Mail Bag: Thesis Topic Edition!

It’s the beginning of the academic year, and many budding young biological anthropologists are beginning their first semester as graduate students! With that in mind, it’s probably a good time to talk about one of the most important aspects of our graduate education: The Thesis. I received an e-mail from a reader in which he asked a few questions about choosing a thesis topic. The reader is currently working on an MA and wants to study primate morphology when he applies to different PhD programs, and had this question to ask:

Can I still apply for Grad schools which have an emphasis on morphological aspects on primate and human evolution even with a thesis which is barely related to it?

Now, all I have to go on is my own experience, but one piece of advice which has been given to me over and over again by advisors, mentors, and my senior colleagues is this:  Your thesis is not your life’s work.

It’s actually quite a liberating statement, I think.  It takes the pressure off of choosing the “perfect” thesis topic, because you can always change which direction you want to go later.  The important thing is to pick a topic which you know you can complete and do a good job with.  And honestly, how many “famous” scientists got to be that way because of their thesis or dissertation?  None that I can think of… You want to be putting the bricks in place for an entire career of brilliant work- not working on your magnum opus.

I think that there are many subjects in biology which inform our knowledge of morphology, and a background in a different subject may end up being to your advantage. While you’re working on your MA thesis, I think there is some wiggle room.  As long as you are learning something that you enjoy, I don’t think any graduate school will penalize you for working on something which has made you a better biologist.

Another catchphrase that we grad students here use as motivation is this: The only good thesis is a finished thesis. We all want to complete a ground-breaking thesis that will get us into the pages of Science or Nature, but the point of your graduate education is to learn how to be a scientist.  You want to complete your education as quickly as you can, so you can go on to actually be a scientist. Being scientists-in-training, we are all perfectionists to one degree or another, but it’s more important to have a finished product than it is to have a perfect product.  We all know people who have spent the better part of a decade working on their dissertation, but grad school should not be a career.  Chances are that all of that extra time you spend agonizing over tiny details won’t end up making a difference anyway.

This is the kind of stuff that we hear from our advisors all the time, but it helps to hear it from other students sometimes, too.

And, since it’s the beginning of the semester, I’ll pass along a link to Kenny’s roundup of 8 tools no graduate student should go without.  Check out the Monkey Matters Blog while you’re over there.  It’s fun stuff!

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4 responses to “Mail Bag: Thesis Topic Edition!

  1. kchiou August 31, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for the shout out and I love this blog! Keep up the great work.

  2. rich lawler August 31, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Matt Cartmill became famous due to his thesis on “visual predation” :)

    But, more importantly, you are correct: you can constantly reinvent new research directions; and having an MA in a topic unrelated to your Ph.D. interests is not a problem.

  3. Pingback: Meta-blogging 1 | The Monkey Matters Blog


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