Question about PhD dissertations (your experience)

Simple question about the dissertation process for people who have been there: Were you left to your own devices to pick a dissertation topic, or did your adviser hand you a specific topic and say "you're doing your dissertation on this", or somewhere in between?

It might also help if you say what kind of program you were in.

I'm asking this because my master's thesis adviser pretty much left it up to me (which was, frankly, a bit of a nightmare for me), while others in my program had advisers who said "You're doing it on this" and handed them a very specific topic and a list of 50 journal article references to get them started. So I know it is pretty variable at the master's level, but not sure about the PhD level.

Or maybe it is just specific to the program/adviser, and in order to know what it would be like to work with someone, I really just have to contact his/her current grad students.

Mean Joe

TS Contributor
My adviser had been in the field a while (20+ years teaching, wrote a text). He gave me a small (~5) list of topics, and asked if I was interested in any of them. I think at his point, he was looking for someone to inspire him/do some research with or for him, in some topics that he himself was interested in.

Ask your adviser if there's any things he is interested in. Tell him you want to know, because you want to know what interests a doctor of _______.
What were the last 3 conferences your adviser went to?
I was largely left to my own devices, but I was a pretty self-sufficient phd student... that being said I could feel how my adviser had rubbed off on me. So while I selected my own topic, her influence on me was definitely obvious to any outside viewer.

I told my adviser what I wanted to do and she approved and then just let me do it as I saw fit.

Personally, I would not have liked being told "this is what you will do" for any project let alone a thesis/dissertation.


Fortran must die
I was in public administration phd and my supervising professor left it entirely up to me to pick the topic (and pretty much everything else). The reality is unless you share a strong research interest and similar type of methods background with you supervisory professor this is likely. People are highly specialized at the doctoral level - this is particularly true I think in methods. It is entirely possible your supervisory professor won't be familiar with your methods - in this case it is a very very good idea to find someone in the university who is. And make sure your committee buys off on their approach. I did the former and not the later and paid heavily for it....

Doctoral programs are not much like master's programs, they are far more intense.


Omega Contributor
Depends on many things, but program and advisor are the big ones. As Mean Joe had an advisor with many ideas. I did medical research and came up with my topic and did most all of it on my own. Though I picked my dissertation chair who was more inline with the topic. My committee was not too hard on me, but I was left to should quite a bit. It is also all about the committee you put together as well. How much they help out or contribute, along with how needy you may be.