One of the mistakes a beginning researcher can make is getting tied down to a topic too soon. This is an understandable mistake. Most freshmen don’t particularly like doing research anyway, so they don’t want to waste any energy on anything that might not make into the final paper. But “getting married” to a topic too early in the process can result in working on a subject that is too esoteric or difficult or just plain wrong, and that almost always results in a weaker paper.
When I taught composition, I tried to structure the research paper in such a way that students reflected on possible topics for a few weeks. First, they had to choose three possible topics. Then they had to write a proposal on why they should do a paper on their favorite topic rather than someone else in the class. At this stage, there were no penalties for changing their minds and starting anew. Finally, they chose but only after they had thought about it for awhile.
We’ve all probably suffered the consquences of making a decision too soon and then sticking with it long after it was painfully obvious to everyone around us that it was the wrong one. Maybe we were afraid of admitting we were wrong. Maybe we were afraid of change. Maybe we were afraid of being judged as selfish if we made a change.
Where I grew up, people were expected to lie in the bed they’d made–forever. And I still look back with sadness on the misery of people I knew who were unhappy and made so many others unhappy as well. Some went to their graves feeling miserably unhappy but righteous.
And their example taught me a lesson that I have religiously tried to teach my students as well (both in the the classroom and in life). Until you take your last breath, you have the chance to change your mind and your path. It may be disruptive and scary. Others may judge you harshly for it. But Maya Angelou put it best (as she routinely does):
Each of us has the right and the responsiblity to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.