I'm a second year US PhD student in applied math. For the last year I've been working on one project with my advisor and another one of her students. We have also started a collaboration with a professor from another university on an unrelated topic. Both of these project are progressing at a fairly expected rate.

Recently, I have made headway on a "personal" project, which I expect to publish as a single author paper. As a result of this, I've been in contact with some people I met at a conference, and am planning to work on the follow up analysis with them and my advisor. I think this paper and the subsequent analysis will be significant enough that it could serve as the bulk of my thesis. However, I'm not that interested in this topic, and definitely don't want to spend my career on this problem.

I also just reached out to a new professor in our department about some projects which could be much more aligned with my personal interests.

At this point my main goal is to get a good postdoc and then a good tenure track position. I'm fine with grinding through any work for the next few years if it will help me get there, so my question is whether it will be more beneficial to continue with the personal project on which I've made the most progress, and end up with a very focused and "citeable" thesis, or to pursue problems I find interesting, and end up with a broader but perhaps less impactful thesis.

In either case I expect to work fairly closely with my advisor and one early career academic from outside my university, but if I pursue my personal interests, I'd probably end up working closely with at least one additional person.

  • 1
    What is the dilemma? You seem to be doing both now.
    – Buffy
    Apr 26, 2019 at 10:48
  • The dilemma is that if I continue to work on a range of projects like I'm doing now, that I won't be able to spend as much time on any single thing (resulting in a less focused thesis).
    – user102335
    Apr 26, 2019 at 14:11
  • have you talked to your PI? Apr 26, 2019 at 16:30

6 Answers 6


The papers are more important. They have way more impact than thesis. Especially on technical fields.

Your thesis will be pass fail usually. May be written up just because advisor says you are ready to go. This us different in humanities.

Depending on your results you may even have to be creative and mash a snowball together from scattered work. Assigning a theme even if there isn't quite one. Not ideal. But happens.

It can also happen if you are strongly productive to just pick one part of your work time be the thesis. It is also not uncommon to see students do a couple areas and eventually abandon one usually the first. Often because it has more results. This can even happen quite late in grad school.

The dirty secret is that the thesis is just a school drill. But papers for the literature? That is playing with the big boys.

A different question to ask is if you will produce more by sticking to one area or moving around. Really you need to make your own guess on efficiency and how target rich the areas are. In all cases you need to consider what to invest time on. But I don't think of it as thesis versus papers. It's always papers. Just on what topics. Thesis is just a glorified term paper.


I suggest that you separate long and short term goals. Don't think of your dissertation as your final work or your best work. It is your first work (more or less). But it is better if it has some impact than if it does not.

You won't be a student for your entire academic life, one hopes.

It also isn't necessary to give up everything else in your research life to produce one thing. If you have broad interests it is a good thing. If you can build up a research program for yourself by keeping a notebook of work in progress it is a good thing.

However, your advisor should count for something here as s/he has the potential to give you a good strong start in an academic career. It is often a good thing to follow their lead for the thesis, while putting other ideas (somewhat) to the side for a while.

Once you finish your degree you will have much more freedom to set your own goals and follow your own path to attain them.

You seem to be in a good place, actually, with plenty of ideas. If you are working on the main thing (dissertation) and get stuck a bit, you can take up one of your other ideas as a kind of mental break. You may advance that a bit, but you may also free up the mental clog that left you stuck.

The snark in me wants to answer the headline question "Yes!! Yes it is!!".


Best for questions are pretty hard to answer, but ...

I think if the options are merely personal interesting VS. career-building, then the answer is obvious. (pick career-building or quit imagining academia will be your career).

What makes the answer less obvious is if the personally interesting is just less career-building than the "strong thesis". Here, the complications are two-fold: a PhD or any post-PhD research project both takes up several years of your life and determines the direction of your further research by marking you as an expert in something.

So if your choices are PhD in Basket-weaving which is highly employable or PhD in Cross-Stitching which you love.

Basket-weaving PhD = several years of weaving baskets and then as an expert in basket-weaving continuing to weave baskets for the rest of your life.

Cross-stitching PhD = several years cross-stitching and then if employed continuing to cross-stitch for the rest of your life.

I guess my point here is that the monotony of picking the supposedly employable side can really get to you in a way that taking an undergraduate class on quilts won't. You have to do this like a job day in and day out for years. Moreover, you're signing yourself up to keep doing it because that's now your expertise. If you slowly start to hate it, you may find yourself in a weird place.

To get solid advice, you should talk with people in your field (not just in your lab) and figure out if cross-stitching has the same job prospects as basket-weaving or if you'll never get stable employment.

  • From my discussions with others, there is also the option of getting a PhD in cross-stitching and then doing research in basket-weaving or vice versa. While you certainly do limit your options by your choice of focus, it doesn't prevent you from working outside that area in the future (though certainly you probably won't go from cross-stitching to welding as easily).
    – JAB
    May 1, 2019 at 17:24

I would advise to go for your interest.

There is not much point in having good publications in a (sub)field you do not want to work in. It is the same as with students who are forced by their parents to study something "prestigious" (e.g. medicine or law) that they are absolutly not interested in. What's the point in having this eduction if you don't want to use it later?

EDIT: If you have the possibility, ability, time and energy you can of course try to pursue both (as suggested by Buffy) but be aware not to fall between two stools.

  • I think that as an either/or question this is bad advice. I think you are assuming that you can do both and I don't disagree. But results of no consequence don't get you anywhere.
    – Buffy
    Apr 26, 2019 at 11:08

It is like with love. If you dont believe in your personal project 100%, dont go for it. It can distract you so much you even quit your PhD. But if you do believe in it, there is only one right thing to do. Go get 'er.

  • It's not like love. Besides, there is no love without life. And OP will have no academic life if he chooses an unproductive topic.
    – Trunk
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:02
  • You can do just fine without an academic life, too. All research is not done in academia. Some people prosper way better on their own. Nov 28, 2022 at 15:59
  • And some of us prefer research outside of academia as the social milieu there are uncongenial to us. But if answering here I think we have to respect OP's express preference for seeking a tenure-track appointment with a view to career in academia. But it seems like OP has disappeared from the Academia forum . . . Let's hope all is going well for him.
    – Trunk
    Nov 28, 2022 at 19:45
  • @Trunk yes definitely. What works for different individuals when comes to different kinds of work can vary quite remarkably much... Nov 28, 2022 at 22:06

Given your desire for an academic career, I would have to advise maintaining the easy-coming, useful but not interesting topic for as long as it takes to find if the interesting topic yields any substantive fruit or not.

If you reach a point whereby a choice has to be made, e.g. due to time demands, I feel it's always better to be safe than to be sorry - so keep the productive but uninteresting subject as your thesis topic. To do otherwise would risk your planned future.

But if you start to get interesting results from the interesting topic then it's time to discuss with the supervisor if you should focus on this: will there be enough time to get more substantive results, what are the risks/rewards involved, etc.

Your dilemma is a small one compared to other students who are finding it hard going to get any topic to yield substantive results. So don't smoke too many cigars ruminating on it.

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