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This is a question that fascinates a lot of people prior to attending graduate school. The question whether one should already have chosen a thesis topic so that all efforts will be put on creating that thesis and more time can be used to explore that given topic.

Or a more basic question, is it feasible or even possible for someone to know exactly what their thesis topic would be before going into graduate school?

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    Interesting question! "Poll" questions are not considered a good fit for the Q&A nature of SE sites (see the help center). I'm therefore going to edit your post to remove the poll (the part beginning "how many of you...") However, please go ahead and edit the edit if you can restate that part of the question in a way that meets the community guidelines.
    – ff524
    Dec 15, 2014 at 9:55
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    Scoping out the topic of a thesis is most likely a process of negotiation and adjustment where the process starts with your selection of the adviser. Your adviser's area of interest and yours will overlap but up to a point. You will have to negotiate and adjust where the overlap is lacking. I'd be surprised if you, as an entering graduate student, are in a position to know exactly what you want to do and you meet an adviser who is willing to let you do what you want without suggesting anything based on their experience. My caveat to you is to be careful what you want, because you might get it. Dec 15, 2014 at 10:35
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    Your question "is it feasible, or even possible?" My counter question is "is it desirable, and is it the best thing for you, and is it something you want once you are more fully informed?" Note that your ability to negotiate will be constrained by the adviser coming back at you with "I love what you want to look into but it's outside of the scope of the grant I received" Yeah, the Golden Rule "He who has the gold makes the rules" applies in research as in almost anything else. Dec 15, 2014 at 10:55
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    Yes! It is advisable!
    – enthu
    Dec 15, 2014 at 11:44
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    It all heavily depends on the area. In pure math. "the scope of the grant I received" means just "whatever I like doing or discussing with you at this moment". In other areas this phrase may mean anything up to "Either you'll be crunching these data on this machine, or I'll be getting someone else" (though I have to admit that I haven't seen such an extreme with my own eyes, just heard of it). This distinction by area seems to be even more pronounced with postdocs.
    – fedja
    Dec 17, 2014 at 3:00

5 Answers 5

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There may be advisers, departments, universities, countries (academic cultures) or fields where you need to come up with your own idea. I would not think this is the norm, however. In many cases Phd positions are financed by project funding so that the project is largely defined. This does not mean that the entire PhD is staked out in advance but the direction is. When you start a PhD you need an adviser which would imply that the field and direction of research of that adviser will determine the direction of your research. In many academic systems you directly apply to a PhD project which is pre-defined. I could probably come up with more cases that point away from come up with your own thesis topic.

That said, however, it is not inconceivable that someone could enter a system with an own idea but since coming up with great ideas commonly involves having a deep understanding of a field, and that in itself being one of the goals of a PhD, it would be a very rare case.

So depending where you are or where you are heading in the academic world, you do not need to know the thesis topic in advance. You will be looking for topics that may interest you and once finding positions announced decide if they fit your interests. It is rare that you find exactly what you dream of so many go for positions that are "close enough". Another point here is that you would probably not select a topic only, you would also consider the academic milieu and if you think it would be good for you and your endeavour into research.

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    I think this depends a bit on the country, or rather, who specifically provides the funding. There is a very good point about the knowledge of the field; I have seen quite a bunch of PhD vacancies that do not adhere to it.
    – Davidmh
    Dec 15, 2014 at 10:54
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    This is strongly dependent on the field and department. In some places the grant-driven approach is very unusual.
    – BrenBarn
    Dec 15, 2014 at 18:55
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This is a very local issue, depending (as Peter Jansson says) on the country, university, field etc. For instance, at least in the arts and humanities, it is usual in the UK to apply to PhD programmes with a thesis proposal that explains pretty much what your thesis will be on. Of course, there's nothing to stop you changing what you work on once you're accepted into the programme, have discussed it with your supervisor etc.

As to whether or not it's advisable, again that depends on local conditions. If your PhD has coursework then you have plenty of time to think about good thesis topics while you do that. On the other hand, for a purely research-based PhD like those in the UK, it's good to know the topic going in because you're supposed to get on with research straight away.

I've seen mixed results with this approach, to be honest. I ended up sticking with exactly what I proposed, but I suspect that's less common: research often doesn't turn out how one expects, some topics seem like a good idea at the start but as one learns more one's focus shifts and what appeared to be an interesting and tractable question turns out to be tedious or impossible to make progress on. Many of my fellow PhD students changed topic partway through, although often this was more a change of emphasis than a complete change of topic—that's less common, and correspondingly more difficult since ars longa, vita brevis (in particular, PhD students in the UK are expected to complete within four years).

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This will very greatly by the discipline. My PhD was in mathematics, and I do not know of any of my colleagues that entered grad school with an idea of the problem that they would solve for their dissertation. In fact, most entered with no more than a notion of the area of mathematics that interested them (algebra, analysis, topology, applied math, logic) and at least half ended up in a different area from their notion on entry.

In mathematics it seems not feasible to me to know the area upon entry. The frontiers of mathematics are just too far away ...

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The answer is heavily dependent on the field, school, and department you will be applying to, and also the individual faculty you will be working with. As the other answers suggest, in some programs it is common for students to be immediately attached to an ongoing project, and the general boundaries of their possible dissertation projects will be set by that. In other programs that is almost unheard of, and each student must develop his or her own project.

That said, my impression is that you should have at least some idea (or ideas, plural!) of questions you would like to answer, even if you don't know exactly what the thesis topic per se will be. One big reason to have such ideas is that you aren't likely to be accepted into grad programs if you have no plans for what to write about. The difference between programs seems to be that some of them expect you to apply knowing that you will work on a particular project and write about that, some expect you to have a topic in mind and stick to it, and some expect you to have ideas but won't care if you change your mind during the program.

The individual variation in attitudes towards this question was, for me, beautifully summed up in a personal experience. When I was applying to PhD programs, I visited a certain school along with several other prospective students. As part of this process, each student had a short meeting with each faculty member. One professor, during our meeting, mentioned that she felt "students who come in with a dissertation topic already in mind sometimes miss the point" --- that is, that they should be open to exploring new things they hadn't thought of before. I then went across the hall to meet with another professor, whose first question was "Do you have any ideas for your dissertation topic?" And this was in the same department!

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Just to touch a point that nobody else did, there is also the issue of timeliness.

Some fields of research advance pretty fast, and what was a great topic before starting graduate school, may be outdated or not relevant anymore when you are about to start your Ph.D.

For these fields it is usually better to define the topic close to the moment when you will actually start your research. I did my Ph.D. in Computer Sciences, and I have seen people Ph.D. topics get outdated while they were developing it!.

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  • Any thoughts on how to better future-proof a topic? Mar 29, 2019 at 4:57

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