PhDs: The Thesis Topic

Thursday, February 13, 2014

I think there are two very important decisions that you will make at the very beginning of your PhD journey. The first, your thesis topic. The second, the choice of person or team to act as your supervisors. I'm not sure which comes first. I've put topic first because that's what was important to me.

Questions I asked myself to help figure out what I wanted to research:
  • What are my skills? 
  • What am I interested in?
    Are there experiences/issues in my everyday life that are interesting/intriguing/confusing that could be studied academically?
  • Is there a way to combine my interests and skills? 
Two of the most common questions that PhD students are 'taught' to consider are, what is the 'something new' that your investigation will add to what is already known and why is such an investigation valuable or necessary? I thought about these questions too, but that was once I found a panel and had time to bounce ideas. These were not the questions I concerned myself with too much in the beginning. But they were always there.

Talking to people I trusted and respected (even if they were non-academics) about what I was thinking about doing proved to be very useful. I didn't just talk to anyone who would listen, I always shared my ideas with people I respected and who were genuinely interested. I was guarded about my work, in a cautious, not obsessed or paranoid way.

I knew what I wanted to write about long before I actually embarked on a PhD. I always wanted to explore children's work and the experiences of children in school. The questions weren't clear from the beginning but the general area was. Your thesis topic must be one that will keep you engaged and interested for three, four, seven years. I did not, not once, become bored with what I was doing and I believe this was because I was passionate about my topic and it was a subject I really wanted to explore. 

I recall earlier conversations with academics who tried to push my thesis in another direction. It went all over the place - a study of children's poverty, a statistical analysis of children's labour. I was confident, stubborn, determined enough to say no and stick to what I wanted to study. I took advice about what needed to be tweaked and fiddled with but on the whole, I wanted this to be what I would be happy to study for four years. I would be responsible for this work, it was I who would have to eventually defend it. 

Now, all I had to do was find a supervisor who could guide me and who was not only supportive but interested in and saw the value of what I wanted to do.

Have you written a thesis? 
What was your area of interest, did you get bored with it along the way? 
If you haven't written a thesis, is there something you'd be curious to research if you ever decided to do a PhD? 


  1. So interesting! I haven't done anything near a thesis level, but we did do a thesis or what's called an "exit show" project in college for my BFA. That was a big challenge as far as figuring out my topic and trying to get time with my mentor. I think I thought about it every single hour of the day. I can't imagine what it's like once you're on PhD level!

  2. I had the same experience with mine, with a lot of academics who were in my preliminary seminars and panels, etc, all pushing and "suggesting" for my work to head closer to their own area of expertise. I guess it's natural to do that. We make connections between new ideas and our own, trying to find common ground. It's annoying when you're PhD student though.

    A lot of my fellow PhD students ended up with boredom issues in the last six months of thesis writing. Well, not so much boredom as they'd completed the data collection and done their analysis, so on their heads they were intellectually satisfied, the questions were answered for them. I think you need to have a passion, not just for the topic itself, but also for writing and sharing your work. Because I think that's where the hard yards are. Research and data collection and even analysis is fun - writing is getting your bum on the seat and staying there till it's done.

  3. I still reckon you are amazing and that the area of your research was awesome! Having done a Masters thesis, I can safely say I'm nowhere near attempting a PhD. I'm a stress-head and 3-5 years would kill me! I had moments during my Masters thesis where I'd forget my research question and panic as a result...can only imagine what would happen with a doctorate. :D Personally I think coming up with a research question is the hardest thing ever! You've highlighted some great points though... :)

  4. I'm in the process of starting my master's dissertation this year and I am really excited to begin actually! Coming up with a topic was challenging, but after letting it percolate in my mind for a while it came to me in the shower one morning!
    I am very lucky as my supervisor is caring and interested in the topic that I would like to investigate. And I'm lucky because it's something that I am very interested in too :) Perhaps the next step after this is a PhD, or maybe that will have to wait for a little while. We shall see. Thanks for another great further education article :)



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