I am a second-year PhD student in management, and I've recently started working on my dissertation.

The topic I got assigned is a fast-growing one. Nonetheless, I initially managed to ensure the novelty of my work by highlighting the fact that the extant literature has largely overlooked a class of specific predictors.

However, while I was collecting the literature to produce a systematic literature review on this specific topic (i.e., using these class of predictors in empirical models forecasting the occurrence of a given phenomenon), I found a well-written recently published paper thoroughly covering the same topic.

At the moment, the novelty of my dissertation, which was primarily related to highlighting this inadequacy of previous literature, has been seriously impaired.

Now, the supervisor I got assigned is not an expert in this research field.

When asking for suggestions, he can almost randomly point me in five different directions in every conversation.

Having double-checked his suggestions, I realized that he merely gives me random advice (e.g., he considers "novel" predictors that have been around for decades).

Considering that I only have a year and nine months left, I plan to schedule a meeting to discuss the issue. However, I was wondering which should be the purpose of the meeting.

Should I convince him to assign me another topic or incorporate his (random) suggestions into my research?

Considering the first option, should I approach the meeting with a potential research interest/topic already at hand?

Thank you for your time.

  • 7
    Discuss with your supervisor. You can't change dissertations without their approval anyway.
    – Allure
    Jun 9, 2021 at 13:53
  • 2
    A "dissertation" is much longer than a "paper". Suppose that paper removes the relevance of certain material from your work, but what about the rest? What was your plan? Jun 9, 2021 at 14:12
  • 2
    If you're specifically interested in the purpose of such a meeting, the purpose would be to ask your supervisor how you should proceed. That's what your supervisor is for. Note that this question is different to the one asked in the title; you certainly can propose a topic change.
    – sleepy
    Jun 9, 2021 at 14:12
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    I think that "novelty" is just one of the criteria. A PhD thesis is supposed to be a comprehensive analysis of a certain problem, so even if you fall short in "novelty", you can still provide something valuable. In any case, I think that ~2 years is enough to refocus on some adjacent problem, but perhaps it would be tough to make a substantial change. Personally I think perfectionism isn't warranted in such cases, so if I see I can save a student's work by fixing it here and there, usually this is what I advise. Jun 9, 2021 at 14:27
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    (Sorry it is becoming a chat). I understand your point, but I'd keep these things somewhat separate. You can write a great (short) paper on a problem you like, but it is much harder to extend it into a thesis. Since you seem to be ready to additional work, one option might be to keep the thesis as is, but focus some of your efforts on writing good papers in adjacent areas without trying to turn them into something bigger. You'll benefit from your existing effort and publish something in addition. It's better than throwing away all existing work and starting from scratch, I believe. Jun 9, 2021 at 14:39

2 Answers 2


Given the additional information in the comments, I'd suggest that you have a broad discussion with your advisor, but be prepared to switch topics.

However, it might not be required to switch much. Some closely related questions might remain. You have certainly gained some insight into the general area of the original question, so you are in a good place to be flexible. You might even find that the published paper is an opportunity to extend it.

But, as you have discovered, working in a hot area is inherently risky as you can be assured there is parallel research going on as you work. I was "lucky" enough to work in an ice-cold area, actually, and only a few people in the world were much interested or could really judge it (math analysis).

But your discussion with your advisor might be broad enough that you wind up with several option (several irons in the fire) so that you don't get caught again.

And, depending on where you are in the research, the paper might not affect your graduation. Your advisor will know the rules. I know of one case where essentially the same thesis by two students resulted properly in two degrees with the knowledge and assent of all advisors, the universities, and the research community in general. It did, however, delay their graduation while an investigation was made. Both went on to good careers. They independently answered an important question in computer language design.

  • Dear @Buffy, thank you for your response. Let me pose you this question: should you have a PhD candidate with a basic thesis (i.e., not that original or novel and with only an incremental contribution to the extant knowledge), but with more than one good publication on the side, and a PhD candidate with a terrific thesis, but no publications, which one would you recommend as a "good candidate"? This would help me understand the extent to which a thesis "weights" compared to the presence of good book chapters and papers.
    – James
    Jun 9, 2021 at 14:55
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    Actually, I'd look to other factors and could recommend them both very highly, depending on those factors. I agree with @EthanBolker that the dissertation should have some "punch" but no one expects that your thesis will be your best work ever.
    – Buffy
    Jun 9, 2021 at 15:09
  • 1
    Let me add, both remarkable work and sustained contributions are highly valued.
    – Buffy
    Jun 9, 2021 at 15:32
  • Dear @Buffy, thank you, everything seems clearer now.
    – James
    Jun 9, 2021 at 15:41

I think you have to think about what you want before deciding how to approach your advisor. Here are two extreme possibilities.

You are intent on an academic career in this area. Your thesis will be your first piece of new work. You want it to be well received as a significant contribution.

In this case you might well want a new topic.


Your PhD is just a ticket to a job in industry. What you really need is an adequate thesis. Finishing the one you've started will suffice, even though some of your ideas have been scooped.

In this case simply put in the not quite two years and move on.

I suggest that you think about where your goal is on the continuum between these alternatives. Then prepare to convince your advisor that with his help (which seems to be somewhat casual) you have a way to reach that goal.

  • Dear @Ethan Bolker, thank you for your response. I want to pursue an academic career. That's why I'm seriously concerned. I want my dissertation to form the basis of a future publishing trajectory. Do you think should I approach my supervisor with a research interest/a topic at hand or not? I don't want to appear rude or unwilling to receive suggestions.
    – James
    Jun 9, 2021 at 14:26
  • 1
    If you have ideas for alternatives then do present them. I'm sure you can do that respectfully. I suspect most advisors appreciate initiative in their students. Jun 9, 2021 at 14:30
  • Thank you, @Ethan Bolker. This is sound advice.
    – James
    Jun 9, 2021 at 14:34

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