John Fea poses a question well worth considering: “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.”
Never having served on any graduate admission committees, I can’t say whether a locked-in dissertation idea is a credit or a debit on an application. But in terms of going through the process once you’ve been admitted to a program, I can share my experience, for whatever it’s worth.
As I’ve said before, I think the hiatus I took between finishing my master’s and starting a doctoral program has made my Ph.D. experience a lot more enjoyable. Now that I’m in the dissertation stage, I’m even more glad to have had the benefit of that extra time reading and sharpening my research interests.
But I also think a certain malleability is necessary. Your graduate coursework is all about initiation into a guild. You’re learning what historians do, and how other historians have framed questions and figured out ways to answer them. If that doesn’t have an impact on how you frame and answer your questions, then what’s the point of doing coursework?
When I started my doctoral work, I knew I wanted to study Appalachian settlers’ involvement in the American Revolution. I was interested in the centripetal forces that pulled them into the Revolution and the centrifugal forces that pushed them to its margins. I had a topic, and I had some questions I wanted to answer. But I wasn’t yet framing those questions precisely, and I didn’t have a clear plan of attack for finding answers to them. That came later, with a lot of guidance from my adviser, conversations with other professors, and engaging with a lot of historiography in seminars.
You know that movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo? There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where these guys are dragging a massive block of marble into Rome. When Michelangelo sees it, he says, “Look! Moses…here in the marble. Moses down from Sinai. God’s anger in his eyes.”
I think one of the things that makes a good doctoral adviser is the ability to look at a student’s interests the way Michelangelo looked at that block of marble. Somewhere in there is a viable research project that can contribute something to the field. You might not be able to see it yet. But a good adviser (and the other members of your committee) will be able to discern its outlines, and will help you figure out where to apply the chisel.