General Education

Too Late to Turn Back? Changing Your PhD Thesis

Too Late to Turn Back? Changing Your PhD Thesis
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD August 29, 2014

If you are considering changing your topic for your PhD thesis, you may want to consider this advice.

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If you choose the right thesis for your dissertation, you’ll likely have committee encouragement, support in your discipline’s larger community, and a potentially stronger chance for funding and future employment. A strong thesis also means less roadblocks as you write.

If you’ve chosen a weak or unpopular thesis, you’ll probably encounter hurdles along the way that slow you down. This kind of opposition not only affects the project, but it can hit your self-esteem right when you need the confidence to finish your project to the end. Writing a dissertation can be challenging enough without conflict, and while a dissertation is never easy, the right thesis can make the whole process smoother.

So what do you do if you find that your thesis just isn’t working? You’ll probably have the urge to scrap the whole thing and start over. Ideally, most problems surface during the defense and approval of your thesis proposal.

Oftentimes issues arise during the research and writing stage, and in the worst case, they can’t be dealt with in footnotes or a minor skewing of your argument. You might actually need to start over.
So when is it too late to begin again?

Here are some points to help you decide if you should start over or keep going and try to push through.

Talk openly to your thesis director.

You may want to appear as if you have it all under control, but the best policy is to be honest with your advisor. If your advisor served on other committees, then she has seen the crises that arise in writing dissertations. If she has written a thesis, she knows what you’re going through. Let her know what you’re struggling with and ask her honest advice. And remember, your advisor wants you to succeed. She will have insight about your project and whether or not it’s worth sticking it out or starting over.

Check out the official timetable and policies in your graduate school.

You want to see if starting over jeopardizes your funding or status in any way. Obviously you have to consider the official timetable between entry and completion in your department. Can you still finish within that time frame if you start over? You can often appeal these guidelines, but you also don’t want to put yourself at risk. Most likely, you will have to reassemble your committee and get a second proposal (which you’ll have to write) officially approved.

Consider what you can use.

If you’ve already spent a year or two assembling your research, it may seem crazy to think about starting over. Take the time to figure out what is salvageable. Is it possible to use any of the research to bolster or provide background to a new topic? Is there a way to use some of your research differently or in a new light? If you can’t manage an entire dissertation out of your research, perhaps you can salvage a journal article.

What is going to change the second time around?

You need to take a hard look at the problems you had with your first topic. Make sure that they are really topic-related, and not a symptom of writing the dissertation itself. If you see a clear path to success, then maybe a topic change is just what you need to jump-start your project and finish it to completion. Changing topics midstream is more work, not less, so make sure that switching topics isn’t just another procrastination strategy. Remember, your dissertation doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be finished.

Do enough preliminary research to know that your new topic has support and viability in the larger academic community. You also need to have a strong sense of the problems with your first topic, so you don’t repeat them again.


Barreca, G. (2012, July 12). 6 Things Your Dissertation Director Wishes You Knew . Retrieved August 26, 2014 from Brainstorm.

Herrmann, R. (2012, April 8). My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation. Retrieved August 26, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Myers, K. (2013, March 25). Accepting Setbacks: Surviving When Your Dissertation Changes. Retrieved August 26, 2014 from Inside Higher Ed.


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