Choosing a PhD topic can be very hard. There are a lot of things to consider from the subject to the supervisor.

Here are some tips to help you choose.

Find out what you really like

This is the first topic because it is the most important. My first advice would be to get some “field experience” before entering a PhD program. To go straight from a classroom to earning your PhD is quite risky. How do you know if you will love working in a lab if you haven’t really done it yet?

Speaking from my own experience – my taste has changed a lot since I left my classroom years behind me. The more I work, the more I find things that I absolutely love that I thought I would hate, and vice-versa.

Science has trends. Don’t be fooled by them

Just like in fashion, science also has trendy subjects – from stem cells, to nanotechnology, to genetics therapy. There are always one or two topics each year that appear to steal all the focus. And money. It is quite easy to be seduced by the topic du jour, but you might end up with a PhD in a topic that doesn’t really do anything for you.

Because these subjects grab a lot of attention, they also have a lot of funding. You might think it will make your PhD easier to come by. However, remember that you are stuck with your subject for at least 4 years. That is a lot of time to have something on your mind 24/7, if you don´t really love it.

Which brings me to…

A PhD is like a relationship

I am not saying a PhD will replace all relationships in your life, or that you will have to forsake them all for a PhD. What I am saying is that a PhD will feel like both a personal and a professional relationship. It will take a lot of your time. It will take a lot of effort and it might feel like a “third wheel” in your life. Think about what you really, really want to do. Don’t get yourself into a four-year relationship if you don’t see a future in it.

Supervisors from hell

In an ideal world, every supervisor would feel the responsibility to help their PhD student to succeed and have a wonderful career. That unfortunately is not always the case. Maybe they are swamped with work, maybe they don’t really know how to help, maybe they don’t want to help. Whatever is going on, it is not easy to feel like you are working completely alone with no one to turn to for help.

The best way to avoid this situation is to learn about your potential supervisor before-hand. However, this is not always possible. If you find yourself in a bad relationship with your supervisor, try to turn to your colleagues for help. Look for help from your laboratory group, other mentors or your college friends. You can even find help on a website. There is always help out there, so don’t worry.

Nothing is set in stone

This is the relieving truth. Yes, choosing a PhD is hard and unfortunately, we all can make mistakes. This is what I can tell you: I have met people with terrible supervisors who managed to finish their PhD with outstanding grades and careers; I have met people who absolutely hated their PhD topic – they endured it and in the end they came up with a great work, and easily made the transition to another field of their choice. And I have met people who had a change of heart in the middle of their PhD, decided to leave, and they are happy now.

Nothing is set in stone, and we can always find out what we really love to do. It is never too late.

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One Comment

  1. Hey, this article is too good! It made my choice a bit easier. I had to choose between a PhD position in hand (in a topic I wasn’t really interested) vs. a position which is awaited due to funding (but has a topic of research that I would absolutely love to pursue no matter how difficult it may seem or be in the future, I can endure anything to go for this topic)

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