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As a graduate student in the PhD program (I will be graduating in about 2 months), my research has covered a wide range of topics rather than nailing down one specific topic (super-specialized). In fact, my thesis is broad enough that my current working title is something along the lines of "Toward the Application of Electronic Structure Theory to Solve Relevant Chemical Problems." (Can it get any more general?) There is nothing informative from that title as it completely leaves out details. The problem is, each paper I've published is its own research focus without any connection to the next outside of the fact that computational chemistry was used for each.

I've read in other places that a thesis topic is critical because it is the basis on which you launch your career. Is it bad to look like a 'jack-of-all-trades' person? There must be a better way to handle this.

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Anyways, I believe set of loosely connected papers each having somewhat good contribution to the field would be called outcome of a good literature survey at my university. So, being too diversified may lame the meaning of a PhD for most people on the hiring committee out there. –  krammer Jun 4 at 5:44
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@krammer: I'm concerned that your comment that the OP produced a "literature survey" is rather jumping at conclusions. I've elaborated my concerns at meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/1057/… –  cbeleites Jun 4 at 12:40
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I personally don't find 'Application of Electronic Structure Theory to Solve Relevant Chemical Problems' to be that broad. I would change 'relevant chemical problems' to something more precise though. What most comments here are omitting is that your situation is not uncommon at all. I know of multiple PhD students who, for various reasons, got involved in different projects and had to stretch the boundaries of logic to make everything fit into one coherent story. Note that in some biomedical fields, it's perfectly ok to write a short intro, paste your 3 papers and write a short conclusion. –  Cape Code Jun 4 at 16:58
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Please see meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/1057/… for discussion on this question. –  StrongBad Jun 4 at 22:16
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Quite sincerely, the way one says one's advisor is not a discussion point conveys a lot to me. If this sort of reaction weren't based on looong decades of experience, I'd worry that I were reading too much into such "details". And, of course, in any particular case, such stats/experience-based inferences have iffy relevance. Not so easy to talk to quasi-anonymous people on the internet, I guess. Best wishes... –  paul garrett Jun 4 at 23:06

10 Answers 10

up vote 13 down vote accepted

short answer: I think the title is not suitable as it is, and thus may harm your career: currently it doesn't look like a jack-of-all-trades, but the title looks like jack-of-no-trade. However, it may not be a problem if you are already comparably well known for your work (i.e. people know jack has his trade(s)).

But I think it would be good to put in some effort to make it more precise about your contribution to the field.


long answer:

Disclaimer: I'm chemist. Not theoretical chemist, but chemometrician which means that I also do calculations (though of a different kind) in order to solve application problems.
I believe my situation is similar to the OPs in that we both work at problems where in order to solve application questions some method needs to be developed further. I call these 2 aspects of my work the "theory" and "application parts of the work.

In my experience you can easily end up with the title of all or most papers emphasizing the application, and thus looking very diverse while the common topic (the theory) is de-emphasized. Several reasons can cause/contribute to this:

  • the application problem may be understandable and important to a much wider audience than the small field of experts on the theory you use and advance to solve the application question.
  • therefore, the pubications are targeted to journals the application audience reads
  • and you do not want to frighten them away by heavy theory terms in the title.
  • Also, in my field it is much easier to get funding for working towards the solution of some medical application (and doing the necessary data analysis theory development under that hood) than to get funding for developing data analysis theory (and demonstrating this with the medical application).
    And this of course may bleed through to the paper and thesis titles.

In the end, the theory development - thus the common topic of the papers - is mainly to be seen inside the papers. Of course in this situation it would be good to have also a theory paper out that brings together the theory developments and just touches the applications as examples. However, this may look like one more disjoint topic on the first glance.

For example, my publication list has a whole lot of medical application (though I always try to sneak in the theory developments also into the title of the application papers), and a few papers which focus on data analysis methodology - while the common points of all these papers exists: chemometric data analysis and vibrational spectroscopy.

Two more points to consider:

  • The very general title you give sounds like a typical working title to be put into the forms at the beginning of the PhD before the specific line of the thesis is known. I don't see anything unusual in a situation where at the end of the work this working title is updated by a specific title.
    To me, this seems to be the underlying question here.

  • If you are in a theory group or are the one in your group who does theory development, the fact that you actually do theory development may be so obvious that you didn't think of stating it. But the fact and preferrably also the specific type of theory development should be in the title.

So my questions to the OP are:

  • Does this description of application vs. theory aspects reflect your publication situation?

  • In particular: by unrelated topics, do you mean something like the application question/chemical problems you solve are unrelated? Or do you mean that neither the chemical problems nor the methods you used to solve them are related?

My recommendation without knowing more specifics is:

  • Explain to your non-chemist grandma what you've been doing. Make a list of the points.

  • Fill in the sentence: My papers tackle application problems about ...., but what I've really been doing is ....

  • Don't be afraid of a long title. My guess is that the working title you posted is shortened too much: as you say it is not informative any more as the specifics have been cut out. Put them in.

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Comprehensive response. To address your two questions: 1.) I've made contributions to both theory development and solving chemical problems (application). 2.) The chemical problems I've solved are unrelated to each other. However, each problem that was examined are important topics. If I wrote a more detailed title to encompass my work's variety, it would be an awfully long title. Maybe something like... "Mechanisms, non-covalent interactions, and benchmarks. Oh my!" but that doesn't seem very professional. –  LordStryker Jun 4 at 13:26
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@LordStryker: I still suspect that there is an underlying common subject in the theory developments (however, not knowing your work I obviously cannot say anything definitive). Overall I recommend trying around with longer titles. "Development of a novel computational technique/algorithm/... for eletronic structure bla to describe mechanisms and interactions of chemical foobar including numerical or other benchmarks" is long but to me sounds like a title of a PhD thesis in computational chemistry. Two more months of frequent polishing and shifting around terms should get you a shiny title. –  cbeleites Jun 4 at 16:06
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Certainly don't be afraid of having a long title. –  Miles Rout Jun 10 at 8:51

Coming from a somewhat different field (mathematics), I have seen some theses that were essentially bundles of not-strongly-related papers, each good enough to get published, and considered (by the advisor and the department) good enough to earn a PhD. Ok.

But this is indeed different from "getting a job". From what I have seen, job applicants don't succeed so much with "broad appeal" alone, but also must have strong appeal to a particular research group/interest. Thus, a too-diffuse body of work, especially if described in a fashion that makes it appear diffuse _and_unfocused_, will not get up to the thresh-hold of having a good chance at job opportunities.

To my mind, the point is how one portrays such work. If (in contrast to the situation of the question) the papers really are completely disjoint and unrelated, it is not easy to describe them as fitting together into a coherent research program. If, indeed, as apparently is the case in the questioner's situation, there is a coherence to the body of work, it is very important to re-describe things to emphasized that. "Novel computational methods whose potential is illustrated by making progress in several important problems"? That sort of thing?

After all, presumably/often the author of several papers does have some underlying theme/principle/concept/whatever that is merely manifest in various way ... that may superficially appear very different.

So, in summary, the description of the body of work would best emphasize the common thread(s) underlying the several instances. Although often labels are simplistic, hiring committees do use them, so figuring out how to position oneself among those labels is probably smart. (In effect denying the relevance of admittedly simplistic labels and categorizations is most likely just self-sabotage.)

One's advisor's approval of the body of work as meriting the PhD is a different issue from getting the advisor's recommendations about an appealing coherent description of the whole of the work.

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Some great answers here, but I would upvote this one a few more times, if possible. –  Mad Jack Jun 5 at 0:07

The answer to your question is field specific. You should show some specialization in your PhD and in many fields (probably the vast majority) this will be delving deep into one very specialized topic. However, this does not mean other types of dissertations are necessarily bad for your career. I have heard anecdotally the following: If you are a theoretician in an experimental field, often a diverse set of interests is a good thing. Why? In some fields, especially particular branches of biology, the vast majority of people on the hiring committee will know very little math/theory, so there often isn't that one person fighting for you. However, if you applied your methods/theory to solve a wide variety of questions, you might peak the interests of many people on the hiring committee as a future collaborator. Sometimes the set of methods or theory is the unifying/specialized aspect of the dissertation even if the applications are seemingly unrelated.

That being said, this is the type of question that is best answered by your advisor, and ideally in your first year of a PhD program. If your advisor is good, as you say he is, and he knows your goals, he wouldn't allow you to go down the wrong path with your thesis subject, so hopefully, you specifically are fine. However, you should spend some considerable time thinking about how your thesis chapters are related, as such deep thought will greatly help you write a research statement, and perform well in job interviews, regardless of your field's general view on the structure of the thesis.

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Following up on that last sentence, I wonder if there isn't really some specialized aspect to the work. Have you developed any novel methods in computational chemistry, or have you just been applying out-of-the-box analyses to various low-interest problems? If the later is true, you might be in a good position for teaching what you've learned. If the former is true, you are in a good place for research. Sometimes, a student is so absorbed in his work that it all seems obvious, and the student does not recognize how advanced his work really is. –  adam.r Jun 4 at 2:42
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@adam.r: "Sometimes, a student is so absorbed in his work that it all seems obvious, and the student does not recognize how advanced his work really is." I think this is a most important insight. –  cbeleites Jun 4 at 12:43

Working in the field of computational chemistry, it is not unusual, that one focusses on many different topics. The field itself is as broad as chemistry itself as it may be applied to any experimentally raised question. It may be considered as one of the most advanced tools up to date in chemistry.

Its applications may range from simple things as the elucidation of the molecular structure, developing accurate bonding models, or deriving physical and chemical properties. It may also be used to derive complicated reaction mechanisms, characteristic reactions of compounds, classification of novel compound classes and prediction of yet unobserved molecules. Taking this as a basis it may be used in the development of more effective catalysts, it is used in drug design, deriving kinetics and many more.

All of the above is connected via electronic structure theory or more general the approximate solution of Schrödinger's equation. The field of computational chemistry focusses on applying approximations derived by theoretical and/or quantum chemistry to real life questions.

Working in many of these fields is neither uncommon nor unwelcome. Sometimes one particular subject of the starting hypotheses evolves into a huge complex, that may be carried on for years to come, while some other projects are helping in a shorter timescale. Both of them are equally important.

The problem is, each paper I've published is its own research focus without any connection to the next outside of the fact that computational chemistry was used for each.

In this you state, that you already published papers about your subjects. I am guessing these publications were peer reviewed, so they are already proven to be valuable to the scientific community.

Applying quantum chemical calculations to various problems proves, that you are fit in the field. You know how to tackle different questions, you are versatile and your knowledge about the field you are working in is as broad as necessary. It may also show that you are not narrow minded and thinking out-of-the-box.

If the content of your thesis is already published in peer reviewed journals, you will have quite a good chance, that your thesis will remain unread by your peers. Scientific articles tend to be of much higher importance, than the actual thesis.

If your career options include doing a postdoc, than you will still have enough time to specialise yourself. If you want to become a professor yourself you should use that time to develop a specialised, yet versatile and broad research field.

If you plan on working in the chemical industry, the employers are probably more interested in you as a person, your ability to adjust to certain problems, and working according to their standards. Having a broad thesis should not be a hindrance in that case.

However, the title you are currently using may not be very well chosen, since "Relevant Chemical Problems" is a very fuzzy term. On the contrary to some other opinions offered in this thread, I would be very scared of using a long title. Make it as short as possible, while keeping it as precise as necessary.

In conclusion, I do not expect that the title of your thesis will harm your career in any way once you have published in peer reviewed journals.


Addendum

I know LordStryker from chem.se and therefore I know at least one publication he suggested I read, upon a request of mine. (I will not disclose this source here, because this is up to him.) I am certainly no expert in this particular field of computational chemistry and my understanding might be incomplete. However, I do see the significance of this particular work not only to our community but also to tangenting fields.

I found two other publications, one appeared in a top level journal of our field, the other I cannot judge. From what I understood the presented work is thoroughly, concise and well prepared. I could also see that connecting all these samples is very difficult from a concise topical point of view. However, these all are applications of quantum chemistry, so they all emerged from the same field.

Not receiving a degree for this work is absolutely out of the question.

On a personal note, I would like to state, that it was my own personal decision to get involved in this "discussion" - I was never approached by LordStryker, nor do I have any affiliations with him. Our communication is solely through the se network.

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The answer is completely dependent on what the next step of your career is. If you a seeking a post-doc position, then what matters is if people with money are hiring researchers with your skill set. If so, you are set for now and you can build more expertise as a postdoc. If you are seeking a faculty position at a research university, then your research needs to have a direction that excites people -- are you able to address important problems that other people cannot (or have not)?

Since other people are commenting on whether your research constitutes a "real PhD", I'll give my two cents: what matters is that you have applied your creativity to solve a difficult problem. If you have simply learned techniques that others have developed and applied them in a mindless manner, then you are a technician, not a scientist. If your thesis has demonstrated creative problem solving, then you should be fine (see first paragraph)

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Overly broad topics usually make for unsatisfactory thesis subjects, because it becomes substantially harder to make a significant intellectual contribution in a larger field than in a narrower one. More importantly, it can take much longer to build a "does-it-all" solution.

However, that doesn't mean that your research can't evolve in such a direction—some topics broaden significantly once means of "generalizing" it are discovered and applications to different systems and cases can be developed. But it's not normally a good idea to start with such a broad topic.

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It also becomes very hard for reviewers to create meaningful metrics for evaluation when a subject is overly broad. –  Dave Kaye Jun 3 at 21:35
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I didn't follow the entire edit history, but as it stands, this does not answer the question. –  userxxxxx Jun 4 at 13:42
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My response answers the top-level question posed in the title. –  aeismail Jun 4 at 14:35
    
@aeismail: I think I'm missing the aspect about the actual impact on the career (I think there is a difference between the evolution of the research and the evolution of the career). –  userxxxxx Jun 4 at 14:41

Finding something is harder when you search for something specific than when you simply search for "something".

Is it bad to look like a 'jack-of-all-trades' person?

That depends, for all trades individually, yes, it's bad. If you research on topics A to Z and people focus on only one of them, then for any job related with one single trade you will be at a disadvantage.

There are several good things, though. First one is diversification. It is much more likely that there will be some position in any topic from A to Z than in one particular topic from A to Z. It is also more likely that one of those positions is hard to cover because there are no good candidates, or for what matters you, there are no better candidates than you. So you get it.

Q: Are those topics with fewer candidates the not-hot boring and bad topics?
A: They are to the standards when people started their PhDs, but things may be different now. Starting a PhD is an act of speculation (to some extent) you have diversified your time investment, this has pros and cons.

The second good thing is the broadness of your knowledge. Who would you pick to be the head of the department in computational chemistry? Someone who knows a lot about one particular topic in computational chemistry or someone who has a reasonably vast knowledge in the whole area? Probably someone with management and political skills, but assuming no differences wrt in the candidates, then the second one with a broader knowledge.

In short, a broad or a deep knowledge about something is not a good or a bad thing, both have pros and cons. The objective is setting some goals that make the best use of the pros of your assets and in which the cons don't really matter so much. This last statement is so broad that it can be applied to almost everything (e.g. on Saturday night in a club) but that doesn't make it worse, that makes it better, maybe not an universal law, but I'd like to think it's somewhat close.

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I am someone who dropped out of a PhD program, so I am answering on the basis of others in the program that I knew.

One student was pleased that his thesis was "broad" because he planned to carve several papers out of it. (From what I understand, he did.) Your situation reminded me of his model.

Another focused his thesis and research efforts around a narrow area so they would "all point in the same direction."

These were two of the best regarded students in a class some years ahead of mine.

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The working title "Toward the Application of Electronic Structure Theory to Solve Relevant Chemical Problems" produces a bit of yawn factor for me. Regarding your career, a bad thesis and an unread thesis might have similar outcomes on reputation. "Electronic Structure Theory relevant to chemical problems which exhibit at least property P, but seemingly not when Q is present" would be better, even if you've only managed to notice and characterise the matter, and have yet to account for why it is so despite ruling out the obvious questions by systematic research.

'Towards the application of' (vague) and 'solve relevant' (hedge) are signals that I am not likely to find anything interesting to read in the thesis. I will most likely find a summary of some research that was done. Probably I already read the papers documenting such research when they were published, and I'm not really wanting to read about the same research again. Rather, I want to hear a definitive statement that hasn't been heard before, which has the potential to shed light on my own pursuits for the truth. If the title doesn't come right out and make some concrete statement, it seems unlikely that the rest of the text is going to get any better. At the very least, I want the title to hint at which chemical problems are relevant and why.

What your peers require of you is some (falsifiable, useful, bold) statement which hasn't been made before in your field, and your best effort to put that statement above reproach. Most likely, you'll reference your own research as part of trying to make your case - but really, aside from the fact that your head has necessarily been places the research has forced it to be, it would be stupid to assume that the thesis must therefore rely mainly or exclusively on that research which you were personally involved in. The thesis-statement comes as a consequence of research (by you and countless others), but the mere result of your research (already documented in other papers) is not itself the thesis-statement that you will be making.

If you've got multiple statements to make which are not related in an interesting way, write multiple theses. Why not?

In well-established fields, all the existing ground has been staked out, and your role is maybe to just do some (entirely necessary) chipping away at the edges - adding some qualifications to previous statements made in your field, or (more interestingly) attempting to account for why previous statements with good pedigrees yet still differ. In this case, your thesis statement will necessarily be quite specific (not merely to conform to expectations).

Now if application of Electronic Structure Theory has not previously been applied to chemical problems before (which would seem odd, but I'm outside that field), and your thesis is proposing the terms on which this may in fact be done (thus birthing a whole new sub-field) then your 'apply(x,relevant-y)' title might fly. I'd not expect it from you on your first serious paper though. In this case, I'd still want some clue as to how it's done, which problems are relevant, and a little more ... enthusiasm .

Maybe you're not quite at the point where you have a candidate thesis-like statement to make, or unfortunately, still have some systematic research to do, because your research to date, while good and useful in its own right, isn't useful as a systematic exploration supporting your thesis statement.

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Disclaimer: I'm not an academic, and the above advice may not be practical in actual universities or academic practice. –  David Bullock Jun 4 at 3:08
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note in some fields nearly all theses are unread; what matters is whether the journal articles are popular, important and generally well received (of course this is untrue for many other fields) –  MHH Jun 4 at 3:08
    
Oh right, I forgot that one's thesis is just a hoop-jumping exercise and as such, is totally meaningless in relation to the science allegedly being conducted. –  David Bullock Jul 7 at 1:34

A PhD thesis is all about focus and depth, more than any other degree I know of. It is the antithesis of the jack-of-all-trades.

You say that you are two months from completion.

But you do not have a specific research question.

Nor do you have a very focused thesis, just unrelated papers in the same field: your words were: "each paper I've published is its own research focus without any connection to the next outside of the fact that computational chemistry was used for each".

It will depend on the institution, but at the institution I work, you would not be two months from completion. You'd be two years from completion.

If your supervisors are happy with your work as it is, then they've either completely screwed up, or your institution is happy to offer PhDs for theses which do not meet the standard that I and others expect: that they study a very specific question, deeper than anyone else has. I think you need to work out which of those two is the case, before you submit.

Not that there's anything wrong with being a jack-of-all-trades. But that really is the polar opposite to a PhD, which should be providing novelty, rigour and depth.

This does look bad for your future career, because it looks like you've spent several years being a jack-of-all-trades across a field, when you should have been very focused on a specific research question: at many institutions, that would mean that you simply would not be getting your doctorate; and having spent the time, and coming away at best with an MPhil, will look like a fail.

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> that they study a very specific question, deeper than anyone else has. - Can a set of loosely related papers just be a series of very specific questions that were explored deeper than anyone else has? (they were all published so they haven't been explored previously...) –  LordStryker Jun 3 at 21:52
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It seems to me that multiplicity of one's research interests cannot be problematic in itself. In other words, if someone has during the course of their PhD studies published three separate papers that are only loosely related (or totally unrelated, even), then if any one of the papers is sufficient for a thesis, all three certainly should be. The problem is that if each paper is individually insufficiently substantial and they are not closely related, then they may not add up to a thesis's worth of work. Right? –  Pete L. Clark Jun 4 at 0:02
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I completely disagree with this post and frankly find it a bit condescending. A PhD thesis is all about what your field defines it to be about. The three paper thesis is actually quite common in several fields, and while it may be banned at your specific institution or department, it's the norm in certain subjects. A simple google or academic stack exchange search would have turned this up academia.stackexchange.com/questions/8829/…. Now certainly the papers need to be related, but not enough detail is provided for us to determine this. –  MHH Jun 4 at 3:03
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-1: you seem to judge the quality of the work on the basis of the working title. Besides the very general wording of the title we know that the OP is unhappy about it because it is so general that the OP is afraid that the work actually done is not conveyed. If you in fact read the papers and concluded that they are not worth a PhD, IMHO you need to state that explicitly in order to substantiate the grounds for your judgment. –  cbeleites Jun 4 at 8:49
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Note that the sentence you quote does give a relation between the papers - not a specific one, but neither do we know any specifics why the papers should really be unrelated. What I'm upset about is dealing out a serious judgment that the work does not deserve the degree without knowing the work at all. And after asking for your statement that you know more than is written in the question if this is actually the case (as well as @MHH's question about your field-specific experience) I think I'm entitled to assume that you don't. –  cbeleites Jun 4 at 10:37

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