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PhD topic or, don’t worry it’s only your life

We ask a lot of kids, I say kids, but I guess more accurately I mean teenagers. The pipeline (here in the US anyway) is high school then, if you’re lucky enough, college. The pipeline assumes you have a clear idea at 18 what you want to be doing until retirement, which in the US is ~65 again, if you’re lucky. While in college you get a short four years, on average, to figure it out and do the work to get the degree you desire. Then you’re forced into another choice, work or more education? I don’t know about the former, but I do know about the latter choice.

As a “non-traditional” student I didn’t follow the high school -> university pipeline. I went into the military, for a lot of reasons really, but one of them was I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As an aside (which I’m famous for around here) I hated high school, I grew up with little clothing, like not even enough to have a different outfit for each day of the week little. So I was bullied like it was my fault or something. I figured college would be the same and why would I go through another four or more years of that hell. Instead, I picked a different kind of hell, I say hell, but it worked out for the better in the long run.

By the time I went to college I was a sage mid-twenty year old who had seen the world, fought in a war, and had the physical health of someone three or four times my age. But I had the advantage, I knew with a laser focused clarity where I wanted to be, I just had no idea how to get there. Over the years, and years, and years, of schooling I’ve had, I realized not everyone is that lucky. Even those who have a good idea what they want their undergrad degree in may not have any clue what’s next.

As a mentor, I wanted to prep the students I was working with for that choice. It’s not fair, but in life, things are seldom fair. Kay has been working with me basically every week for the past three years, maybe a little longer. She’s sharp and knew what she wanted to do for her undergrad degree, but when it came time to discuss her future, she knew she wanted a PhD. That was it, she had no idea what the focus would be on.

The problem is in undergrad you’re bombarded with a little bit from every field, close to the end of your degree (from what I’ve seen anyway on the engineering side of things) you get the chance to take electives to somewhat specialize in something you found interesting. In my undergrad education, that was control theory, I still love it to this day, but as an undergrad I only got a year to take all the “fun” courses I wanted. However, I got introduced to everything from thermodynamics to material properties.

Even with an undergrad focus on control theory, my Masters was focused on mechanical design, and now my PhD is in neuroengineering. Each degree BS -> MS -> PhD funnels you to a more narrow field and this is by design. So last year anticipating grad school applications I started to really drill home the idea of what Kay wanted to study for her PhD. Because you can get a degree in anything, but your area of focus is what you’ll be known for. My area of focus is neuroengineering, but my degree is technically from the electrical engineering department. They were less strict about the degree requirements so I got to take all the “fun” classes the biomedical engineering department wouldn’t let me.

Kay wasn’t sure so I gently pushed her to think about it and for the past year and a half or so I’ve been anxiously waiting to her her tell me something she wanted to study that was narrow enough for a PhD. Cutting it close Kay..

Well it worked out for the best because one day while we were talking about it she said she really wanted to study movement disorders from the neuroengineering standpoint. It was an off hand comment because she thought that wasn’t focused enough, but lo and behold that was all I needed and we were off lab hunting last summer. Since fall is grad school application season, we were on a deadline, but it’s paid off for Kay.

We found several labs doing stuff she’s really interested in learning more about and has applied to basically all of them. We’ve (or rather she’s) already got good responses back from her top pick, so I’m excited for her and I look forward to seeing where she ends up.

I like to think I’m a descent mentor. I make sure to let the people I’m mentoring know that while I don’t have any real power, if they have a problem I will be happy to jump in to defend them. It’s sort of my thing. Kay has been my first student who I’ve worked with for basically their entire undergrad. Normally my mentorship lasts a year, maybe slightly longer, but never by much. So for Kay I feel particularly proud of passing on the gift of clarity.

When we met she knew she wanted a PhD, but like so many had no idea what the next steps were. She knew roughly the field she wanted her PhD in, but not the topic and in the PhD world the topic is your “hello world” moment. Knowing the topic gives her not only an upper hand when it comes to finding the lab for her, it also means she will have an easier time finding funding and a (hopefully) shorter time in her PhD program. It’s a gift that will follow her forever basically and words cannot express how happy I am that I got to help nudge her enough to figure it out before she blindly applied for different programs.

I’ve given her a lot of advice over the years. From encouragement, “you’re more capable than you know” to important bits I wished I had known, “look at the department requirements for your PhD and ask the PI about funding.” Which is yet another reason for my 365 days of academia project. Buried between the mental health, physical health, and day to day are posts like this. Posts designed to help, hopefully you my dear reader, in figuring out what the hell is next.

So if you’re an undergrad, or to a lesser degree, a Masters student, who wants a PhD, my advice is spend ample time thinking about the topic of your PhD. Trust me, I know this first hand, a PhD is a LOT of work. You don’t want to go into it without knowing what you’ll get out of it. You may not have as much time as Kay did to figure it out, but even just sitting down and writing out the things that interest you will help you decide.

How narrow a topic do you need to pick? The truth is the narrower the better. Kay picked movement disorders and coming at it from a neuroengineering standpoint that would be stuff like EEG and a brain-machine interface type work. Stuff we do in the lab already, but I would say even picking brain-machine interfaces (BMI’s) as a topic of study without a “sub-topic” is far too broad a topic. The difference between that and what Kay wants is that her pick is a subset of BMI making it perfect for her. It’s not so narrow in scope that she is needlessly limiting herself either.

My advice would be to pick something fairly narrow, I picked spinal cord injury for example. It’s broad enough that I can explore the field some, but narrow enough that I’m not spending years exploring. Your PhD gives you two or three years for exploration, more if you need it and don’t mind spending more than five years getting it. For me, since I had my topic going in, that time was spent getting up to speed and I hope to finish in five so more than three years is probably going to add time to your degree, which is why we want to narrow the scope down enough to explore the field, but only a little.

So how do you pick? Well that I have no great advice about. I tried several different things with Kay. I introduced her to a whole bunch of different experiments I’ve done over the years and gave her suggestions, but in the end, she was the one who figured it out (even if she didn’t realize it at the time). Was my advice and experiences helpful? I like to think so, but it’s not exactly clear.

Thus, my only suggestion is to think about the stuff that interests you and try to tie it to a field. Since I’m an engineer I can only really come at it from that angle (since that’s my only experience), but I knew spinal cord injury was what interested me and I really liked the idea of brain-machine interface for prosthetic purposes. So I just mashed the two together in a unique way. Kay liked EEG and learning how to decode signals, but that’s not narrow enough. When she combined it with movement disorders, we now had a good topic. See how that works?

Another recent example from the BMI lab I work in is EEG for determining gait changes with above knee amputees. In that case they wanted to apply BMI for prosthetic control during a specific task and it gets further narrowed down for the dissertation through some fine tuning and help from your PI. Having a topic in mind is important because you could, in theory anyway, just get a topic from the lab PI because they will have several projects you could contribute to. While this requires little or no forethought, it also means you could be left doing something that doesn’t really interest you.

If I haven’t said this enough, a PhD is a lot of work. You really, REALLY, want to pick a research topic that interests you. That doesn’t mean you won’t explore other fields, for instance I recently published on seizure detection even though it’s not the stuff I’m interested in exactly, it was just something fun I wanted to try. Having a well-thought out topic means you can find the opportunities that interest you and the people that can help you grow as a researcher (assuming research is your thing).

To sum everything up (or TL;DR) put thought into the field you want to do your PhD in and make sure it’s narrow enough that you’re not wasting years in the program figuring it out. I mean you can, if you want to, who am I to judge?

4 responses

  1. I had a couple friends who I think were into their third undergrad year before realizing they wanted to change majors. Another got all the way through a Film degree and partway through law school before deciding he didn’t want to do either, and getting a graduate degree in Computer Science. In all cases, it wasn’t so much that they were indecisive … it was more that the actual experience of the work showed them they didn’t like it or weren’t cut out for it.

    If I’d needed to do that sort of meandering, the lost time would horrify me. And it doesn’t seem good for anybody; the students rack up more debt, and society’s chance to benefit from whatever they end up doing is delayed. But how to prevent that kind of thing? I’m not sure.

    Planning ahead and making sure you know your own interests is better than nothing, though, and I’m glad you’re helping people do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 31, 2022 at 4:38 pm

    • Yeah I think stories like that are really common. It’s sad because that’s so much time, effort, and money just gone. School expenses leave most people with a huge debt afterwards too so it would be best to have a clear idea going in what you want.

      Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, but I think when it comes to the choice to do a PhD, it makes sense to sit down and really figure out what you want out of it. I feel like if you’ve made the commitment it’s worth the extra effort. To me, even if it doesn’t amount to anything and you decide to change fields/programs/focus, at least you’re thinking about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      February 1, 2022 at 1:16 pm

  2. Couldn’t have said it better i ma having the same problem with my thesis cz my advisors wanted it to be a broad topic it was terrible had to do so many things change the topic several times plus it’s impossible to publish when you don’t have a specific target

    Liked by 1 person

    March 26, 2022 at 10:50 pm

    • That’s an excellent point, not being able to publish is the other problem with a broad topic. It’s hard to narrow it when your PI really wants you to do something broad. Best of luck though, I hope you get it figured out!

      Liked by 1 person

      March 27, 2022 at 10:32 am

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