Choosing a PhD subject: there’s more to it than THE tells you!

On their Facebook site, have posted a link to a Times Higher Education piece on choosing a PhD subject.

This article contains some useful tips, but I don’t think it suitable for general guidance on the issue – probably because it focuses too heavily on the thesis as an outcome, instead of the process leading to it. And some of the statements are just wrong: like the advice to go for an empirical study rather than a theoretical one, because a PhD student is considered too young to come up with a major breakthrough. This is just bollocks! Some major scientific discoveries have been made as part of a doctoral thesis, and people have even won Nobel prizes for their theses. So, be a proper academic: don’t believe everything you see, even if it is said to come from an expert.

I coach academic writers of all levels and fields, mostly doctoral students though, and I give workshops on how to succeed with your PhD thesis for universities and international PhD events. Based on my experience and a lot of research into everything that can help with writing one’s thesis, from psychology to agile project management, I’d recommend a more systematic approach to make sure you get off on the right foot. So here you go:

  • First of all make sure that you know why you want to earn a doctorate. If you don’t know that, and don’t manage to find out now, I’ll bet you a crate of Karg wheat beer that you won’t make it.
  • You will never succeed with your thesis if you don’t survive writing it, or if you never manage to complete it. So better choose a topic that you’re really interested in: it will make things so much easier. (Not easy though, mind that!)
  • Don’t go for a “topic” of keywords only, fancy or not: nouns do not constitute a topic but a motivational nightmare. Go for a question instead, one that you really want to see solved: it will make it a lot easier to work on it, and chances are the outcome will be a lot more remarkable.
  • Don’t think you already have to be an expert on a topic to start with a PhD thesis on it. You will become the expert by pursuing your thesis; so better make your topic one that would like to be an expert on – even in ten or twenty years’ time.
  • Don’t think you shouldn’t waste much time and energy on finding the right topic and the right supervisor because you really need to get started. Both are essential for making things easier. And they really go together, so try to solve the problem that way.
  • A good supervisor is one that helps you deliver the best piece of work you’re capable of. He or she doesn’t need to be the god-like figure overtowering your field. Of course they should know what they’re doing there; but just as importantly, they should be really interested in helping you grow as an academic, they should not mind mere postgraduates coming up with really great ideas, and they should know how to support their PhD students – or at least be willing to learn.
  • Do realise that you will only complete your thesis if you work on it – continously. That’s why Joan Bolker titled her excellent book “Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day”. It will take a lot more than that (she admits openly that she only went for the pulling effect with the title); but she’s right, and in line with all the rest of the guidance out there: avoid binge writing. It never works – at least not if you want to make your thesis the best piece of work you’re capable of right now (see above). So better learn about ways to glue your bum to the seat and write…

But don’t worry: I’m here to help you with all of that!


[I’m still trying to figure out why WordPress turns my quotation marks into German ones, and how to change that… Sorry about that. +++ Done! Thanks to the fabulous Anne Dorko and the Per Post Language plugin that she made me aware of.]