topic. (And, if not, they should.) It’s a project you live with for quite a while. So it had better be something that you find deeply engrossing and that is complex enough that you’ll keep discovering new findings. For me, I knew I wanted to work in the area of government-business relations, or political economy. I had written my Master’s thesis with Chuck McCurdy in legal history and I loved the historiography surrounding the “liberty of contract” era and the constitutional revolution of 1937, but I wasn’t sure how to systematically identify a workable research topic within my broader interests. This post recounts some advice I received on finding a research question and how that advice helped guide me toward a dissertation topic.

At the time, I wasn’t exactly looking for a dissertation topic per se. I was a second-year graduate student in search of a research question for a legal history seminar. My master’s thesis had explored the rise of the liberty of contract doctrine and the decline of equity jurisprudence in 1880s Pennsylvania. It focused on the legislation and litigation surrounding Godcharles v. Wigeman (PA, 1886). What I had most enjoyed about that project was studying the intersection – or, more appropriately, the collision – of doctrinal changes in contract interpretation and enforcement, on the one hand, and social protest and labor organization, on the other. I wanted to somehow replicate that broader inquiry, balancing the internalist and externalists pressures on the legal change. (Of course, it was that historiography that brought me to graduate school at the University of Virginia.)

First, I went down some relatively unproductive rabbit holes. At one point, I thought I’d like to write about the decline of equity jurisprudence, probably after reading Roscoe Pound’s 1905 essay, "The Decadence of Equity." I went to the library and checked out Justice Joseph Story’s tome on equity jurisprudence and began studying his categories and historical analysis. This was not fruitful. In fact, it was discouraging. For me, I needed more historiographical grounding; I needed to start with a question that would limit the scope of the inquiry. I wasn’t in a position to simply let the documents tell their story. In other words, my propensity to go down the rabbit hole needed some fencing in.

Then, I sought advice and got a great suggestion from Brian Balogh: Go back to one of your favorite books from the past year or so. Reread it. Pay attention to what you found interesting then and what you still find interesting now. Reread your marginalia. (Luckily, my books have no shortage of scribbles, question marks, and asterisks.) You’ll find a research question there. Then read what that author cited, discover a new literature, find your own primary source base, and start an investigation to tell your own story.

Well, that was simple enough! Following Balogh’s advice, I went back to Meg Jacobs’s Pocketbook Politics, one of my favorite books from the previous year. Jacobs’s book recounts the rise of mass consumption-oriented political activism. This story of state-building from the bottom up explains how consumer organizations shaped new ideas of stability and security, such as the living wage, which penetrated American civic identity and shaped modern liberalism.

As I read the book I wondered what happened to the so-called fair trade movement that Jacobs covers early in her book. Those independent proprietors were caught up in the same winds of social and economic change. They blamed the modern corporation for rising inequality and, at times, they argued that large scale producers leveraged their monopoly power to force prices and wages to artificially low levels. Louis Brandeis, the famed people’s lawyer, took up their cause and helped create the American Fair Trade League. He too feared economic concentration because it might stifle innovation and empower a small coterie of businesspeople to exercise undue influence of political processes. In short, these guys believed in market capitalism – property rights, contract enforcement, etc. – but they wanted to see the rules governing American capitalism change such that independent proprietors and trade associations might use sales contracts and industry rules, respectively, to manage the distribution chain, ridding it of unfair trade practices, such as sales below cost, predatory pricing, or secret rebates. Yet, what looked like cartel-like industry self-regulation depended on state enforcement and ultimately, state oversight. What was their contribution to modern liberalism?

So, I wondered, should this movement be dismissed as pie in the sky idealism, condemned as dying industries’ desperate rent-seeking, or approached as something more benign, maybe even some viable alternative model of American capitalism?  The historical literature was all over the place on that question. In fact, the Court seemed to be, too. Experimentation in antitrust law and policy during the first half of the twentieth century reflects the flexibility of vision that American capitalism once had. I was hooked, I needed to know more.


Sage advice from around the web includes practical insights and personal reflections that I would be remiss to neglect here. Apart from choosing a topic that you find deeply interesting or puzzling, Cynthia Verba, Director of Fellowships at Harvard’s GSAS, urges young academics to make sure that the dissertation is a project that you can (and will) complete in a reasonable amount of time with reasonable costs. She advises: “In this regard, it is most helpful to get advice from experienced scholars on how to limit the scope of a project without limiting the significance of the questions addressed.” (Read the full interview here.) Professor Jane Caplan published a lovely and insightful essay on selecting a dissertation topic in the AHA Perspectives. Among the many brilliant insights in her essay, she emphasizes that “graduate research projects are contingent on financial support,” which elevates the craft of writing a research proposal to one of the most important activities of young scholars. Ultimately, she concludes, as I think many historians would, “the field chose me rather than the other way round.” 

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