There are two schools of thought when it comes to choosing a topic for ones dissertation. 

  1.  says you should write your dissertation on something you LOVE and are passionate about, since you will be getting really really intimate with it over the next few months.  This school believes that regardless of the marketability of the topic/style, writing what you love is what makes you a scholar
  2. says that you need to think practically as well; obviously you shouldn’t write about something you hate, since you will be spending so much time on it, but that you need to think strategically about your topic and your future career.

I have come to believe that those who advocate number 1 are referencing an academic job market that no longer exists and advising a student that doesn’t really exist either.  In that world you could write about almost anything and still find a job after graduation, but in all likelihood are a single grad student straight out of an undergrad program with minimal bills and a lot of flexibility.

We no longer live in that world and I am not that student.  We live in a world where new assistant professors are being screened out based upon the likelihood of attracting funding, where fewer and fewer programs require history or philosophy of ed classes, and where the competition is fierce for almost every academic job as budgets are cut and fewer full-time faculty are being hired (and fewer are retiring because their retirement savings just got cut in half).  I have a husband, a house/mortgage, debt, friends and an established life that also have to be considered when making decisions.

About 6 months ago I took a trip down path 1; I have been writing about history and school choice, trying to stay relevant and looking at basically a historical topic for my dissertation.  However I learned a few things at the conference I went to in November that got me thinking:

  • I’m not a true historian – my work is more case study using historical sources, since I am not adding to the body of knowledge about an historical event so much as using that historical event to bring a new perspective to a contemporary issue
  • There aren’t a lot of jobs in foundations of education
  • Many programs are cutting foundations from their teacher ed programs, making there be even fewer jobs

About the same time (early november) I found out that my Chair has FINALLY gotten cooperation to get the data for the idea I had way back when I started the program (how high stakes tests in high school relate to success in college).   This question is hugely marketable, has lots of funding opportunities and is something I have LOTS of detailed questions about (which I was lacking before when trying to come up with a quantitative question).

So, I am changing direction.  I’ve enjoyed the last six months, I’ve learned a lot, and I will continue to write some in the areas I’ve studied.  However in this market I need to think about the future, and now that the data is available that wasn’t when I started, I need to run with it.

What is the impact of this decision? 

  1. I have a whole new body of literature to absorb, and am not entirely sure where to start with it.  I’ve asked Chair for some pointers.
  2. I have a lot of data prep work to do (although I’m good at that stuff).
  3. It may take a bit longer – I’m ok with that
  4. I’m no longer entirely clear what my comps are going to look like, but I’m ok with that as well
  5. We (chair and I) may be able to set up a post-doc so that moving isn’t required after I graduate and I’ll have time to line up funding of my own to make me more attractive to employers and supplement an assistant professor salary (important to husband)
  6. We may be able to use this as leverage to get me hired by a school in this state, meaning I wouldn’t need to move, which would make husband happy

It’s the right decision for me and my life.  It is a good balance of marketable and interesting.  And it is the LAST time I am going to change direction.

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