I have come up by synthesis of 3 lines of research to a general idea whose questions and concerns and most importantly conceptual foundations can be addressed mathematically in a rigorous way.

Although I have not come up yet with any result but I can give N reasons why this framework that is only marginally, implicitly and partially alluded by 3 papers though never integrated and concretely formulated even as precise questions, is potentially a serious line of research.

I am a master's student of theoretical physics. Do you think it's anyhow possible to present a novel idea as your own PhD thesis subject matter?

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    Since you're in a master's program, I believe the typical course of action would be to try to work on your idea, or on part of your idea, as a master's thesis. If you accomplish something novel, then this would help you get into a strong PhD program, where you could continue working along similar lines.
    – academic
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 13:00
  • @academic Not all Master's Degree programs include a master's thesis.
    – nick012000
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 14:27
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    It's possible, but it depends on whether your supervisor estimates the idea is going to pan out enough to be worth being granted a PhD in the end. No supervisor particularly wants to have a student who just fizzles, and then they need to do extra work and time to get them over the line somehow, or perhaps have a bad administrative mark added to their record (not sure if this happens everywhere, but it does where I am). I personally figured out my own thesis project ('twas in pure maths) after the initial ideas suggested by my two advisor separately didn't seem to be going anywhere. YMMV. Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 0:01
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    What do you want to hear? Whether you can join a PhD program, have no supervisor, and just be left alone for 4 years to get on with it? Not really. Whether, once your supervisor hears your N reasons and agrees with you they justify working on that line, it's legitimate for the result of that work to be your thesis? Of course yes. Whether your supervisor actually will agree with you - some website can't tell you :-) Whether your supervisor will at least listen and assess? Depends a bit on the supervisor, but you're not there as a servant just to research what you're told to. Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 19:02
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    Basically I'm a bit worried by the "independent-researcher" tag on the question. If you mean, "can I get a PhD without joining a PhD program, just by doing really good work", then I think the answer is theoretically yes, it could happen, but practically no it won't. Nuts and bolts: your relationship with the university that agrees to assess your PhD makes you not fully "independent". Ask people at your current university, "here's my idea, how do I go about finding a PhD program where I can work on this?" Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 19:11

4 Answers 4


The short answer is - yes.

A slightly longer answer is that from my narrow perspective, it is often useful to keep an open mind about what you’ll be working on in your PhD journey. Even if you believe your idea is novel, there’s a chance it’s either already known, incorrect as currently phrased, or simply unimportant. This is a statistical observation, not a statement about you or your idea (I don’t know either!). Most ideas turn out like this, and it’s important to recognize this.

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    Another possibility is that the problem cannot be solved (given what is known currently). Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 0:05
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    +1 the idea needs to be important to someone else as well...
    – Stian
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 14:22
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    @CaptainEmacs ... in which case at least your supervisor needs to find it interesting/important. All I was saying is that it doesn't matter how good an idea you think it is, if you are unable to convince someone else it will probably remain unexplored.
    – Stian
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 6:11
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    @BastamTajik I don't know enough of your field to judge really, but I'd warn that statements like "my supervisor is a dumb but publishes successfully!" "no one listens to me" "the entire field is corrupt" - or, more generically, a feeling that you are superior and everyone else in the field just doesn't get it... these are highly suggestive of crank-like thinking. It is highly unlikely that thinking this way will get you success in the field. At some point you need to be able to work with others and see how your work is inter-related in order for others to appreciate your contributions.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 19:34
  • 3
    Honestly, seeing your rude responses makes me slightly regret answering your question altogether. Deriding internet strangers who are trying to help you is not a good sign for future research relationships. Also if this is your actual name, posting these kinds of comments would be a red flag for advisors. I wouldn’t take you on if I saw these.
    – Spark
    Commented Oct 1, 2023 at 15:31

You will need to enroll as a Ph.D. student, get a Ph.D. advisor, and agree with your advisor on the outlines of your Ph.D. research. Using research you have previously done may (or--more likely--may not) be possible. Only your university can make the determination.

  • 2
    You need an advisor and then you can work on any topic for your PhD whatsoever if you can convince your advisor that this is a good idea.
    – quarague
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 7:04
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    I believe it is more typical that you find PhD advisor and project and only then enroll formally. Which makes it much easier in this case - you are skipping enrollment process until you know you will be able to work on that idea (or get told the idea is well-known already or won't work for X, Y or Z etc) Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 8:42
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    @quarague - although available funding may very well limit what you can work on. If the grant money is for work on X, well, you either work on X or not get paid.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 13:50

PhD student here. I have presented my personal idea to a potential supervisor and she liked the idea, so I enrolled as a student with that topic. I'm self-funded with a job in the industry. I have no working contract with the university and I'm not associated with any university project. Which means I don't need to respect any deadlines regarding projects, and I don't need to do anything for my professor regarding teaching or publishing.

So yes, it's totally possible.

  • 1
    Is this in the US? I would like to know more about how something like this works Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 14:34
  • 1
    This is Germany. My approach is unusual even here, so I'm the only one studying like this I know. The other PhD students are employed at the university and associated with a project. Feel free to ask me anything about this. Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 5:43
  • I am also very interested in this. How many hours per week do you work for your job and how many on your PhD studies? And how much do you pay your supervisor per month?
    – Jannis
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 8:47
  • I'm also interested in this and I have lots of questions. Were you a student when you enrolled for the project? How did you get in touch with the supervisor? Is that the same university where you studied? Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 10:09
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    Hello Jannis, I work part-time in my job Mo-Thu, 32h, so I have 16h at the weekend for my dissertation. I don't pay my supervisor anything. I'm officially recognized as their PhD student and I heard they get some compensation from the university for supervising PhD students. Hello Christian, I had the same professor as supervisor for my master thesis, so she already knew me. I was not enrolled for two years when I presented the project to her. So yes, same university as where I studied. Commented Sep 30, 2023 at 13:33

It depends

Having your own ideas is a feature of being a researcher, so this is in general terms a positive for your application. A good candidate has ideas, and some sense of what a research project is - formulating a research question, working out what needs to be done to test it, devising a project to fit within the available time/budget/resources.

Of course many applicants don't have a lot of awareness about many of these things (eg whether your idea is good, potential methods, or how much time/budget will be required), and that's fine, you'll learn about that during a PhD.

So getting here at this stage is all positive.

However, it depends on sources of support - both funding and a suitable adviser. Some of those may allow you full freedom (eg a personal scholarship) but others may want you to work on something else (eg an adviser with a funded project that needs somebody to work on it).

Hence you may end up compromising based on opportunities available to you. Having your own ideas is often a positive sign in terms of an application for such a position, but being dogmatic about your ideas (even if they turn out to be of limited interest to others) may not be. It is up to you whether to stick with your idea (but have no adviser or funding, potentially a dead end) or take a position that is interesting but not quite what you first thought of.

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