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Unusual PhD Doctoral Dissertation thesis titles reveal topics some doctorate students may consider funny

Updated on November 23, 2014

What inspires a human being to dedicate his/her entire lifetime to the study of a worm or to talking fabrics or homelessness in children's books? Were I in a PhD Psychology program, I might write a dissertation examining how intellectuals discover their passion; the topic is quite intriguing.

I imagine a person develops general knowledge and gradually as s/he learns more and more on the subject, s/he asks deeper questions until joining the ranks of Albert Einstein, i.e., “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”

Here for your reading pleasure are five unusual PhD dissertation topics.  While all PhD dissertations are required to be one of a kind; these extend the boundaries of their subject matter.

Peering deep inside the ocean

In London last year, there appeared a "PhD opportunity to study whale-fall and wood-fall annelids and molluscs in collaboration with Dr Jon Copley at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton." Whatever does this mean?

Annelids are worms. Molluscs are commonly called mollusks and have a "file-like, rasping tool called a radula." This structure allows them to scrape algae and other food off whale-fall and wood-fall. Whale-fall is a disintegrating whale carcass found on the ocean floor. Wood-fall includes disintegrating tree trunks-- if a tree falls into the ocean, these folk will note its fall.

Helena Wiklund of University of Gothenburg published her dissertation along these lines: Evolution of annelid diversity at whale-falls and other marine ephemeral habitats.

Worms and Whale Fall

Clothing that talks

My first child was born in the frigid month of January. I lay her in her crib that first night home, wishing there was some sort of monitor- a mattress or a onesie or even a blanket- that would signal whether her body temperature was too hot or too cold.

Eric Randolph Wade of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Engineering is researching fabric that might someday do just that: he wrote a paper titled "A body area network for wearable health monitoring : conductive fabric garment utilizing DC-power-line carrier communication."

According to him it will soon be possible to don clothing with "the ability to remotely monitor physiological signals such as respiration, motion, and temperature" which means "elderly citizens, fitness professionals, and soldiers in the battlefield" will have instant information on their physical condition.

Michael Sung wrote his dissertation on "Non-invasive wearable sensing systems for continuous health monitoring and long-term behavior modeling."


Lily's Eyes from Secret Garden

English authors describe Victorian poor

At St. Patrick's College in Dublin, Ireland, Carol Dunbar examined "The Other Nation: an examination of the depiction of the poor in the children's fiction of Mrs Molesworth, Mrs Ewing, Silas Hocking and Frances Hodgson Burnett."

I did not find a copy of this dissertation. These are the authors she studied for her piece.

Mary Louisa Molesworth was known as the Jane Austen of the nursery and wrote books for girls that emphasized Victorian values of duty and self-sacrifice. One such children's tale called Two Little Waifs depicts a sister and brother surviving in a cheerless, dark bedroom.

Juliana Horatia Ewing was another English Victorian writer who died at the young age of 44. Her books are considered the first outstanding children's novels. In the story, A Great Emergency and Other Tales, she wrote, "When people are very poor for their position in life, they can only keep out of debt by stinting on many occasions when stinting is very painful to a liberal spirit. And it requires a sterner virtue than good nature to hold fast the truth that it is nobler to be shabby and honest than to do things handsomely in debt."

A Cornish author, Silas Hocking sold a million books in his lifetime, making him the best selling author of the Victorian age. His novel Her Benny was set, 'On the western side of Scotland Road - that is to say, between it and the docks - there is a regular network of streets, inhabited mostly by the lowest class of the Liverpool poor."

Frances Hodgson Burnett is probably best known to readers today, as the author of books like The Little Princess, Sara Crewe and The Secret Garden, which gained fame as a Broadway musical. All three of these books were made into movies.

Endangered languages

Sometimes dissertations were published, like the out- of- print The Cherokee Indian newspapers, 1828-1906: The tribal voice of a people in transition written by Cullen Joe Holland in l953. It would be interesting to read Editorials written by Cherokee of the period.

Mr. Holland himself might inspire a dissertation topic of his own, i.e., Native American rise to the level of a Ph.D.- a study in determination and sociology.

An obituary from The Norman Transcript reads, "Mr. Holland was born Aug. 31, 1915, to Cullen Gray Holland and Willie Karr Holland in Blackwell. He graduated from Blackwell High School and attended Northern Oklahoma Junior College in Tonkawa before coming to the University of Oklahoma where he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in journalism. He received a Ph.D in history from the University of Minnesota. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps." Mr. Holland died in 2007.

Another fascinating article concerning Cherokee was published by the Smithsonian: Muskogean Charm Songs Among the Oklahoma Cherokees.

Basket Weaving in Botswana

Clay20 at Metafilter writes, I always understood that "basketweaving" was synonymous not with "undecided" (as wiki suggests) but with "easy." The jokes would be something like, "Yeah, my grades really suck. I'm getting a D in basketweaving." It quickly became a cliché that the stupid people took basketweaving courses. And if they hung around for a year or two, then, the joke was, they'd progressed to underwater basketweaving, the advanced class.

The joke is on any American who dissed basket weaving. A.B. Cunningham and S.J. Milton for the Botany Department at University of Cape Town, South Africa wrote an accepted dissertation on the very subject and now sport Dr. before their names. In fact, their work was published by Springer New York in a publication called Economic Botany.

Economic botany is broadly defined as the study of the relationship between people and plants.

The dissertation title? Effects of basket-weaving industry on mokola palm and dye plants in northwestern Botswana

© 2010 Barbara


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    • Roffi Grandiosa profile image

      Roffi Grandiosa 

      8 years ago from Bandung, Indonesia

      i am planning to study phd myself.. nice hub

    • kimh039 profile image

      Kim Harris 

      9 years ago

      What an interesting idea for a hub, storytellersrus... and an interesting discussion to follow! Thanks.

    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      jill, thanks for adding to the list of unusual dissertations. There must be some important conclusion that comes from such studies, right?!!

      da, ah yes, those days before computers. I remember them well!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      The information I had in college about scholarships was infor from the student aid office, if I recall. I don't think it was a study just info about current stuff. This was before computers.

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      9 years ago from Philippines

      Quite unusual dissertations!

      I have also seen some unusual ones. This is especially true in the sciences where studying just the movement of ants and how long it takes for them to move from one point to another can be already a dissertation. I have a friend to spent his days counting the fins in fishes for his dissertation.

      Thanks for sharing!

    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      tonymac those are excellent examples! Thanks for your input, as always. I would love to read the conclusions from these dissertations...

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Baskets are big in South Africa. But the subjecdt of your Hub is not baskets but PhD dissertations. One former South African Cabinet Minister got his PhD for a dissertation on hop-scotch. I have a PhD friend whose dissertation was on bubbles. OK it was a about using floatation to separate metal from mined ore really, but the mechanism used in the process was bubbles!

      Love and peace


    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      hahahaha, Martie you crack me up! I need to look into these African baskets. They appear amazing. I imagine some are water tight- are any of yours? Thanks for being one of my number one fans!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Story, I wanted to compliment you on this hub with a stunning intellectual phrase, but I’ve frozen on WoRmS. My granddaughter (6) loves them. She digs them out, fills her pockets with them, and shows them off to all as far as she goes. Even takes them to school. So one day she dropped them accidentally on my llLllaAapPpp and..... I guess the point is, I’m still alive. I have a collection of African baskets – can’t resist them, because of their earthyness. I just love your hubs!

    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter


    • The Old Firm profile image

      The Old Firm 

      9 years ago from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand

      Nope, making split cane baskets!


    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      alekhouse, I wouldn't say more interesting. Maybe more accessible to a novice? Congratulations on achieving your doctorate! I canimagine it was fascinating. Original research... good one!!!

      TOF, Are you goin' fishing? Hey, thanks for the enhancements! I appreciate them enormously.

    • The Old Firm profile image

      The Old Firm 

      9 years ago from Waikato/Bay Of Plenty, New Zealand

      Hi Story, great hub.

      It's been said that an expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything there is to know about absolutely nothing.

      Basket-weaving, as I understand it, was an activity carried out in mental homes to keep the inmates occupied. Hence it had connotations of simple-mindedness or harmless derangement. (Hey, this is Hubpages, where's my split cane?)



    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      9 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      I wrote my dissertation on Language and how it is used to construct knowledge through student-teacher interaction. It was a fascinating experience; an ethnographic study conducted in a history classroom with high school students.

      I never considered doing a quantitative study; I find qualitative ones so much more interesting, as you have pointed out.

    • Storytellersrus profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      sabu, isn't that a lovely song? Thanks so much for honoring me with your visit.

      da, do you remember any titles of these studies? It is fascinating what does and doesn't get funded!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      When I was in college and wondering if I could get a scholarship of some sort, I found that there were some available for the pet project of some people with money. Usually very specialized thing like the study of some bird that nobody ever heard of. Come to think of it, maybe somebody did get degrees in these thing and explains who is behind some of the odd things the government now thinks is important.

    • sabu singh profile image

      sabu singh 

      9 years ago

      Interesting and unusual Hub, Storytellersrus. Enjoyed it especially the video on the Cherokee Morning Song. Thank you.


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