Should I change my PhD topic?
I’m sure many of you have asked yourself that question.
You might even be saying, “Change it, that implies I know what mine currently is…”.
Small changes in PhD topic, and direction are inevitable. Particularly, if like me, your topic was broad. Or like the example above, you don’t really know what your topic is.
Regardless, here are some questions to ask yourself related to changing your topic. And to be clear, I am talking about sticking with the same set of supervisors. Just changing your focus (I’ll deal with changing supervisors in another post).
- What is your current topic? I know for my PhD I had a broad idea of what I was doing. But I would not say I had a specific topic. Perhaps my supervisor did. Either way, I was okay with that ambiguity. But that was 15 years ago. When getting a scholarship was easier. When getting an extension was easier. When being a competitive academic was easier. So, if you’re okay with ambiguity, maybe you don’t need to change? If you’re not, maybe you don’t need to change; maybe you just need to get more specific.
- What experiments are involved in that topic? For my PhD, being open to change or move as the data came in was useful. Afterall, my project was essentially a characterisation one. So there was a list of characterisation experiments we could choose from. So, within your current topic, what are the possible experiments you could or should do?
- What have you done so far? I never really thought about changing PhD topics, but there was a time when we did a few things that could have taken the work in a different direction. I remember thinking at the time, “Gee, this could get big” and was kind of glad the work did not pan out. I’d already done plenty heading in one direction, and to pivot seemed to add time without value. I think it was good to “test” changing topics, at the very least to help me see the value of what I had already completed.
- What would I do instead? I’ve never had to consider this question myself. But others I have worked with, studied with, mentored, or coached watching on, it sees this is the biggest challenge of all. A lot of people feel they know they don’t like their current project but cannot propose something else. That does not mean you should not change. But it is very hard to make a decision when you are not sure what the alternatives are.
- How much can you re-use? You’ll definitely have some things you can reuse. At the very least, you’ll have developed skills and experiences that will mean you’ll be faster or better when focused on this new topic. For example, you know what is required to learn new literature, new skills, and new research techniques. And those experiences won’t leave you just because you’re changing topics. But if you’ve already conducted some research, collected some data, how much of that can you re-use? What data, if any, can make it into your future thesis?
- How long will it take? I think time is a big factor in this decision. PhDs are already long-term undertakings. And changing topics will add time. If you’re lucky, it’ll only be a few months. That might be because your topic is not that different to where you started – so you have lots of reusable data, etc. Or because you’re making the decision early, so you’ve not spent a lot of time on your original idea. But if your candidature is limited or if your scholarship is limited, it is worth looking into how changing topic might impact your candidature or scholarship.
- Will you be happier? Notwithstanding above, a happier person is a more productive one. So, if your topic is making you unhappy, or if you’ll be happier with a different topic, maybe you’ll be a better researcher if you change. I know people who have stuck with their poor topic, and it took ten years to complete. Because they were not invested or interested in their research. They did not believe in the work. I’ve also seen people change several years in. And then finish within the next two years. Essentially completing 3 years of (new work) in 2. Because they were far more interested in the new work. Far more willing to do the experiments necessary.
- Is it you? PhDs are long projects. There are very few people or projects that go as long as a PhD. And if they do, there are very few people that oversee the same thing like a PhD student oversees their own project. So, perhaps your desire to change is more about sticking to one thing than it is about that thing. Especially for those of you with little other experience. Those who have spent little to no time in the wider workforce. Those of you who have spent most of your life studying. That was me. I had move straight from high school, to university to honours, and then PhD. I had no idea of what sticking with the same project for 3 – 5 continuous years would mean.
- What will it mean for your employability? Is there an industry focused on your new or old topic, and are jobs easy or hard to come by? Will changing topic give you a new skill set or way of looking at things that will make you more or less employable? For example, will you learn a new technique? Or will you shift from an area of high demand to an area of low demand? Will you be forced to learn a new skill – e.g., coding? Will you move from being a big fish in a little pond to a small fish in a big pond? Will you be able to publish more or less? If you want an academic career, more publications will be better. Will you be able to publish sooner? If you want an academic career, publishing earlier in your PhD is predictive of a longer academic career.
- Do you have access to the necessary equipment, and expertise? This is a question to consider in the context of your current topic as well as the proposed new one. It will be much easier to do the work required of a PhD if you have ready access to all of the resources. In my mind, ready access would at least mean in the same country, but ideally it would mean same state, city, and university. So, if changing makes some things further and other things closer, how will that change your progress? If the only expert in your existing field lives in another country will changing mean the new expert is closer? Is your research team or group well versed in your new or old project?
- What does your university think? Any advice on changing topic should include consulting your local graduate school of research. They’ll help with things like completion times, scholarships, funding, etc. And they’ll let you know what paperwork, if any, needs to be completed.
What do your supervisors think? If you’ve not talked with your supervisors, then you should do that too. And if they are the ones suggesting the change, reflect on their motives. And notice I am using the plural – supervisors. I’m assuming you have several. And even if you have a main, and a supplementary – i.e., they are not equal in their relationship to you, and your PhD – I think you should consult them all. And ideally have at least one discussion with all in the same meeting.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He is passionate about PhD training and students getting the most out of an experience often designed with the supervisor in mind. Richard has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career, researchers, and established academics build their careers. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how make the most of a PhD.
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