Twelve Questions to Consider When Changing PhD Topic

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to changing your PhD topic. But there are some things you can consider. Here I ask 12 questions to help you move through the process. And if you’re into scoring, you could rate each one to help you decide what to do next.


At some point in your PhD, chances are you’ll have the question for yourself should I change my topic or should I keep going as I am. I want to make a distinction before we get into should I change my topic about whether or not you’re changing topic or changing supervisor. So, primarily here we’re talking about changing topic. There’s no reason to change your supervisor. That it’s all about your topics. I’ve got 12 questions that you might want to ask yourself before you do. 

The first is to consider what your current topic is, and work out how much you actually know about it. I think one of the things that happens to PhD students is that we can become a bit unaware of what our topic is. It can become quite broad. So, perhaps the first thing to do is actually to nail down what your current topic is.

The 2nd thing to do is think about what experiments are involved in your current topic. So, if you’re thinking about changing, it’s a good thing to know where you’re starting from, and so that’s why I’m getting you to do those 2 steps.  

The 3rd step in terms of knowing where you are is to think about what you’ve done so far. So, you might have a chat with your supervisor about this. About what they think or how they think your progress is currently but certainly knowing you know have you done 1/3 of your PhD. Have you done 2/3? Have you done five tenths of not much? So those kinds of questions are worth considering. So, we’ve got topic, what’s involved, and how much progress have you made.

The next thing obviously is what would I do instead? So, what would your topic look like if it was different? What kind of research would you do? How would that lead to your thesis, etc.? Then, once you know that, you can work out how much can I reuse from my old topic. So, everyone will have something that you can reuse. You know we’re all into transferable skills, and at the very least, you’ll have all of the transferable skills from one topic to the next.  

But what else could you reuse? Could there be data that you could reuse? Could there be knowledge about experimental techniques that you could reuse? What can you reuse from your old topic to your new topic? Obviously, if you’re doing a PhD on a scholarship or if you’ve got a funded position or even if you don’t, and you want to minimize the amount of time you spend doing your PhD, it’s useful to consider what will change in my topic due to my timeline. Will it stay the same or will it bump out a bit? For those of you that are considering changing topic and only 3 months into a PhD, maybe not. There will be virtually no change to your timeline. To those who are 1 or 2 years in considering changing topic with nothing that can be reused from a material sense, then maybe changing a topic will massively change your timeline.

But this relates to the next question is will you be happier? So, I’ve seen people who change topics and they become much happier, and so their productivity increases as a result. So you know, maybe in your old topic you’re unhappy, and your new topic you are happy. So, ultimately even though you might lose some time, you’ll gain some time because you’re happier. So, that’s another thing to consider. Will I be happier or not? Certainly, I wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be a good suggestion or a good list if it didn’t include a self-reflection point. So, it’s worth considering is the desire to change topic about yourself rather than the topic. PhDs are hard, and changing topic might be a symptom of you finding it difficult and maybe thinking a different topic would be easier.

There’s really no other, nothing like a PhD out there in the world even big projects that go for many years. Often don’t have the same person at the top of the project the entire time. And certainly, in terms of a PhD project, it’s all primarily directed by you. You do most of the work. It goes for 3 to 7 years. So you know, it might be that you’re just finding PhD tough. This could be a symptom of perhaps, studying your whole life up until this point. Most of the work if you’re been doing study your entire life. Most of the work that you’ve done up to that point probably relates to short term you know, units of work go for a semester. Maybe there’s 2 units that happen in 1 year. Rarely do things carry forward other than assumed knowledge from 1 year to the next in the same way that a PhD project does. So think about. Is it you or is it the topic? And you might also consider what will it do for your employability. Will changing topics make you more employable or less employable? There’s lots of things to consider here. So, we know from research that those people that publish journal articles early in their PhD tend to have longer academic careers. So, if you’re interested in academic career, will changing topic increase or decrease your chances of publishing? Again, we know that people who publish more are more likely to be successful academics. So again, the same kind of question, will it make you more employable in industry? Will you learn a new technique that you wouldn’t have otherwise learned? And is that relevant to an academic career or an industry career? So, think about your employability.

Obviously, you need to think about the access to equipment, and reagents. I’m a strong advocate of using things that are close by. Yes, it’s all sexy to travel interstate or overseas to get access to a piece of kit that is relatively unique. But think about all the time that adds to a project when you could be doing something that has you getting access to a piece of equipment or expertise that is literally down the road. So, think about the access to your equipment.  

The final 2 things to consider are firstly what does your university think. You know, your graduate school will have some ideas about changing topic, and what that might mean longer term for your PhD. Then also employability. The other entity to ask about questions for is your supervisor or your supervisory panel. What do they think about changing topics? Consider their motives. They might have been the one that suggested to you originally. They might you know, having supervised many students. They might see that a changing topic will be useful for you. Conversely they might think that, “Oh actually, I want to switch tax in the way that I support my researchers or the work that I focus on”. So, maybe them suggesting a change to you is about them being better able to support you or thinking that that would be a better for overall for their research strategy.

So, there you go, 12 things that you might ask yourself. If you’re considering changing PhD topics. As always, let me know how it goes.