I'm considering doing a PhD in Software Engineering and Information Technology.

Associated with a particular concept of interest (immersion), got many ideas running through my mind that having them explored would bring, at my sight, both business and educational value. So, the ideas:

  • Consolidation work.

  • Understand the current state of the art in immersive technologies.

  • Create taxonomies.

  • Design and implement immersive solutions.

  • Investigate the real-world value of immersion.

  • Etc.

Spoke with two PhDs. One told me a valid thesis can be a collection of articles that have to be published; in other words, what I have in mind is definitely good and possible as long as the articles are published. The other PhD told me this would be something too general and I need to specify more to have a valid and good thesis; in other words, grab one idea and specify even further.

So, what I would like to understand is if I could create a thesis taking what I've got in mind with the 5+ ideas and have it be considered a valid and good thesis? If yes, under which molds / structure / methodology?

  • 6
    Let me suggest that you are trying to decide things too early. It is good to have a lot of ideas, but you need a thesis advisor to help you refine your ideas to be successful. Many would object to so scattered a list of things. A doctorate requires both breadth and depth, but the dissertation is focused on depth, which requires specialization. But I don't know the actual academic culture of Portugal, so can't say definitively.
    – Buffy
    May 30, 2020 at 14:58
  • 2
    This is country and doctoral school specific. Contact first your advisor Jun 1, 2020 at 8:13
  • @BasileStarynkevitch ok that's where I should start first then - defining the specific school. The PhD doesn't necessarily need to be taken in Portugal, got some opportunities in UK, USA,... being considered. Spoke with my advisor and managed to get some very interesting feedback (will share as an answer ASAP). Jun 1, 2020 at 9:42
  • 1
    Don't rule out Australia as a destination ;-)
    – Collega
    Jun 1, 2020 at 9:45

5 Answers 5


As long as you have a good list of publications by the time you graduate, I don't think a defense committee is going to stand in your way because the research wasn't "connected" enough. Especially considering that the different aspects you want to explore are definitely related.

But you're putting the cart before the horse I think. You're very unlikely to be able to make a complete exploration of such a broad area as you've described above. So don't think of that as "your PhD project," think of it as "this area is my research interest." Your PhD work may only delve into and develop a very narrow sliver of that research interest, and then your later academic or corporate work would be related to other aspects.

Also, research questions tend to look a LOT different when they're finished compared to when they started. You start on one line of inquiry and get side-tracked, or pushed off course by various difficulties, or you just find something exciting opening up along a parallel track. As a PhD researcher is more or less your job to be open to those course-corrections. It's very rare to enter into a PhD with a certain research question in mind and exit the PhD with the sense of "Yup. Nailed it." More likely you accomplished only 10-20% of what you set out to do, or maybe even 0% because you switched to something totally different. That's good! The free-wheeling path of discovery (on a good day) is the essence of academic research and separates it from more goal-oriented corporate work, where answering THAT question your boss needs answered is more important than following your nose and personal interest.

So, I think both answers you received aren't as different as you think, they're sort of two sides of the same coin. Yes, your PhD research doesn't need to be part I, II, and III of the same research question. It could be multiple loosely related works. However, they will still probably have a reasonably consistent thread between them, and be more exact than the very general notions you've bullet-pointed above, simply because your research direction and research interests will gain clarity and focus through the PhD process.

  • 1
    A bit of caution is advised. A bunch of unconnected papers may represent a "significant body of work" or not. So, "good" in the first sentence is very important.
    – Buffy
    May 30, 2020 at 14:56

This varies a lot from field to field, so take this with a grain of salt. Before I started my PhD, I envisioned doing lots and lots of stuff. Unfortunately (or fortunately actually), that isn't how academia works. Developing a (good) project takes time. Also, more often than not, easy and good ideas have already been explored which means that, if you want to work on a particular topic, you have to build on top of what other people have already done. For instance, during my PhD, I developed 4 different projects over a period of 4 years. And that is considered above average in my field. Talk to your supervisor once you have one (or if you already have one). They are there to guide and will provide with the answers that you need.


To get a PhD, you will have to specialize. This takes time and effort so if you want to make a contribution that is valued in your field and serves your future career, you will probably have to select one topic and run with it.

That said, some of the best research comes from merging ideas from different topics. Look at Nathan Myhrold. He is an extremely successful researcher but he engages in fields from astronomy to paleobiology to Nuclear reactors. Working on one topic allows him to get ideas for another one.

What I am trying to say is that as a PhD student you will have to specialize to be effective, but don't give up the other topics that you are interested in. They might serve you to keep your academic career running after your PhD. They might even give you ideas for solving problems during your PhD.

As for starting your PhD, do not worry too much about which one of the five topics to work on. I am guessing this will solve by itself within the first year if not sooner. First of all, your professor will probably have an opinion. And once you start to dig deeper, you will have a better idea about it yourself. The PhD research topic does not need to be defined from day one. You will have some time to understand what is it that feels most interesting and promises most for your future career.


Your question is a sensible one. Here are a couple of points which may help:

  1. Every thesis is about something. It must be coherent and focussed on responding to a single problem or question (this can be broad or narrow, but it must be coherent);
  2. It must make an original contribution to research. Typically the best way to show this is to show what others have done and why their attempts at answering the question specified in (1) above are insufficient (normally done in the introductory chapter(s), but can be re-stated throughout the thesis);
  3. A GOOD thesis is both readable and useful. You need to be able to tell the story of your research, and engage your reader in the process and demonstrate some potential for impact. If you can't communicate what you're doing your research will have less impact.

The points above may seem obvious, but they are fundamentally what a PhD is about.

Your question about thesis by publication actually pertains to two different aspects of completing a research degree (i.e. research masters or PhD):

  1. Structure; and
  2. Assessment (examination).

    A thesis by publication entails a topic structure where sections of the thesis appear as (often edited) stand-alone articles. These are normally 'topped and tailed' with an introduction and conclusion which demonstrate a coherent response to a problem or question (1 above) and highlight both originality and potential for impact (2 above). They will hopefully also help to make the thing readable (3 above).


Formally committing to submit your thesis 'by publication' in most cases also commits you to having those publications accepted for publication in journals of an acceptable standard before you can complete the degree. This therefore forms part of the assessment (or examination) of your degree.

While having a 'by publication' topic structure can be a good fit for some projects and lead to more publications during candidature (which we like) - it can sometimes commit research degree candidates to more constraints when it comes to examination than they really need.

My advice would be to consider this carefully before committing to a PhD 'by publication'. Sometimes you can achieve the same thing by simply negotiating with your advisory panel a topic structure which will allow you to develop your thesis chapters in a form very like publications - which you can then go off and publish - without committing you to having those published in exactly the same form as appears in the thesis.

This may sound like a minor point but can lead to major frustration in cases where candidates are basically ready to graduate and have completed their thesis but are having to mess around with journal submissions when they could be out there publishing anyway with a degree already under their belt.

Something to think about, anyway.

Some resources are included below (most will come up in Google Scholar with a link to the full text), and good luck with the project!

  • Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. (2010). How To Get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (5th ed.). London, UK: McGraw-Hill Education;

  • Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan;

[Note - there are a million books on how to write a PhD of the 'PhDs for dummies' variety. Most of these are crap. The two books above are the best. Timeless classics :-)]

  • Chinneck, J. W. (1999). How to Organize your Thesis. from http://www.sce.carleton.ca/faculty/chinneck/thesis.html;

  • Brien, D. L. (2008). Publish or perish?: Investigating the doctorate by publication in writing. Paper presented at the The creativity and uncertainty papers: The refereed proceedings of the 13th conference of the Australian Association of Writing Programs;

  • Davies, R. E., & Rolfe, G. (2009). PhD by publication: A prospective as well as retrospective award? Some subversive thoughts. Nurse Education Today, 29 (6), 590-594. Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0260691709000185;

  • Durling, D. (2013). Understanding the PhD by publication. Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers, Oslo, Norway;

  • Niven, P., & Grant, C. (2012). PhDs by publications: an ‘easy way out’? Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (1), 105-111;

  • Jackson, D. (2013). Completing a PhD by publication: a review of Australian policy and implications for practice. Higher Education Research & Development, 32 (3), 355-368;


I'm agreeing with your second PhD consultant and Buffy generally.

Firstly, I'd ask you why (really) are you thinking of doing a PhD in this area ? A PhD is primarily a license to teach in the area of your research topic as well in those areas of technology that support it. If you like the idea of working in an academic environment then a PhD is a must. If you are simply seeking a higher qualification, or want to gain specialist expertise and then return to the commercial/consultancy world then I do not think a PhD would be the way to go. I say this because the human environment in academic life with their invisible social hierarchies and extreme individualism will probably not suit you. You could consider a DSc or DEng if its in the science/tech sphere - this is done with an industrial supervisor with some input from an academic supervisor. Discuss this aspect with someone who knows your nature well.

But let's say that you decide to do a PhD. Whatever topic you select on immersive technology you'll always have to do things like background introduction to immersive tech and extensive literature search on your own topic of choice. That will cover current state and current taxonomies. (I doubt if there's any sense in your creating taxonomies for a developing field, especially where preferred academic and commercial lines of enquiry may not yet have been fixed - that's someone else's job.) These are things that you'll get no marks for - though you will be denied a PhD if these parts of your thesis are deemed inadequate!

Secondly, your spending time in your thesis speculating on the commercial attraction of this technology or even of your own particular study is a waste. Like many of us starting out on a PhD, you don't have a clear idea on what a doctoral thesis is. A doctoral thesis is an original, independent and substantive addition to the existing knowledge in a particular field of study that is deemed worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals. It is evaluated principally on its academic merits, i.e. the scale of its addition to knowledge and understanding in its area of research plus its communicability (organization and esp. readability of the thesis). A PhD thesis need not have any social or commercial application whatsoever, at least not directly. Of course, commercial application may be very important to you. Yet from the point of view of research coherency you must make a decision on what exactly you are concentrating your efforts on and stick with that. Otherwise you may be changing the direction of the study too many times to make any serious inroad into any aspect of imm tech.

So your idea of melding together existing knowledge and designing & implementing some solution to an as-yet unidentified problem is not a runner. (Yes, we all know people who have somehow got a PhD using their gift for synthesizing other people's work with a modicum of their own. Often these people finesse their way to tenured jobs in academia and colleagues find out too late how hollow their real abilities are.) You have to define your design & implement objective. Then you have to find an academic supervisor who is genuinely interested in supervising it - and with whom you can truly mix minds. Then there is the funding question and then the real hard work, days & evenings, often Saturday and Sunday, summer and winter. You'll be surrounded with 20-30 other self-centered researchers like yourself and, without an academic leadership that insists on it, cooperation will be minimal. So don't just decide after seeing an agreeable supervisor. Look at the others in their research group too. You are going to get to know more about them personally than you ever want to - and they will see your professional and personal limits equally clearly. Your social life will be poor while doing your academic research unless you are at ease with the type of people in university, their foibles and prejudices. All existing relationships will take a hit - not just because of the relative lack of money but the unreasonable hours, the deep thinking alone in the evenings and the mood swings that go with successes and failures. If you have college work to do like demonstrating/teaching that will be another drain - unless of course this is something that you truly enjoy and are good at - $15 an hour is no compensation if it drains you.

If you aspire to an academic career, you'll take all this on. But if any of it isn't for you, then just look for a job where you can learn about this technology and have scope to do your own work on it. Either way, good luck to you.

  • 1
    I strongly disagree. Since European funded research projects (e.g. Horizon Europe ...) almost require a PhD, even for those working in a private industrial corporation or SME or as freelancer. The OP seems to live in Portugal Jun 1, 2020 at 8:15
  • @BasileStarynkevitch yes I'm from Peniche, Portugal. Jun 1, 2020 at 9:42
  • @Basile - Disagree with doing a PhD for non-academic work ? Not having a PhD doesn't prevent you from doing research work towards the same objective within a company or even on your own, if you can gain use of local college library. Many universities have higher degrees like DSc or DEng that cater for in-company research with an internal (employer appointed) and external (academic) supervisor. I wrote a long answer. You wrote none - yet still write short comments on others' with an air of authority. Let's see a comprehensive response from you, Basile.
    – Trunk
    Jun 1, 2020 at 11:35

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