Changing Direction

This guest post is by Perin Westerhof Nyman. Perin is entering the fourth year of her PhD in the School of History at the University of St Andrews. Her research considers the use of dress as a political tool in the Scottish royal household, particularly during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. She also works as a research assistant on the Smart History ‘Virtual Time Binoculars’ project.

[This is a really important post for anyone who’s dealing with a very difficult, challenging event. I’ll be back next week with a video!- Jimmy]

Coping with major changes to your topic, angle of argument, and/or structure during your PhD

At my PhD induction, a week into my first year, we were addressed by several of that year’s third-year and graduating students. One of them told us about the struggle of having to completely change her topic and focus at the end of her first year. She told us that it was difficult, but possible; that sometimes it was worth doing, despite the problems it raised, because it could give you a new enthusiasm for your work, and make it possible to finish where it might not have been otherwise.

At the time, I sat listening with appreciation for the hurdle she had overcome, but also a bit of smug confidence that I would not have similar challenges: I had known what my PhD topic was going to be since my undergrad. I had started the work already. I knew what questions I wanted to ask, and I had some idea of where the answers might lead me. I knew what sources I needed to start with, and which authors to read. I thought I had my whole first year ironed out.

But on induction day this year, for the second year in a row, I will be giving our latest crop of first-years the exact same advice about changing topics as I was given three years ago. Because, at my very first supervisory meeting, only days after my own induction, my thesis plan changed significantly. I was to ask the same question, but apply it to Scotland rather than England. My supervisors made a compelling argument for the shift in focus, and I was only at the beginning of my first year, so I didn’t think a change of topic was too big of a deal. So I agreed.

I’m still glad I made that decision, but it required a subsequent series of topical and structural shifts to actually make it work, and these led to a lot of uncertainty and anxiety on my part. Everyone kept telling me that third year was the universal ‘worst year,’ but, now that my own third year is officially ending, I can say with confidence that first year took that particular cake by a long shot.

In my first year, lack of extant evidence necessitated a widening of my topic and time period, which made me feel unfocused and a little unsure of my direction. I began to lose faith in being able to write a successful thesis with the evidence available, let alone enjoying any part of the process. In my second year, as a result, I narrowed my topic again: I was now focusing on something that better held my interest, but it was not the direction I had initially planned to take, which felt like a risky change to make that late in the game. I told myself, at the time, that I was only shifting some of the chapters, in order to include a supporting case study on a parallel topic, which made it feel like less of a big deal. But those few chapters quickly became 30,000 words, and then 50,000 words, and now, as I enter my fourth and final year, what started as a case study has become the core of my argument.

For me, this shift in focus worked for a few important reasons. Most significantly, I was asking the same underlying question that I had started with, and I was using the same basic set of extant evidence, but I was coming at both from a completely different angle. This allowed me to change how I thought about the topic, to make connections that I hadn’t been seeing before, and to re-structure my argument and my thesis in a way that better fit the extant material – but without starting at square one in terms of my research. This prevented me from going completely over the edge! 

There are, of course, some people who have a plan going in, and who follow it all the way to their conclusion without a hiccup. But for a lot of us, that’s just not how it works out. So if, like many PhD students, you’re finding that something about your work just doesn’t sit right, or isn’t capturing your attention anymore, or isn’t going to work for one reason or another, here are some things to think about: 

Is there a different way you could ask your question? 

Is there a different way you could approach your evidence? 

Is there a different way you could structure your discussion? 

Sometimes, these small changes can be enough to renew your enthusiasm and sense of direction. The changes that my thesis has undergone along the way have been relatively significant, but you don’t necessarily need to completely shift focus to make a difference. A friend of mine decided, half way through her third year, to switch from a topical structure to a combined chronological/thematic one. It was a simple change, but it required a complete re-write of her chapters, and she didn’t have the full support of her supervisor when she first proposed it. But the more she thought about it, the more she was sure that it would allow her to make better use of her evidence, and, writing-wise, to get back on track and feel like she was more in control of her argument (even though the core of the argument itself didn’t change). 

Personally, I am very grateful that my supervisors have consistently trusted me to make the changes to my thesis that I have felt I needed to. That’s not always the case, and several of my colleagues have experienced varying levels of pushback when they have raised the idea of major changes to topic or structure. This is a very fair reaction, and you should listen to what your supervisors have to say, if this is something you’re contemplating! They’ve seen a lot of theses go through, and their job is to get you to the finish line in as reasonable an amount of time and as straightforward a manner as possible, for the sake of your health and theirs. That said, as several very experienced scholars have reminded me throughout this process – including, most recently, my own supervisor – it is, ultimately, your thesis. You know it best, and you know yourself best. 

So if this is sounding familiar to you, take a step back, evaluate whether a change in topic or structure is going to make the difference between finishing or not finishing, or whether it’s going to significantly affect your mental health along the way, and then make the decision that will most positively impact your work. (And then make a full outline and a new chapter plan so you can test your theory, and so your supervisors can sleep at night. And then, possibly, throw that outline out the window, and repeat as necessary.)

Perhaps most importantly, remember that needing to make changes to your thesis plan is not a failure. Follow your evidence, and write the best thing you can. You can always come back to the other topics later.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Jimmy via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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