How to choose the topic of your PhD?

Posted: April 10, 2014 in Blatantly Patronizing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Now that you have no doubt whatsoever that you were born to do a PhD, and because you know oh-so-well how intimate you are going to be with the topic of that PhD, you probably want to be extra-careful with the choice of that topic, leaving nothing to random. So how to chose that topic? That’s simple: you don’t. Let me tell you about that, through a little story.

That’s the story of a little cute rabbit (yeah, I know, it doesn’t start so well) who gets caught by a mean hungry fox. The fox is about to devour the poor rabbit, when he (the rabbit) starts pleading “you can’t eat me, I’m about to defend my PhD Thesis, and it’s been almost one year of hard work (in rabbit years, that’s a lot, believe me). Please let me defend, and eat me tomorrow”. The fox is not entirely stupid – as is to be expected of foxes – and knows well that he shouldn’t let the rabbit go, but he is also well educated and pretty curious, so he ask about the thesis subject. “Oh, that. It’s “Demonstration of the superiority of rabbits over foxes through non-linear models of inferred non-Bayesian statistics”. The fox is very doubtful, but as he is also, logically, very respectful of science (and impressed by big words even if they are nonsensical). So, he asks the rabbit to show him his PhD, and if he is convinced, then he will let him defend; otherwise, he will eat him. “Fair enough, says little rabbit, let’s get to my burrow and fetch my manuscript”. When the fox enters what is eventually a much, much larger burrow than would be expected for a rabbit, especially a graduate student one, he comes face to face with a mighty lion. “There, goes little rabbit, this is my supervisor, who will be making the demonstration”. The lion grabs the fox, and eats it in one bite. End of story.

The moral of this story is that the topic of your PhD student is not what matters.

What does matter is who you supervisor is.

Now that may seem a little far-fetched, but this is really what I do think, but not in that cynical denier-of-fairness way. In a much more positive way. If you are really into scientific research, you will be interested in your research, regardless on the species and the precise question. You may now think that you could never ever work on something else than those stupid birds or those puny ants, but believe me, if science is what moves you deep down, you will get interested in microbial interactions and plant adaptation as well. I know. I was first rather disappointed by my own PhD topic, about domestic cats and viruses (don’t laugh please). Far from the glamour I was then hoping for. But I rapidly got caught by the amazing studies existing in epidemiology as marker of population processes, by host-parasite relationships and the esthetical esotery of their dynamics and by the plain fun of nocturnal field work in the undergrounds of Lyons’ hospitals… And I learned a lot.

Eventually, what really matters for you is who you supervisor is, not because he will pull strings for you, but because he will be providing you with a sexy project (regardless of the species), an enriching scientific environment and a robust formation that will help you make an enjoyable, successful thesis and a prolific carrier afterwards. And how do you choose that supervisor? That’s the topic of my next entry. But not before a while, now I’m going to take care of a few foxes that my little rabbits just brought me…



  1. […] we’ve seen already how students should choose their research topic (here) and how they should select their supervisor (here). Fortunately, we supervisors also have a say in […]


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