I am in the Humanities, and I have a rough idea about the general field I want to work in. I have identified several professors who also work in this field. However, I am not sure how I can now find a topic for my dissertation. I am reading and reading, but as of now, I do not have a great idea.

I was thinking of getting in touch with the professors who might be potential advisors, but I am not sure whether that's a good idea considering I do not know my topic at all. I do not want to come across as naive - esp. since they are all at prestigious institutions.

If you think it is a good idea to get in touch, then I am still clueless about how to go about this, and what to write. I want to be honest but would like to avoid looking like a fool.

PS: I am in the Humanities, I think it's important for this question.

  • Are you enrolled in a graduate program somewhere? How far along are you? Do you have an advisor? Are any of these people employed in your university? In your department? Are you interested in any of the researchers employed in your department? Have you read any of the published work of these people you're interested in? For me to be able to answer, I'd have to understand a bit more about your situation. May 15, 2018 at 16:39

2 Answers 2


I don't think it is a good idea to contact them for several reasons. First, by your own admission, you do not know what you wish to focus on. Bear in mind your competitors probably already have a specific research question in hand. Second, even if you do have a research question at hand, academics in social sciences/humanities generally do not respond (of course, I can't speak for everyone) to potential candidates' emails prior to their official submission or consideration. That is to say, your prior email, in theory, has no effect on whether the professor would positively view your application that way.

  • oh, is this really so? I did not know that! Are we talking about the UK system here? I thought I had to at least first get in touch and discuss whether we are a good fit, before applying and maybe realising later that I do not get on with that professor. How does one mitigate such risks then? May 14, 2018 at 15:11
  • If this community can’t provide you will a clear answer, you should ask the people who you will be requesting recommendations from what they would do. They will know the norms of your field.
    – Dawn
    Jun 13, 2018 at 23:23
  • @R.Kohlisch The supervisor cannot tell if you are a good fit unless they see the kinds of questions you are able to pose and your analytical abilities. Apr 7, 2022 at 7:37

This is not a good idea. Do not do this.

(note I am speaking from Humanities/Social Sciences, and I asm speaking from Europe/UK/NZ/OZ; USA may differ)

Researchers in the humanities who do interesting work get MANY emails that are, essentially, "I am interested in your topic generally...HELP!" I get at least one a week. But it isn't my job to teach an infinite stream of stranger potential PhDs what a knowledge gap is, and doing so for even one person sucks me away from the research that was so appealing in the first place. If a potential PhD approaches me with just a general interest and not a well-defined research topic (it doesn't have to be perfect, just interesting), I give them a kind "no". Other researchers don't even respond and even find such communications offensive: they feel the potential PhD didn't even try.

The issue isn't just that you will appear naive, the issue is that you will appear needy. In the locations I mention above, your research proposal or even just your research idea is how a potential supervisor decides if they want to spend their time on you. It shows that you are thinking like a PhD level researcher and that you are able to identify intriguing gaps in our knowledge about your chosen topic. While a potential supervisor might help you define that gap a bit better, they have to see that you are a person who is capable of identifying a gap. If they do that identification for you, they have no way to gauge if you are "PhD material": if you have the kind of analytical capability to do humanities PhD work. It isn't a perfect way to gauge this, but it is all we have.

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