A common advice given out to young researchers is to find a niche. (See Michael’s Branding Your Research). That is certainly good advice. Instead of being another young researcher, you can be the new guy working on topic X. But it always seems to happen no matter what: most Ph.D. thesis address a narrow topic.Â I believe that the real advice people would like to give is: find yourself a nice topic, and make sure this topic becomes fashionable. Of course, this implies that you can somehow predict the future, or have a thesis supervisor with enough clout that he can either initiate new trends, or have inside knowledge regarding the upcoming trends.
A more interesting question is what you should do with the rest of your career, assuming you landed a research job, somehow. Should you find yourself one or two niche topics and stay there for the rest of your life? That is a common strategy. You save precious time: instead of having to skim 100 research articles a year, you may get by with 20 or 30 research articles, or even less. Moreover, because you are the leading authority on one or two topics, you can never be caught unaware. You never have to worry about finding new topics: you just keep on iteratively improving whatever you are doing right now. With some luck, you can reuse your funding proposals year after year. Finally, you can quickly get to know everyone that matters regarding these narrow topics. And that is a perfectly good strategy.
The problems begin when we associate the lack of a steadyÂ trajectoryÂ with failure. Encouraging static research topics leads to conservatism. Meanwhile, some of the most innovative researchers have cultivated varied interests.Â Von Neumann was a set theorist, but he wrote 20 papers in Physics, and even in Mathematics, he covered a wide range of topics (set theory, logic, topological groups, measure theory, ergodic theory, operator theory, and continuous geometry). Would we have been better off had von Neumann remained a pure set theorist?
And I tend to have more trust in researchers who have their eggs in different baskets. They can afford to be a bit more critical.
Warning: I am not urging Ph.D. students to change topic repeatedly while writing up their thesis. Finish whatever you start. And be aware that approaching a new research topic can be costly.