PhD that keeps on giving
February 6, 2013 10:54 AM   Subscribe

Did you do a PhD that you are proud of? That you loved working on? That has helped you in your career going forward?

How did you get there?

I've decided to finish my PhD. I've been stumbling around on topics, and not sure what kind of topic would be best. I know that I don't want to stay in my field (of social science), but I'm going to get the credential and then move onto something else.

If you were happy with your PhD, how did you choose your topic? Why was it a good fit? Why are you proud of it now? How has your topic helped you going forward?

Advice, from people at all stages (during PhD, post-doc, faculty, PhD and in industry, PhD and unrelated field, etc.) would be much appreciated.
posted by carolinaherrera to Education (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm currently working on a humanities PhD. Hardest thing I've ever done, but it's done a couple of things for me really well:

1. It's exposed me to the breadth of work in my field that has allowed me to understand the whole better. I suppose you can do this without a PhD, but it's nice having experts working with you to help you understand the nuances of the academic discussion.

2. I've gotten a whole letter better at independent research, versus regurgitating others' opinions about things. The PhD really is about "going deeper" on stuff that I've often taken for granted, drawing my own conclusions and figuring out how I can contribute uniquely to the discussion.

I plan on working in my discipline, and already am. But even if it didn't work out, I'd have found it to be very valuable personally for the reasons listed above. Not only that, but it's given me the opportunity to meet people that I admire and respect in academia both in the classroom, and also at conferences and such. You really have to love these things, though, in order to go for it, I think. Using the PhD simply for something better, as a stepping stone, tends to not work too well. Burn out comes quickly.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:59 AM on February 6, 2013

Honestly, this sounds like a bad idea. People who love their chosen field and have been passionate about it since birth still find the PhD process draining and demoralizing. I expect that problem would be even more serious for someone who cares about the credential, but has no particular long-standing interest in the field.

If you're going to do this, do something that will fully fund you, so, at the very least, you're not indebted at the end of it.
posted by ewiar at 11:01 AM on February 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

I concur with ewiar.

You already know you aren't interested in the field.

You don't know what you want to study for a PhD, and you don't know how how the piece of paper will help you professionally.

Due to your field, it is distinctly possible you will have to pursue the PhD without full funding. This means the PhD will not only cost you 4-6 years of professional income (opportunity cost), you will likely have to pay for some portion of your expenses for the PhD.

There is essentially no chance this will be worth your time.
posted by saeculorum at 11:12 AM on February 6, 2013

Response by poster: I have full funding. I am more than halfway through. I have another source of income (side business). I am trying to finish up and need help choosing the best topic possible. Thanks for your help, everyone, but I know I want to do this. The question is just which topic to pick at this point.
posted by carolinaherrera at 11:15 AM on February 6, 2013

If you're yet to choose a topic, I assume that "I've decided to finish my PhD" means "I've decided to go ahead and do the bulk of it". If so, then yes, I agree with others you ought to bail now. If you're close to finishing, then that's a different story.
posted by modernnomad at 11:16 AM on February 6, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry to threadsit, but I'd love to hear more actual answers to my question. I've been working on a number of topics and need to choose one to finalize and do the actual study. I am NOT going to bail.
posted by carolinaherrera at 11:17 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ok, just write down your potential topics down on pieces of paper. Mix them up and draw one at random. This is your topic. Your topic itself is not that important, the process of solving your problems is. Also, have you spoken with your advisor?
But really, I agree with the others, if you have already decided that you don't care to stay in your field, leave, because the process is frustrating enough even when you mostly do love your topic. In the time you would spend finishing this degree, you could be well into a field where you want to be in.
posted by florencetnoa at 11:23 AM on February 6, 2013

I'm not sure that anecdata to such a broad question will especially help you--having known plenty of PhD students in the US, the focus of their dissertations tends to be, first, on projects of particular passion for them, and, secondly, on topics that will make them more marketable in the academic job search. But neither of those sound like they apply for you. Since you just want to get out of there, I'd probably pick the easiest topic that the thought of researching doesn't make me want to kill myself.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:25 AM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

At one point I considered finishing with a Masters and moving on. But the process of putting together my dissertation made me aware of just how much I was going to have to leave unfinished if I did so - in the end, I chose to finish earning the PhD. If you're committed, go for it. It's your life, after all, and you have to make your own choices on how best to spend it. Besides, you may surprise yourself and find out you like it and don't want to give up on the field after all.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:34 AM on February 6, 2013

I have a Ph.D. in the humanities and am in a tenure track job at a SLAC - I'm very happy and satisfied and feel very fortunate to be in the position I'm in and do not regret getting my Ph.D. I left a career that was going pretty well, but ultimately left me unhappy; I could have gone back to that, so the risks to me were (perhaps) lower than some, but I'm very passionate about my field and love teaching. Anyway, it worked out fine for me. Maybe I'll feel differently in the future, but for now, I am happy to have done it, even though the PhD itself was a very stressful process.

I'm confused what you mean RE your topic--you say you're in a Ph.D. program, so I assume you have chosen your field already, do you mean qualifying exam and dissertation topic? I don't know what to say except that if you don't have an interest or passion for one topic over another, yes, choose randomly, but for something that you're going to spend so much time and energy on, I would do something I felt strongly about. I don't know why or how else you could put yourself through it otherwise.
posted by drobot at 11:38 AM on February 6, 2013

The only happy PhD is a completed PhD. The only good topic is one you have the capabilities do in a bounded amount of time that leads to completion. Everyone inevitably gets to this point in their thinking no matter how lofty their ambitions going in. What makes for a good topic:

- Sufficiently novel that your committee would accept it
- Has a clear set of research questions that are answerable and that imply studies you can conduct to answer them
- You have or can get all the data you need
- You are proficient or can become proficient in all the methods you need

Bonuses are:
- You find the work interesting at least some of the time
- At least some of the skills and experience are transferable to other careers

I came to my topic out of interest and idealism. I didn't mind working on it but the sheer difficulty of framing the work has made me feel like jumping off a bridge more than once. I don't know anyone who 'loved' working on their PhD out of my dozens of friends who've been there. For every single one of them, it was the hardest thing they ever did. It's not without its rewards but these tend to be about the side benefits of being in grad school -- intellectual growth, friendships, working on cool side projects, opportunities to develop new skills, having a good community of peers. But the thesis at the core is always a slog.

(Currently in my 5th year, no longer an idealist, but starting to see the end in sight.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:42 AM on February 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

It might be helpful background that (it sounds like from previous questions) you're halfway through a 3-year British program, so -- I imagine -- the dissertation is expected to be a different sort of beast than in a 6-8 year US program. In most US programs if you already hated the subject and hadn't even picked a topic, it would be a better idea to quit because you would still have so far to go, but maybe that is not the case for your much shorter program.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:43 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

The topic you choose should bridge your old area (very briefly looking at your previous questions, tech and innovation) with your new area (medicine/health?).
posted by heyjude at 11:46 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, I am confused by 'which topic to pick'. This is not what someone who's halfway done says. This is what someone says at the beginning of a 3 or more-year process. I think many of us are alarmed at what looks like a dangerous level of naivety in this question.

Oh, but if you're British that changes everything, because the British PhD is a very different and much smaller beast. Hmm.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:46 AM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Choosing my topic was a bit of a journey. I'm a 4th year Information Science PhD student taking comprehensive exams next week, and here's what my process looked like, a bit.

1. I got my master's first, in Library and Information Science. I went with the specific goal of figuring out whether or not I liked the field enough to get a PhD, and to think about what I might want to choose for my PhD topic.

1a. I took a class on digital curation and fell in love with the topic. I was very interested in how to preserve digital objects, specifically those created on social networks, for future researchers and for personal use. I wrote a few papers on this and was very excited about it. This interest came from a few things:
- I had an interesting professor in the class who made the topic come alive
- I felt like there was research to be done that no one else was doing in the area
- People that I spoke with that weren't in my field (like family members and friends) thought the work sounded interesting and exciting, which meant to me that it might have practical applicability

2. I applied to PhD programs with the explicit intent of studying digital curation of objects on social networks.

3. I got in to a PhD program that fully funded me to research that topic.

4. I spent my first year studying that topic, writing literature reviews, doing research, etc.

5. I got sick and suddenly, a new topic fell in my lap. I was in the hospital and I was grappling with how to tell my mom on the phone that I was sick, but not sick enough for her to travel all the way to North Carolina to take care of me. The issue of disclosure and illness became very real and very large to me, and when I was discharged from the hospital I started looking into it as a side interest.

6. I spent a bit of time during my second year in the PhD program thinking about how to weave these two interests together, and looked a bit at the idea of preservation of electronic medical records and personal health records.

7. I decided that, although that topic was very important and there's a lot of research to be done in that area, it was not something that really got my idea motor going. However, I was still really curious about how patients disclose information about their illness to others. Again, I:
- Had faculty members in my department express interest in the topic
- Felt like there was important research to be done in this area that no one else was doing
- People that I spoke with that weren't in my field thought it sounded interesting and relevant to their daily lives

8. I found a new funding opportunity from the School of Nursing that would let me explore exactly that topic, and ended my work with digital curation. I got a new advisor in my school that has done work with personal health records and health information seeking. She has also used the method that I wanted to use in my dissertation work extensively (grounded theory), so that was a nice match as well. I had worked with her before and our styles matched well.

9. I spent two years reading all the literature I could get my hands on in the field of patient disclosure, online support groups, health information behavior, and chronic kidney disease (which I chose partly because that is the illness I have that sent me to the hospital during my first year, and also partly because there isn't much research on disclosure of chronic conditions and related issues that aren't stigmatized).

So, I guess what I'm saying is this:
- You have to care about your topic in some way. What questions keep you up at night? For me, these questions include: "Why do patients disclose highly personal health information to other patients on the internet? What motivates them to do this? What are the risks and benefits of disclosing one's illness? Are there things that they disclose beyond the diagnosis of a condition, and how does disclosure play out over time? Should disclosure be encouraged? if so, how can we design interfaces that encourage this type of behavior?"
- Sometimes it helps if the topic is personal to you in some way. As someone with CKD, I've thought a lot about these questions my entire life. In fact, I kind of had to answer some of them for myself in order to decide to do this type of research.
- Some research methods let you ask multiple questions. Grounded theory, the method I'm using, is basically just the exploration of a phenomenon of interest. I may or may not answer the questions I've posed above in my dissertation research: it depends on the data. Since you say that you're in social science, I might look into this method if you're interested in a broad phenomena but can't come up with one question that drives your work.
- Some days you're going to like your topic more than other days. It helps me to remember that I'm starting a trajectory of research: my dissertation is just one little question in a really large set of things that interest me and that need to be answered by someone. I write down ideas for other studies or future studies that are somehow vaguely related to my work and I'll do them later. (For example, some of my other questions are things like "Anonymity as privacy - where do people go to have privacy in public?" and "How is disclosure of cancer portrayed in the movies and television?" and "Can we automatically scrap information from online support groups and social networking sites to populate people's personal health records?")
- I wanted to answer questions that I really felt like someone should be asking and answering, but for whatever reason they weren't
- Finally, I wanted my work to matter and to make the world a better place. This is a bit intangible, but I felt like helping CKD patients figure out how and why to tell people about their illness was something that would have helped me, so it may help someone else.

Good luck! It's a long road, but it's a fun journey.
posted by k8lin at 12:03 PM on February 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

Chiming in, I picked my dissertation topic because 1) it was something I'm really interested in, and 2) I have the data that I need to study it.

If I had to do a dissertation on a topic that I didn't really care about, I would probably shoot myself, but failing that, I would pick the simplest, clearest topic possible that would appeal to my dissertation chair and committee, because that would probably make it easier to make it through in a timely manner. It makes it easier for them to give you good feedback and direct you through the process, they may have helpful data and resources for you to use, and you're probably already somewhat familiar with their work and know what kind of questions remain in the field.

Frankly, though, I think that part of my happiness and motivation to finish is driven by the fact that I view the dissertation as job training in how to do the type of research that I want to do. That makes both the topic of the dissertation and the whole process of completing it important to me.
posted by _cave at 12:37 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

My topic was largely dictated by availability of supervisor and funding, so (from my point of view) practically arbitrary. Of course there are probably potential topics which would have put me off sufficiently that I'd have said "no thanks" and walked away -- but I found that, once the topic was mine, I cared about it largely because it was mine. So, from that point of view, I more or less concur with florencetnoa's advice to pick a topic out of a hat and throw yourself into it. (The topic, not the hat.)

My PhD has served me well in getting me a job I love in the same field. But the absolute best thing about having done it is knowing that I will never, ever have to write a PhD again. Whenever I'm feeling a little down, I like to muse upon this fact. It brings me joy.
posted by pont at 12:38 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I did my PhD in an area that I no longer work in. At the time when I was finishing my graduate research, I knew I would not stay in my subfield, and I looked for a postdoc that would enable me to transition. This worked out (I am now TT faculty in my preferred field), but it was very tricky at first: the people I approached as postdoc advisors were skeptical of how my background & skills would fit in their lab. Because I didn't know that I'd want to transition (or even what I'd want to transition to) until quite late in the game, I didn't have an opportunity to position myself well for it; when I'd talk with potential postdoc advisors about my grad work, they'd ask "so what does this have to do with my work/the work you want to do as a postdoc?" Well, um... nothing, really... except the math... maybe...?   You can understand their skepticism!

Since you already KNOW you want to transition out, you can use that information to position yourself for it. If your target field is an academic one, talk with people in the TARGET field and ask them which of the project options in your current field would translate the best. If it's possible (and it may not be -- I don't know your field or your goals), see if you can possibly set up a PhD project that incorporates some aspect of the target field, ideally with a faculty member of that field as a co-advisor or member of your committee. This will do a few things:
  • It will give you some background and experience that will make your transition easier (or it might convince you that you don't want to transition after all!);
  • It will give you an additional element in your grad research to be passionate about (and passion is key -- everything that's been said above about PhD work being grueling is right);
  • It will connect you to people in the target field who can facilitate your transition by introducing you to others, by making you aware of opportunities that your current advisor might not know about, and by acculturating you to the nuances of the target field (I still stumble on differences in scientific culture -- it's a bit like being a foreigner sometimes).
If your target field isn't academic, the most important consideration is your excitement about it. In fact, your level of excitement should the most important consideration either way, but in the latter case it's the only consideration.
posted by Westringia F. at 12:41 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry to threadsit, but I'd love to hear more actual answers to my question. I've been working on a number of topics and need to choose one to finalize and do the actual study. I am NOT going to bail.

Oh, I see. Well, this can be a hard question, but it's a mix between marketability and passion for most people. If you have the marketability covered, why not pick what you really enjoy getting into? What can you see yourself studying/picking apart for the rest of your life, or what gets you up in the morning? If there is a marketability question, just make sure that isn't all that it is, or you might grown to hate it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:49 PM on February 6, 2013

In my PhD career, I spent most of it exploring a few research methods and a few domain areas. In considering dissertation topics, I looked at the different permutations of those.

Feasibility was the main factor - no need to make it harder than necessary.

Flexibility is another important factor. It is important to be able to modify your plans and your arguments and claims if necessary. Also, it means you can squeeze in things that do make it more interesting for you.

Your disseration is see by employers as a sign you can manage complex projects - the topic is often not a big deal. Secondarily, it provides you with experience with particular methods, and knowledge about particular domains.

Unless you are trying to turn your dissertation into the start of a research program (which you are not), your criteria should be about which possible topic lets you develop skills and have experiences that will intellectually feed you and help you in your next step. Good luck.
posted by neutralmojo at 1:17 PM on February 6, 2013

I've only skimmed this, as I have little time right now, so forgive me if this is redundant:

It was important for me, in choosing my diss topic, to pick a topic in my field (film studies/history) in which there were big, gaping holes. That is, something that could, on re√ęditing, be turned into a publishable book.

The advantage was that I was uncovering all kinds of new research and ideas, and that alone gave me a sense of purpose. I was the first one to seriously research my subject in nearly 20 years. (It did get published, too, about a year ago.)

The disadvantage was that it meant that I could not "stand on the shoulders of giants." I couldn't use a lot of established work. Though, then again, this turned out to be a good thing, too, as it forced me to take a new perspective. The downside was that there was a LOT of research and legwork.

So my advice would be to pick a topic that 1) you love (most important), 2) will address a specific lack in your field, and 3) is at least hypothetically publishable.
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:34 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a PhD in Public History. I did a large amount of research work on slavery, emancipation, and the best ways to present uncomfortable and controversial topics during the bulk of my phd coursework. Most of the classes I took were a variation on African American or Southern History. I fell into these topics because I have always been interested in social justice and I was familiar with Southern history. But at the back of my mind was my training as a librarian and my deep abiding love of old buildings. By the time the discussion of dissertation topic rolled around I was sick to death of slavery, Southern history, and "difficult" topics.

So I looked at the stuff I liked and figured out how to combine old buildings and libraries. I ended up doing my disseration on adaptive reuse and historic preservation in archives and library buildings.

Looking back, I think I would have enjoyed something that managed to combine all three or at least gestured at the social reasons for adaptive reuse and community involvement.

So my best advice is to find some way to blend all the stuff you've worked on in course work, where possible, and pick your advisors based on how well you'd work with them. I had a cultural historian on my committee, because she was an exceptional writer. Her insights helped me find a coherent thread throughout my disseration and put me on the right path. Help can come in some of the most surprising packages.
posted by teleri025 at 2:59 PM on February 6, 2013

I did my PhD in a (linguistics) topic that I chose mainly because it was fairly safe. I had a few topics I was considering. One would have required me to get a whole bunch more computer science background that I didn't have; one was pretty interdisciplinary, which I've always heard makes things harder in all sorts of ways; and one didn't have anyone in my department who was working on that sort of topic themselves, so would have been hard for supervision. The other one was pretty open-opened, so I knew I could push it in any one of a bunch of directions later on if I wanted to extend it, and it was a topic that I knew people in my field would care about the results of (i.e. it would get cited a lot). Plus my supervisor did her own PhD 20 years ago on a very similar topic.

I pretty much hated that topic by the end, but I think that's normal. I learned a lot about what I DON'T want to do in the rest of my academic career. The painful bit was turning the diss into a book when I really really didn't care about the topic anymore. And now when I'm working on something much sexier for my postdoc, I still get email questions about the diss topic, and invited to talk on it at conferences, and my book just came out so I have be polite when people want to talk about it at parties.

On the other hand, at least I didn't destroy my love of the other possible topics and can "save" them to work on in the future.
posted by lollusc at 9:57 PM on February 7, 2013

Oh, and I also kind of wish I had picked something that "really" mattered. Mine was kind of angels dancing on pinheads level, and it would have been cooler to have something with (a) some policy implications or (b) something the general public might care about.

I once heard (about?) someone famous who used to ask students what they thought the most important and exciting research was that was happening in their field right now. And then he'd ask them why they weren't personally working in that area.
posted by lollusc at 9:59 PM on February 7, 2013

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