What to do if you are thinking of Changing your PhD Topic or Field
Completing your PhD research project is often a lengthy process that will at some stage almost certainly involve changes in your initial plans. The proposal you submitted when applying may have been written more than nine months before even starting the PhD. Changes are the norm, but the degree of change can vary considerably. This article outlines some considerations and actions to take if you are contemplating changing your topic or even your field.
A. When you need to consider the type of PhD you are doing
An initial factor to consider is the type of PhD you are writing, whether it is producing a number (usually three) of related articles which together form the thesis or the development of a thesis/dissertation (monograph). Projecting forward three possible articles is demanding, and plans may therefore change quite late in the PhD process if you are taking this option.
Regardless of the degree of change, the best first step to take is to seek the advice of your supervisor/advisor, who will be best placed to advise you on what you need to do and the extent of the changes to make.
B. When your learning evolves as you progress in your PhD
In some systems, such as in the American style of PhD programmes, it is common to write and defend a more substantial proposal, called a Prospectus, at the end of the first year of studies. The first year on these programmes often covers issues related to methodology at the PhD level, and your own research is almost certainly going to change in some way as a result.
The first two years are going to involve considerable reading around your chosen topic. Searching for answers to your initial research questions will reveal that some have already been answered. It is also likely that you will make discoveries suggesting additional or even alternative research routes that can be pursued. They add the novelty factor to your research, which is perhaps the most prized attribute of a research project. These new openings may lead you to modify the direction of your initial plans if you see more fruitful possibilities to make a contribution.
In all these scenarios, it may be possible to tweak the research question(s) to:
- Open up more possibilities.
- Narrow down their scope to be more readily answerable.
- Slightly shift direction to find a new area to explore.
Again, seeking advice from your supervisor is best here. Consulting with second supervisors or other professors with whom you share interests will also often help.
Note: Be aware that acquiring too many opinions and advice can also become confusing if you receive varying or contradictory answers.
C. When more serious scenarios are involved with your PhD
Sometimes, changes become necessary because of events outside of your control that impact your initial plans. This could be because of:
- Scientific developments in your area of expertise
- Finding new research which covers a similar area to your own
- Serious repercussions resulting from external factors, such as a pandemic or unexpected conflict
Sometimes, other factors can also prove more challenging: the chosen type of data may not become available or may not yield the results you were expecting or hoping for.
To address these issues, it may still be possible to make small changes to your central research question(s), which will generate new information. Perhaps you can still change the data source, adjust your methods slightly and carry out the research regardless.
Alternatively, you may be able to adopt a different theoretical approach to the same problem, or bring in a different approach from an outside discipline.
As always, your supervisor and other academics may be able to offer good advice.
D. When you are feeling disillusioned or demotivated about the PhD
Sometimes, you might just lose motivation, feel bored with the studies or feel that the research is going nowhere.
In this case, before you decide to take any drastic decisions, it might just be a good idea to get some distance from your studies, take a break and do something completely different. Then, when you’re feeling rested, come back to the research with fresh eyes and reassess the situation. (If this is the case, you may also find this article useful: What to do when you Lose the Motivation to Complete your PhD)
In research, change is to be expected: ideas develop, research pushes forward to open new doors… or sometimes, closes them. If you encounter a problem, it does not necessarily mean you have to make big and drastic changes to your overall PhD project. Often, a minor amendment here or an infinitesimal tweak there will be enough. Whatever you choose to do, always discuss your concerns and plans with your supervisor to get the perspective and guidance you need to move forward in the best and most efficient way possible.
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