Is your topic ever final?

Back in September, I wrote a post about Forming your PhD Committee. In it, I talked about how my supervisor and I had decided that I was going to write a short thesis proposal that we would then use to “shop around” and gauge interest from the other professors. And while the thesis proposal I’m working on is suppose to be short (think 4-5 pages) it’s taken me a long time to get both the time and my head wrapped around it enough to sit down and get a draft done. But I did. I finished a (rough) draft early this week.

Which was exciting. This was something I could finally check off my list. Yes, it was rough, and not finished, but it’s much easier to move from a rough draft to a finished draft then it is from a blank page to a rough draft.

Of course, I then had another meeting with my supervisor. Can anyone see where this is going? The meeting was really good. We looked over the current progress of the experiment and I made a few notes of what was left to do. And from there, we transitioned into how this was all going to fit into my thesis. Which meant we noticed a few things we hadn’t noticed before, and by the time the meeting was reaching its end, my thesis topic had now veered off track from what I’d written in my proposal.

So now my completed rough draft is no longer complete. I need to re-write about half of it. There’s a lot that I’m going to (gulp) throw out, and another section that I’ll put in its place. I’ve got to re-work the whole introduction and motivation to make sure it supports our new path. And I’m going to have to re-structure how I divide up my research.

On the plus side, I think (hope, pray) our new path is even better than our old path. It doesn’t completely remove areas from the old path, more it pushes them to the side and makes them bonuses if we get them done. It actually helps focus my research more into Computer Science (which we were worried before we were veering to far away from).

This past year has shown me more than ever, how fluid and unstable a thesis topic is. And, when I talked to friends, and colleagues, it’s definitely not just me that this is happening to. As much as you may think you have a very set plan and path, it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself still on it a year or more down the road. I think the only time you can say with any certainty exactly what your research is, is when you finish writing your final dissertation. (And that can be argued as well, as your committee may require changes and/or additions that continue to re-work the final focus.)

So I guess the moral is, if you don’t like change and uncertainty, stay away from grad school.


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