Is a PhD the time when you define your academic path, or at least outline what it may become? While researchers have the freedom to change topics throughout their careers, would you recommend striving for coherence to establish a robust academic trajectory?

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    A PhD is learning how to do research. By the end you perhaps have an idea of directions you can go in. Then the reality of what your next position allows kicks in…
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 18 at 15:05
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    Please say your general field of research, e.g. STEM, social sciences, humanities, math, etc. Respondents can really only speak about their own personal experience and due to the differing conditions within various fields their answers may or may not be relevant to your situation.
    – Trunk
    Commented May 18 at 19:35
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    In my experience, I would say no. PhD students who continue to have successful careers in academia (unlike me) generally follow the research program assigned to them by a supervisor. This motivates the supervisor to actually assist them with research (i.e. teach them how to be a researcher), which journals to submit which kinds of papers to, introduce to other researchers (who will be on search committees deciding your future position and / or possible future paper co-authors), etc. Often you can choose to research whatever you want, and you'll get a degree, but you won't be able to stay. Commented May 19 at 13:35
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/203847/… Commented May 19 at 14:24

4 Answers 4


This is very hard to answer. There are different disciplinary cultures and very different approaches to PhD programs. A major thing is that when starting a PhD (and in many cases even when finishing), a student doesn't normally have a very good overview and knowledge of their field, at least when it comes to research (not talking about basics here). This means that a PhD student isn't in a very good position to know what would actually work to "strive for coherence to establish a robust academic trajectory".

I think it's important in the first place to keep an open mind. The PhD may turn out to be very different from what the student expected, and they may be attracted to new ideas toward the end of the doctorate. Of course it can't be wrong in itself to do a research project on a topic that you think has the potential to keep you interested in the long run, and where there is enough scope for not only doing a PhD but also for later building a career on it. Chances are in the field of your PhD you will more easily get to know other reseachers, which may be helpful to find a related position or project afterwards. But I'd say that at the beginning of the doctorate, and in very many cases also throughout the whole time, it is so hard to predict where you'd want to go afterwards that I don't think this should be a major consideration dominating other things (like what you just like to do, or with whom you'd like to work).


Is a PhD the time when you define your academic path, or at least outline what it may become ?

In general, no.

Most PhD candidates do not enjoy the boon of being able to choose their own topic. The topic has to be agreeable to the supervisor concerned and to any funder that is involved. That said, you get research training in an intense environment during a PhD program. So it may throw up ideas/avenues that in time you will make your own or it may not - leaving you to wonder what your next topic should be.

While researchers have the freedom to change topics throughout their careers, would you recommend striving for coherence to establish a robust academic trajectory ?

I wonder how free a STEM researcher may be to change topics if they are part of a multi-year multi-million dollar departmental commitment to the existing topic! It is often mentioned here by contributors from top rank research universities that research funding is crucial to the universities' overall budget balances, just like foreign student fees. So if a STEM academic wants to change topic he/she has to ensure an existing topic be transferred securely to another interested colleague and that the new topic show lucrative potential. Other fields, e.g. math, humanities, social sciences may be easier in relation to changes of topic.

In relation to striving for topic coherence so as to establish a robust academic trajectory, I am not so sure that staying in the same general research sub-field is a good idea - either from the standpoint of continuing success or of personal congeniality and motivation. Many successful researchers change sub-field and will publish in 3-4 distinct areas of their field. A change may be as good as a rest sometimes.

But you are looking far too far ahead if you are just a beginning PhD. Right now it's about doing your own research with as much interest in the immediate discoveries as possible - and any time left over is for relaxation and socializing on and off campus.

Please solicit views face-to-face from experienced academic researchers, say aged 35 - 45.


I would say that you define and carve your own niche during your whole carrier as a scientist, starting even from the master degree.

I fully support your statement about the coherence. There are many practical advantages to be coherent: faster recognition on conferences, higher citations. It doesn't however mean that you shouldn't explore adjacent or even complementary fields. For instance, learn about experiment if you do theoretical science.

However, sometimes some fields come to their decline. Your enthusiasm and curiosity should be strong enough to drive you out of this potential well.


Sometimes yes. Imagining that you will like the PhD research, you could carve out with the help of your advisor(s).

But like others pointed out PhD is rather learning how to do research independently. But if you're someone outstanding, and survives through the journey despite the hurdles that you would face, and still want to be, yes you can.

I know people who got their PhD and followed with establishing start ups based on it and others who established their research paths and became researchers in it.

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