7 things I learned from completely changing my dissertation

Back in January, I finally realised that my dissertation project wasn’t the right one for me. I would need to start over, not just on a new project, but in a whole new field of my discipline. After taking a few months to find my feet, I’m ready to share seven things I’ve learned from this particular experience so far, about the academy and about myself.

1) Academics change their research much more than they generally admit. When I tell PhDs or PhD students close to defending that I’m starting over with a new dissertation topic in a whole other part of my field, the most common response is: “The same thing happened to me.” It’s not something we commonly talk about, but it’s out there.

2) Academic identities are often tied up in our research. I have overwhelmingly received gracious support from professors and students in both my previous area of research and my past one, and I am ever so grateful for that. Yet the switch has helped me to realise the extent to which we are encouraged to see ourselves as professionally synonymous with our research areas. Thus this transition is not a minor one. Understanding that I needed a change in direction meant learning how to see myself differently. I’ve been thinking of myself as a “political theorist” for a long time. Realising I didn’t fit snugly into the expectations that term generates was initially hard for me to accept. Until I found the right new research area for me, I had lost the reference points I used to describe myself in a way that we all use to make sense of a complex and varied discipline.

3) Research interests don’t always fit neatly into disciplinary fields or sub-fields (or disciplines, for that matter). I’ve always enjoyed reading, writing, and talking about political theory. It’s only in the last few months that I’ve come to realise why: I’m fascinated by the connections between the way that we think about things and the way that we do things, in the day-to-day practice of politics. Looking back, I know my Master’s work was doing the same thing: I was examining conceptions of privilege in anti-oppression education. I’ve generally found a home for a lot of this kind of work in political theory. Yet for my dissertation, I had designed a theoretical project that largely lacked empirical content, even though on some level I was trying to say something meaningful about those connections between thought and practice. The aspect I was passionate about had little space in the project I had designed, and I couldn’t answer the questions that interested me most. So I spun my wheels.

So I have made the move from studying feminist political theories of privilege to studying local and urban politics. Those of you who know me from my community activities will not be surprised by my new topic, particularly since I co-founded Smart Growth Waterloo Region last year. Most people, regardless of how they know me, see this as an enormous change. In a lot of ways, it is: I have a new (and tremendously welcoming) sub-field in urban and local politics. I have a new scholarly literature with which to familiarise myself. And because of the significantly more empirical nature of my new project, I have a different style of scholarship to which to adjust. I’m honestly having a blast soaking up all I can about my new area. Yet the differences aren’t that different, in a lot of ways. While my specific questions are very different, the guiding ones are the same. I am still passionate about the study of politics: how it works, why it works, and how it should work. I am still fascinated by the connections between societies, institutions, ideas, relationships, and chance. I’m just looking at it in another way and on a different scale.

4) Academic work is rarely a waste of time. Many people outside of the academy receive news of my change in direction as news of a wasted year of my life. Those inside tend to have more understanding that the time I spent on my first project wasn’t wasted at all. I learned a lot about an area I care about a great deal. I met and got to know fantastic people doing important and difficult academic work. I contributed to the body of knowledge on an important topic being produced by these fabulous folks. I also learned a lot about what motivates me as a researcher and as a member of academic and civic communities. The time I spent on my previous project taught me invaluable things about my discipline, the academy, and myself. It also helped me to develop skills I need as I move forward in my new dissertation project.

5) It’s entirely understandable that so many students don’t finish PhD programs. The least encouraging reaction to my news has consistently come from some of my fellow PhD students: those who have not made similar course corrections or encountered major decision points that have forced them to seriously re-evaluate what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what that means for who they are. Most of them cannot suppress a look of horror when I tell them I’ve made such a big change. I suspect their reaction accompanies the terror of having perhaps a decade of work thrown up in the air, and one’s life along with it.

Doing a PhD can be a tremendously rewarding experience, but it’s not one that is designed to encourage successful completion as well as it could. In my program, one is expected to have spent at least eight years in university before we’re sent off to produce a book-length manuscript intended to prove we’re worthy of being part of the club, and that will define our future (often presumed academic) careers.

I have been in my program for four years, and most of us who finish will take six years to do so. My own revelation came at a time in my program when I had spent nearly nine years studying political science in universities, and when my eligibility for external funding was about to end, causing my income as a PhD student to drop substantially and permanently.

I have been tremendously lucky to have had overwhelmingly supportive and helpful supervisors, both for my previous project and for my current one. I am also lucky to have financial stability in my life that does not depend on my university or my program. My various colleagues at many universities have had to contend with, at times, unsupportive supervision, inadequate funding without other incomes, and the arrival of children. Had I faced any of these while re-evaluating my project, it may well have been easy, or even necessary, to make a choice to leave my program.

6) I need to be able to connect what I learn in political science to what I learn in politics. I have mostly separated my academic work from my community work since the early days of my undergraduate career. I thought I could live with that separation. It turns out that I can’t. It took me a while to notice that I was trying to reconcile these two parts through a dissertation project that wasn’t designed to do that, and that never could.

I also hadn’t realised how discouraging I found it to be unable to have meaningful conversations about what I study with the people around me. Even surrounded, as I am, with engaged and active friends and colleagues in community circles and organisations, some of whom have training in my discipline, it was rare to have a chance to talk seriously about my work in a way that would be relevant and accessible. My new area is not only a topic that is interesting and relevant to me, but also to a broader and significant group in my community. It’s also at the heart of a lot of the important things happening in my neighbourhood, my city, and my part of the country. I needed to reconcile my outside interests and the communities that we’ve built up around them with my research. I now know that’s something I look for in my work.

7) I am profoundly interested in what is happening in my immediate vicinity, and this is an asset. Waterloo Region is a fascinating place. It’s fascinating because of some particular things happening in it (and I intend to tell you more in this space about that as I go, now that I can reasonably address a more diverse audience), but also because I’m connected to it.

That’s one way that my new project is consistent with my old one: it recognises the value of the position and experience of the researcher. While much of the social science world has treated abstraction and separation from one’s subject as a strongly held value, I (and an increasing number of other scholars) believe that we are not separate from our subjects. Researchers can never be fully objective and separated from our research, though many of us have gotten pretty good at pretending we can. The best we can hope for is to think seriously about how who we are affects the work that we do. This was a central question of my first dissertation project.

But realising that we can’t be truly separate and objective isn’t a problem; it’s an opportunity. In this case, studying politics in my community gives me the opportunity to do rigorous research that is close to home. Good research, regardless of its focus, often makes the familiar strange: it forces us to see what we think we know in a whole new light. I’m excited to use what is familiar to get an even more nuanced and detailed appreciation of the strange, while contributing to academic knowledge of political science and community knowledge about politics in Waterloo Region.


I suspect my learning from this experience is far from over, and I hope to share more with you as I have more to share. In the meantime, I hope you’ll share some of your own thoughts below. Did you make a major change to your thesis work? What did it mean for you?