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Committing To a Research Topic

I came to the realization this past spring that I am a commitment-phobe. I was in class when my professor announced that she wanted to make sure that everyone was on track in their program, so she asked that everyone who still needed to find a thesis supervisor should stand up and join her for a discussion at another table. Since that was my cue, I stood up and made my way over the table. Wait, was I the only one? The temperature rose in my cheeks and I was sure that I was red with embarrassment. Sure enough, I was the only one left in my class of 18 who hadn’t popped that big question: “Will you be my supervisor?”

You see, all year I had the impression that choosing a supervisor was like getting married. It was a big commitment and one must choose wisely, because if one does not choose with careful consideration it could be a disastrous partnership. So I held off and waited (and waited) until a concerned professor told me to take the leap.

But it wasn’t really that experience that led me to confirm my commitment phobia. It was the big decision to choose and commit to a research topic for my thesis. Choosing one specific area of focus is like having a baby or getting a tattoo. It will become a part of you. It will always be there. When you finish your program and go on with your life and career, people will ask you, “What did you research?” You’ll want to respond with pride, and for all of your hard work to be adored.

There is a lot of pressure on us grad students as soon as we begin our programs. At least, it felt that way for me. Within the first week of classes we were asked to finish this research statement: “My study aims to…” Really? I am supposed to pick now? But I just got here. I haven’t even learned anything yet. How am I supposed to know what it is that I want to research? But it makes sense. I could see why my professor wanted us to put pen to paper and begin making decisions. She wanted us to begin our process. We all have one. There were many moments of panic when all around me there were fellow grad students who were well on their way to writing their research proposals, securing their committee, and planning their colloquiums. However, I now see that, in hindsight, there was no need to panic. Like I mentioned, we all have a process. Some people progress faster than others but that is okay.

Perhaps my fear of commitment was a blessing in disguise. It kept me from delving into a topic that I am not terribly passionate about. I held off and waited for that “Ah Ha!” moment when I knew for certain that I had found “the one”. It has taken me 10 months to get to the point where I am now. I haven’t decided 100% on what it is that I will focus on but I know that I’m on my way, because what I have learned is to trust the process. I know that brilliant ideas won’t come overnight. I will continue to just take in as much as I can, throw away what doesn’t excite me, and to keep what I feel is “me”. Surely, if I commit to that mentality I won’t have any regrets in the future.
Does anyone out there have advice on making the “big decision”?

What are your experiences?

Posted in New Students, Thesis
2 comments on “Committing To a Research Topic
  1. Colleen Thompson says:


    First of all, this blog is such a great idea! So many students in this program talk about getting together to talk about struggles and triumphs, but it is so hard to find TIME! I only hope more people find out about this! I will post it in the grad studies group on facebook! … If it hasn’t already been posted.

    I read the title of this week’s blog topic and HAD to read more. I can relate to everything you spoke about. I came into the program with a topic on my mind, but half way through the second semester, the topic changed. I had the most trouble with the question: What is important? I felt that my ideas and my questions were not important enough to study. I kept going to my advisor saying: “What needs to be studied?” and he would reply “Colleen, I have a bunch of unanalyzed data you could write about, but you need to research something you are passionate about!” He was right. I was so caught up in the idea of deadlines and upcoming GREB dates that I lost sight of why we are in this program in the first place: to learn and further our passion for education.

    I still feel myself getting anxious when I hear people talking about their own work. I have to remind myself – this is my program and I am doing it my way. We all have different things going on in our lives, and it is most important to stay happy and enjoy the ride. In a year or two we will look back and think … “I really did that!?”

    In the meantime, keep on keeping on.


    • Megan Bond says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience Colleen. You’re right. There are so many issues that could be researched in your field. You are fortunate to have an advisor that has encouraged you to follow your passions. The reality is that we’ll be spending a good chunk of time on our research. It will be a part of our daily thoughts and actions so we must choose a focus that we can see ourselves diving into and enjoying. We want to get the most out of this experience.

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  1. […] at Queen’s, but some of the topics will be applicable to anyone in graduate school, like picking a research supervisor. If there’s anything in particular you’d like us to cover, don’t hesitate to let […]

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