I'm planning on applying to PhD programs in November of this year. I originally was purely looking for Cog-Neuro labs studying PTSD, as it became my main interest during some of my graduate-level courses in undergrad.

During my research into different programs however, I've come across several labs (with different focuses) in very good programs that also interest me.

Generally, these other labs that interest me study things such as language and perception. My undergraduate thesis work focused on similar topics.

I've been feeling "guilty" that I don't have this laser-focus on a specific topic that other prospective PhD students seem to have.

Is this more common than it seems?

  • 1
    No, but you should be able to focus on things. Jun 21, 2018 at 20:49

2 Answers 2


5th-year phd student, soon to be postdoc here.

The perception that anyone in academia has a laser-tight focus is not correct. In my experience, most of the people have rough idea of the field, and then stumble or got assigned a project that interest them well enough. Never feel guilty for not knowing exactly (or not having) specific interest, nobody does.

As a phd student you will have to learn a lot of new stuff, so having different interests is a plus as most of the work is interdisciplinary anyways.

That being said, when you join department, you will be expected to rotate in several labs (usually) in order to find best fit. In that process you might find out that best fitting lab is neither PTSD nor language-processing one, and that's entirely OK. Remember: you will be signing up for 5-7 years of work with a specific PI, not a topic.


In principle, no; in practice, and during your PhD - to some extent.

Almost every curious and able scientist or scholar is fascinated by multiple subjects, questions, challenges - some even very remote from each other. This is very natural and also important for diversifying your research pursuits as an academic, since you won't be studying and publishing about the same thing for your entire career (plus, certain pursuits will go out of fashion and other come into it).

However, and especially as a young researcher, having your interests spread out might make it more difficult for you to focus enough on one of them (or one narrow subset of them) so that it gets you through the PhD and becomes a thesis. It's not uncommon, especially among the more gifted, less experienced and less, well, jaded PhD candidates - to be supposedly working on some issue, than to have some point within it trigger a long detour in thought (and experimentation, or coding and so on) to explore that point more deeply, and then again into another detour, hardly ever returning to the original course of addressing the initial research question.

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