Rethinking my MA thesis topic - is it too late to change direction?
July 17, 2015 2:28 PM   Subscribe

I submitted a prospectus to my thesis committee last month, but haven't started work on the thesis. Since I submitted the prospectus, I've come to have some doubts about whether or not this is the thesis topic for me. I'd like to take things in a slightly different, but still related, direction. Is is too late for me to do that without coming across as flaky, uncommitted, or reluctant to accept criticism?

I submitted a thesis prospectus to my committee last month. The committee has three members. One immediately said that he liked the idea, but suggested that it was a bit too ambitious and asked me to scale it back some. On reflection he was 100% right, and I emailed the committee saying that I planned to do this. The other two committee members got in touch with me earlier this week. One was very positive and had a few very useful suggestions for me to think about. The other had positive comments, but said he wouldn't vote yea or nay until I revised the prospectus to address some questions he had.

This all seems pretty par for the course. I expected to get this kind of feedback and to work on incorporating the committee's suggestions. (I really want to emphasize that I was having concerns even before getting the constructive criticism from my last two committee members. This is not about being unable to accept criticism. In fact, I love constructive criticism - it makes my work better!)

The problem is that I am starting to seriously question the value of the topic. It's a pretty unusual one - a mix of philosophy and historical finance - and while it is interesting to me I worry that it won't be really contributing to any useful literature, and that my time could be better spent on other work. It feels a bit like academic masturbation...a lot of fun, but not really helpful to anyone.

In addition to this MA, I work full-time at a think tank, and much of my work there is policy research. I'm getting quite a bit of my work published these days - several papers by the end of this year, plus some opinion pieces and blogs. I would prefer to take my thesis in a more policy-oriented direction. Complication: my MA is hosted by a Philosophy department (it is extremely similar to, but not the same as, this program). Everyone in the department appreciates the value of policy work but they are philosophers by trade. Additional complication: one of my committee members is also my colleague here at work. He is very senior to me, very well respected in our program, and I really want to maintain a good relationship with him.

tl;dr - Is it too late to take my thesis in a different direction? If not, how can I navigate this with my committee without seeming flaky, uncommitted, or reluctant to accept criticism?
posted by schroedingersgirl to Human Relations (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It seems you have two things going for you regarding making a change in your thesis proposal. First, your committee members reacted individually to your proposal and each had slightly different feedback and concerns about the topic. Second, you want to revise your proposal to something related to the initial topic that you think will be more impactful in the field.

Instead of just saying "hey, I changed my mind about my thesis topic", which could make you seem a bit flaky, why not frame the change you want to make as having been prompted by their feedback as well as your own desire to produce a more meaningful piece of work?
posted by DrGail at 3:04 PM on July 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

A change of emphasis is usually simple to negotiate, since it's expected that most theses will depart from the prospectus as they are drafted. It may be harder to manage if that change involves downplaying the philosophy component in favor of more policy-oriented matters, but this depends on how comfortable your committee members are with applied work. It sounds like at least one of them already has substantial policy experience, so this may not be an issue.

If you decide to make the switch, I would approach your committee chair first, and do so with a well worked-out alternative proposal already thoroughly drafted. This will both show your commitment to the project and save several initial rounds of back-and-forth. You should also clearly explain your rationale for wanting to make the change. Here I would highlight the desire to turn the thesis into a publishable article, and your worries that the current version falls short of that. (Probably best to avoid describing it as "academic masturbation" though...) If you pitch this in terms of your desire to contribute to your growing research profile, that may sit well with your advisers. Everyone loves having students who are successfully publishing so early.

The only warning I'd add is that you get only one chance to make these sorts of course corrections. What faculty most lack is time, and having to read and comment on one new proposal after another will absolutely trigger the perception of flakiness you're hoping to avoid. If you feel strongly that the revised topic will lead in a more productive direction, then write it up and try pitching it in those terms to your adviser. If he or she declines to sign off on the change, the worst case scenario is that you still get to write up a project that's interesting to you--not too bad, all things considered.
posted by informavore at 3:13 PM on July 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

To me, the issue is less about seeming flaky or unable to accept criticism and more about asking presumably busy people to give you feedback on a second thesis proposal after they've already taken the time to give you feedback on a first proposal. Giving you this feedback is probably pretty far down the priority list of these people and it is pretty easy to imagine one of them making a frowny face about having to do it again. By not having things thought through, you might be seen as demonstrating that you don't value their time.

Or not; maybe this kind of thing happens pretty regularly? This is a good time to work your network: more advanced graduate students, faculty that you know who aren't on the committee, support staff in the department. Ask them, "Is this kind of thing done?", and if the answer to that is "maybe, sometimes", which it probably is, then find out whether these specific people going to be irritated about it and how can you make it the least irritating for them.

There is probably a way to get what you need in an inoffensive way but in my opinion the details will be highly personality and department specific.
posted by Kwine at 3:15 PM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers so far! I just want to jump in quickly to clarify one thing. I don't think that the shift in direction would require me to create an entirely new prospectus. The version I submitted last month was basically Thing A, with a side of Thing B. I want to switch the emphasis, so that the main focus in Thing B, with a side of Thing A. I'm pretty confident that I can do that while revising the first draft of the prospectus to address their suggestions.

Do you think I could frame it as, "Thanks for your helpful feedback. I've attached your questions and concerns in the attached. While I was revising, I realized that a stronger emphasis on Thing B would put me on stronger theoretical footing and allow me to make more substantive contributions to Related Policy Area. In other to avoid biting off too much, that means that my focus on Thing A has diminished somewhat to accommodate this new emphasis on Thing B. What do you think?"

And I definitely won't refer to the original topic as "academic masturbation" to them. I'm not that socially inept! :)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:05 PM on July 17, 2015

Answer to your question: to me, a professor, you'd seem flaky for doing this. I'd roll my eyes (not in your presence) and think about how I am going to have to work with you on a totally different topic all over again. I'm going to have to read new drafts. I'm going to have to guide you again on a new area of literature. I myself may have to become fairly familiar with a new area of literature in order to appropriately evaluate your thesis.
Then I'd think about where terminal MA theses exist in my priorities. And, unfortunately, they rank sort of low. I have my own writing to do. I have teaching to do. And I have doctoral students for whom my investment into their work pays off more for me. (Although certainly there are programs, especially European and/or professional ones, where advising on MA theses is a huge part of one's service obligation and cannot be avoided, but still.) So I would say, "Gosh, SG, you've worked so hard on your prospectus. Why aren't you going to continue with that? It seemed like a good idea and Bob and Sarah also approved. Seems like it'd be a lot of work to start over." And then if you said "Oh, I want to do this totally other topic because X, Y, and Z," I wouldn't fight you on it, but I would think to myself that there is only a 66% chance that you will actually complete this MA thesis and that's sad. And I'd again think to myself that you are flaky.

My take: If your goal is to just get the MA (I'm assuming) and move on with your life and NOT go on to a PhD, you should just do your thesis as you've defended it.
You've already done the initial literature review. You've already written the proposal. You've already defended the proposal. You've already got 3 faculty members on board.
If you would have asked me before you wrote it, I would have suggested doing something traditional versus creative.

Harsh words, I apologize, but as a faculty member and as a friend to many people who did terminal MAs (and an owner of an MA thesis myself), these theses almost always end up sitting on Dropbox and forgotten forever. They seldom are groundbreaking. They usually are just a halfway decent literature review and some analysis that wasn't conducted up to stuff for publication. (This is even true of MA theses for people that go onto the PhD. Lots of lessons are learned at the MA thesis stage.) As long as you do a decent job, they'll pass you. And then move on to other things that they have to do.
You've already done a good portion of the work. Given that you have a fulltime job, the time you have to do all that work again is even more limited than a fulltime student. Why not just write the damn thing as is, get your degree and move on?
posted by k8t at 4:48 PM on July 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

After your update:

If you merely want to emphasis subtopic a bit more, go to your advisor in person and run the idea by him/her.
posted by k8t at 4:52 PM on July 17, 2015

In response to the update: yes, that sounds like a very politic way to frame things.
posted by informavore at 7:11 PM on July 17, 2015

Also a prof. You wouldn't seem particularly flaky to me. Around the median grad student level, which might be summarized as "a little flaky."

On the one hand, unless there are weirdnesses with UK schools you haven't mentioned, it's not too late until your advisor/committee says so.

But on the other hand, you seem like you're overthinking this particular plate of beans. Which is normal. Your MA thesis is a big deal to you. For most terminal students, it's the largest project they've completed and probably the largest piece of writing they will do. It's normal to want it to be just right, and to reflect the best of you, and so on. But the fact is that the people who will read your thesis carefully and thoroughly are you, your advisor, and N-1 of your remaining N committee members. They don't need to be particularly useful to anyone else, and academic masturbation is totally fine.

So my real advice would be like k8t's -- finish what you've started, get the driver's license, and move on.

I gather you want to switch your thesis to something that will be more useful to your main job, but consider this. You've probably already done most of the work just in coming up with the prospectus, and that work is a sunk cost. Switching to a more job-relevant topic now won't take any less time than just picking up that topic after you have your MA in hand, it will just take longer to get that MA in hand. And, unless they're very different in the UK than I'm familiar with, an MA thesis is structured and written so differently from a journal submission (much less a blog entry or editorial) that the writing you do for your thesis will be of little value to you when it's time to switch to a less cover-your-ass format.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:42 PM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Isn't the whole point of submitting it to the committee that you get feedback and then possibly change your topic based on that feedback?

I think that theses never end up quite like the original proposal anyway and I think it would be fair enough if you said, "I've received some really valuable feedback and it has prompted me to reconsider some aspects of my topic" then present an edited proposal.

I'd suggest keeping your topic as something that you find fun and interesting and definitely want to write about, since you're the one who is going to be spending so much time and energy working on it. But definitely feel free to come up with an edited proposal and submit it to the committee. If your edits are based on feedback you have received, I don't really see how they could view that as being flaky.

It feels a bit like academic masturbation...

Doesn't that describe most academic writing? ;-)
posted by kinddieserzeit at 3:09 AM on July 18, 2015

I recently completed my master's thesis and my advisor actually kept wanting me to change my focus through much of the process (enough that it drove me insane but that's another story). I think, especially if your committee wants you to address some concerns anyway, that shifting your focus a bit is fine, and that your planned way of framing it is good.
posted by ferret branca at 11:16 AM on July 18, 2015

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