General Education

Does My Thesis Topic Suck?

Does My Thesis Topic Suck?
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD August 28, 2014

Are you worried that you picked the wrong topic for your PhD thesis? Find how to know if your topic is worth it.

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Carly wrote three chapters of her dissertation before she decided to scrap it and propose a new topic. The feedback for each chapter asked for rewrites, and more research, to get her arguments approved. While that wasn’t going to be impossible, she felt nervous. That’s one of the reasons that instead of revising a chapter after she got feedback, she would start writing a new one.

That didn’t fix the problem. Carly finally decided to talk to her advisor about changing topics. She realized that she would lose over a year of work, but in the long run, she would be able to finish. Her second topic was less popular within the larger academic community, but she was passionate about it.

Graduate students often aim for a cutting edge topic because they think it will help them out once they’re on the job market, but if you’re not personally passionate about your thesis, it’s hard to make it work.

It’s best to find a topic that’s marketable and personally interesting to you. A personal investment will help you finish when the going gets tough. And it’s difficult to know what topic will truly be on trend once you find yourself on the job market years down the line.
You’ll want to evaluate how your topic holds up in different places, especially if you find yourself second guessing.

Negotiating your topic and your committee

If your topic takes a lot of heat, but you find yourself able to defend it amid many alternate opinions, then you’re doing well. Not only are you essentially writing a book, but you’ll also need to become adept at negotiating the inner politics of your committee. Ideally, each of the members will get along and agree with one another. Usually, they don’t.

One committee member may tell you to focus on one topic, while another committee member may tell you to ignore it. Ultimately, it’s up to you, but you still have to consider whose advice holds more sway. Often, there is no consensus among members.
You’ll have to figure out who you trust and with whom your own sensibilities align. Ultimately, that’s why they call it a “defense.” You’ll be practicing defending your positions throughout the dissertation process.

Assessing your topic in the larger academic community

Obviously you don’t want to completely eschew marketability, but it’s also difficult to predict trends, especially a few years in advance. Often a topic that’s unpopular at your own institution will have a lot of support in other schools or niches. Find journals, organizations, and conferences where your topic will make a strong fit.

Once you finish a chapter, submit it to conferences or journals along the way. If you can’t find good placements for your work, it might actually be too obscure.

Feeding your personal passion

The truth is that your personal passion for your topic is the thing that will pull you through. It
may seem unprofessional to focus on that aspect, but it could be the difference between a rocky road and smooth sailing. You want to choose a topic that’s important to the larger discipline and that is fresh and original. But if you don’t like it yourself, the writing and research will be that much harder.

If you can, try to strike a balance between marketability and your personal passion.

Find supportive graduate student peers

Graduate school is known for its competitive nature, but if you can manage to start a writer’s group in your department or institution the rewards are valuable and constructive. Try to find a friend or two (or more) who are also at the dissertation stage. You can exchange chapters or even much shorter excerpts if time commitment is a concern. You’ll benefit from getting a set of outside eyes on your material. If the group can manage to be constructive instead of competitive, you’ll have a great way to see if your topic is working. And you’ll also have a good forum for practicing your defense.


Cassuto, L. (2012, July 15). The Adviser and the Committee. Retrieved August 26, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education

Fortenbury, J. (2013, November 5). 5 tips for writing a dissertation or thesis. Retrieved August 27, 2014 from USA Today College.

Rojas, F. (2011, October 10). Dealing With the Committee. Retrieved August 26, 2014 from Inside Higher Ed


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