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Picking your dissertation topic


Dal PhDer

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Hello all!

I am in the midst of changing my topic and direction for my dissertation. It's been about 2 weeks since I decided I wanted to go in a different direction, and I am not feeling anxious that I have not fully pinned down my topic.

My original topic was on the construction of an environmental quality tool, but it's not really my background and I just am not as interested as I should be. Last week I talked to my adviser and presented an outline and research objectives on understanding how community gardens are a multi-dynamic intervention that can impact physical activity, nutrition, community dynamics, and psychological wellness. My objectives were focused mostly on the community dynamics and psychological wellness (stress specifically). Having read quite a bit of literature and really thought about my interest, I am not moving towards more of the therapeutic benefits of nature exposure and developing a measure that could quantify exposure. But I feel a bit guilty that I switched my interests again, and don't want to come across as being flipfloppy- but I am also eager to get something solid down on paper and begin the shift of committee members.

How did you guys decide your topic? Have you switched or had direction changes? How long did it take you to solidify your research question and create a proposal?

My adviser is very much for me switching my topic, and actually is interested in moving into this area himself, so I feel good about the switch, but I want to make sure this is really going to be a project that I have longevity in.

I guess this also comes back to the question: how important is your topic?

I often see two sides to this topic: 1) You must be passionate and devoted to your topic as you are going to be an expert in this field and 2) this is merely a process to see your ability to conduct independent research, once finished, you will then be able to delve into the topics of your choice.

For you, how important is/was your thesis topic? Was this merely a process you went through? Or was this an opportunity for you to study what you are passionate about?

Ideally, if you can have both, that's great!

Edited by Dal PhDer
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  • 3 weeks later...

I am just entering a PhD program, but have been thinking about this same issue,as this program encourages candidates to begin independent research work early.

Not only do I want to pick something I am passionate about, but also a topic where I can make a significant contribution - to find a find a space that is new and exciting and fertile ground.

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I agree...passion is key...but I am constantly being told by committee members to hold off on what I really want to do, and just do a project that I can get done quickly...what i really want to do is what I should be building my career on...i do agree with this in some respects, but I also want to feel passion and enjoyment. It's hard to balance these competing ideas if they are not aligned.

I often wonder how much your supervisor/committee members should be involved in helping you narrow your question down. I am at the point where I have written a new SIRI for my department with a question and my supervisor ok'd it, but my committee members are now telling me it's not realistic. They are pushing for me to do something different and just get it done quickly. I would rather them take my topic of interest, sit down with me, and come up with a realistic plan that incorporates what I am interested in...BAH!! Life!

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Realistically, a good project is one you don't hate and for which you can have an advisor and committee who you like. Think about it this way: your dissertation project needs to do several things for you. It's going to be the main project you talk about in your research statement and job talks when you apply for your first academic job. Its topic will be the thing you become an expert on - you'll be the "topic"-person. The advisor and committee members you choose to work with on this project will be your references for future jobs; their reputations and connections are what will open doors for you.

So, it's important to have a project you at least don't hate (preferably, like or even love). Personally, I don't think it's crucial for it to be the thing you absolutely LOVE - as long as you work on something related and reasonable, the thing you love can become your next goal and you can explain your passion in your research statement when you apply for jobs. It's usually good to have more than just one interest anyway. I think it's much more important to have a well-defined project that will "sell" when you go on the job market (and also when you apply for external fellowships/funding, btw). Similarly, I think the people you work with matter more than the narrow topic of your project. I'd choose a great working relationship with a less-interesting topic over a bad working relationship with a topic I am very passionate about -- as long as it's something I don't *hate*. They say that whatever topic you choose, by the time you're ready to defend, you'll hate it even if you absolutely loved it when you started.

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In addition to the above, another piece of advice I got from my mentors on choosing a PhD advisor (and thus thesis topic) is to pick a topic that will be interesting to people who are going to hire you when you graduate. When applying to a job or post-doc, your PhD dissertation is going to be your "calling card". In your last year of school, you will probably be presenting this topic at conferences, and people are going to associate this topic with your name. So the advice I got was to make sure this topic is interesting to people!

I would also agree with the above people that said you should find a topic that you "don't hate", but it doesn't have to be your number one passion. From talking to others, I find that few people actually work on the exact same topic since finishing their PhD. So I think as long as I am in a field that you are passionate about, and I have a topic that I don't hate, then I would be happy! I don't expect to get to 100% choose my research topics until I secure my own grants, and even then, you have to satisfy the grant committees! I am reminded of a certain PhD Comic (http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1436) :P

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I think the people you work with matter more than the narrow topic of your project. I'd choose a great working relationship with a less-interesting topic over a bad working relationship with a topic I am very passionate about -- as long as it's something I don't *hate*. They say that whatever topic you choose, by the time you're ready to defend, you'll hate it even if you absolutely loved it when you started.

I certainly agree with this! I am realizing more and more that the people who I work with are key. I am certainly battling between doing something I really really am interested in, and realizing that I just need to get a project, do it, and get out- and you really need to make compromises. I just began working with someone new on my committee, and his perspective really has shaken me up and made me rethink things. He basically said that this is just one tiny step in answering the question I want, and that a PhD is not to answer some profound question, it's to light the spark in you and teach you the skills to continue to take the steps you need to take to get you to the point where you can answer that big ol' important question.

I think a lot of students get caught into this idea that they have to do something big, new and inventive. And to be honest, this has been reiterated by my supervisor many times...and I think it's held me back/down in moving forward.

pick a topic that will be interesting to people who are going to hire you when you graduate.

This is such an excellent point!! Thank you! And I think it's important to sit back and really take a look at where you want to go. It's one thing to be interested in something and want to pursue it, but if there's no interest/buy-in outside of you, then it's not going to get you anywhere.

It's interesting to really think about how you choose your project...it's a fine balance between your own interest, others interests, and working relationships.

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  • 2 months later...

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