Should Applicants to a Ph.D Program Have a Fully-Formed Dissertation Idea in Mind When They Apply?


I often counsel undergraduates and M.A. students, both my students and others, about applying to Ph.D programs.  I talked a bit about what I sometimes say to them in Episode 37 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Every now and then an applicant will tell me that they have been rejected by a graduate program in history because their potential adviser does not think they have developed a fully-formed dissertation idea.  (Or at least this is what the potential adviser told them).

So I ask our readers:  Must an applicant to a Ph.D program have a fully-formed dissertation idea in mind when they apply for admission?  I am not referring to a general field of study or even a particular topic within that field of study, I am referring to an actual dissertation topic.

How many of you history Ph.Ds out there actually had a dissertation topic in mind the moment you set foot on the university campus to begin your program?

3 thoughts on “Should Applicants to a Ph.D Program Have a Fully-Formed Dissertation Idea in Mind When They Apply?

  1. Applications to US doctoral programs really do need to thread the needle: enough specificity to convey an investment in a field or a set of questions, but not so much that the dissertation topic itself seems predetermined.

    From my experience reading applications, admission committees tend to believe that the several years of coursework will help students evolve as scholars; an applicant who is over-committed to a topic raises the fear that the student will be rigid and uninterested in doing broad coursework across time, space, and methodology. This works against an applicant. Likewise, I think admission committees increasingly want to see applicants who will utilize multiple members of the faculty; to name a dissertation topic at the time of application can make that harder to imagine, and thus more difficult to build a consensus among the committee around admission.

    When I advise applicants, I usually say that the best bet is to identify a problem– e.g., the relationship of race and empire in the early republic, the role of religion in Progressive-era social movements. Be able to write enough in the statement about why this is an interesting and urgent problem that has captured your imagination as a scholar. But don’t go the next step and indicate that you already have a solution to the problem (that is, a dissertation topic).


  2. I agree Rachel! Thanks for the post. I think it is ludicrous to expect a 22-year old kid, or even a 30-year old to have a fully-developed dissertation in mind.


  3. Interesting. I was advised when applying to Ph.D. programs in religion in 2002 that even if I *did* have a fully-formed dissertation idea (I didn’t) I should be a little vague about it in my application essay, because faculty in American doctoral programs with a coursework component want to have an opportunity to have input into your dissertation project during that phase of your professional formation, and might be less interested in admitting someone who seemed to have too well-formed an idea coming in the door. But if I applied to any British Ph.D. programs, I absolutely needed to have a fully-formed dissertation idea clearly articulated in my application materials. Obviously things change and field of study matters, so my data point may be of little relevance to this discussion, but I successfully gained admittance to two top programs following that advice, and the lack of a clearly defined dissertation project did not seem to be the deciding factor in my rejections.

    I wonder whether this is a symptom of the acceleration of the publish-or-perish ethos across higher education, pushing the necessity of producing publishable original research down into the master’s and even bachelor’s level of education. I admit I have mixed feelings about the trend of involving undergraduates in original research in the humanities. Looking back, I value the experience I was able to get as an undergraduate in archival research, and I would have appreciated having the kind of scaffolding that we now provide our undergraduate students in the production and dissemination of scholarly work. But I fear we deprive students of the chance to get a firm foundation in the basic domain knowledge of their field of study when we’re pushing them to present at conferences as freshmen and sophomores and submit work to journals as juniors and seniors. It seems like the expectation that students come in the door of a Ph.D. program with a dissertation project in mind is of a piece with a broader pressure to define a scholar’s research agenda earlier and earlier in their career.


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