It surprises many people who haven’t done a PhD that it can be hard to know what your topic really is.

When you first start a PhD your ideas can shift around a lot; it may seem like from week to week you change your mind. Over time you would hope this situation would settle down, but I meet many people who have two or more topics struggling to be in the same thesis, right up to the last minute.

I call this the Incredible Hulk Complex: too much man, too little shirt (your poor thesis text is the shirt in this metaphor by the way).

I am no stranger to the Incredible Hulk complex. I originally got into a PhD program proposing that I would investigate the use of genetic algorithms in architectural design. I ended up looking at how architects use gesture as they are designing together.

It was hard to let go of all the interests that I had but, to paraphrase what a wise man once wrote, there can be only One Topic. Only one Topic can rule them all, find them, bring them all and in the darkness bind them. My supervisor gets the credit for convincing me to do work on gesture – and he has my undying thanks.

How do you know when you have the One Topic? Here’s how I knew:

1) I found there was substantial work in the area already

This may run counter to the idea that a thesis has to be an ‘original contribution to knowledge’, but there’s doable original and too original. If some work in the area exists already you have something to hold onto, examine and critique if necessary.

When I decided to look at gesture I naively thought there wouldn’t be much work on it – how wrong was I! There was about 200 years of research in the area of gesture already. I found this demoralising until I realised that only about 3 people had looked at architects and none had looked at education – a nice little gap was still left for me to squeeze into.

2) I thought it was fascinating

Gesture is a compulsive thing – you can’t help doing it. When you think about it as you do it, it becomes really hard to talk. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean. Did you know that even blind people gesture? They gesture when they are on the phone – to other blind people! If we gesture to communicate with others, why would blind people need do it?

Obviously I still find gesture mysterious and fascinating, even after three years of looking at it. This curiosity and desire to know kept me going. When all else looked bleak and I was slamming doors in my house in a fit of PhD rage I could always return to and draw from this well of curiosity. I really don’t think I could have finished without this thirst to know –  I know that sounds dorky, but that’s how it was.

3) Other people said “wow – what a great topic” when I told them

Apart from one of the mothers at my son’s school who said with genuine disbelief “What the hell would you want to study that for!?” everyone else I talked to about my topic found it interesting. Especially (and this is the most important thing) all the architecture academics in my faculty, my home university and at conferences I went to.

Since academics found it interesting they would remember that I was doing it and send me articles. Lots of people would come to my seminars when I had work to present. I got a lot of help from others, I think because they genuinely wanted to know what I would find out.

4) It wasn’t too hot

Genetic algorithms in architecture used to be HOT. Who remembers that now? God – so early 2000’s… Gesture however is timeless. Others may dispute my findings, build on my work, dismiss it, but it will always be part of the discourse.

Of course, it is impossible for every topic to be timeless. Scientists in particular know it is highly unlikely their work will be relevant for more than 3 years. If it can’t be timeless it is good to work in a field that has the potential develop further, so you can still be a part of it as it moves on.

5) It had clear limits

This point relates back to point one. Since there was work in the field already there were pre-existing boundaries to the work I could do and stay ‘original’. Since I decided to focus on a location (gesture in architectural education) there was a lot that didn’t have to make it in to the thesis. The topic acted like a sieve which only certain things passed through.

How did you know you had the right topic – or are you still slightly green and hulky?

Oh – and thanks to @iambuttons for suggesting this week’s top 5!

Related posts

How to turn your PhD into a Book (part one)

The ghost of the ideal scholar

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