My previous published research has focused on teachers' psychological characteristics (e.g., motivation). However, for my PhD, I want to change my focus to student learning. Thus, although the broader area remains the same, the participants (teachers vs. students), the specific topics (teachers' psychological make up vs. student learning), and maybe even the methodology (non-experimental vs. experimental) will be different. Is this a legitimate move or in any way common in academia, especially within the social sciences?

As I have previous publications in the former area, is it possible for the potential supervisor or the graduate admissions committee to think that I had better stuck to the area where I have actual research experience rather than try to enter a new one with new participants and methodology?

I, myself, believe that I can do it and I have become really interested in learning alongside my original interest. However, I am not sure whether this move is common or, on the other hand, if it could seem counterproductive and reduce my chances of acceptance?

If the latter, then I can save a lot of time by focusing on my original area of interest and keep student learning for later. So, I really appreciate any guidance/advice in this regard.

  • I don't know about social sciences, but in physics moving between very closely related topics within a discipline is extremely common. The best times to do it (although it's possible any time) are either in the transition from undergrad/Master's to PhD or from PhD to postdoc. Dec 17, 2020 at 9:14
  • Thank you for your perspective. As I am at the transition point between MA and PhD (although I want to start my PhD after some research and work experience), maybe moving between areas will not be seen as a problem in my field either.
    – DIanon
    Dec 17, 2020 at 15:44

1 Answer 1


I think you should be fine, provided that you find an advisor who agrees that you are ready.

The research skills you have are just about what is needed in the "new" field. You may lack some background on what has been done and on the open questions, but that is true of every PhD candidate.

Actually your existing research/publications may give you some perspective that will be valuable in the new research area.

You need a literature search, of course, and you may need to obtain some understanding in the new field, but an advisor can help guide that initially. But the techniques used in the two fields are about the same.

  • I do appreciate your helpful response. So, I will continue my literature review to become fully familiar with the previous findings and also find the "open questions". You also mentioned that the potential advisor could help guide me. So, If I come up with some narrowed down topics, would they help me finalize one of them? Or, is it better for me to write a completely worked out proposal before contacting them? Thanks.
    – DIanon
    Dec 17, 2020 at 15:39
  • 1
    That depends on the place and field. For me, the advisor was a very important source of ideas. Good to have some ideas, but also good to be a bit flexible.
    – Buffy
    Dec 17, 2020 at 15:56

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