It happens to most people at some point, not just during their PhD but also afterwards, when they’re working on articles, monographs, and other pieces of research. Via a simple Google search or perhaps in person at a conference, you are faced with the realisation that someone is working on a virtually identical topic to yours. The first response is usually that sinking feeling, perhaps not so different from what Freud describes as the uncanny effect of the Doppelgänger, or the double. The double threatens our sense of uniqueness, our conviction that there is only one person exactly like us. It’s not uncommon to feel that your research topic, especially during your PhD, somewhat defines you, determines who you are; but now there is this other person whose thesis is seemingly concerned with exactly the same questions, issues, theories, or primary materials as yours; your PhDouble, if you will. The result: we fear for our originality, for our uniqueness. Some react with a competitive spirit that drives them to produce something “better” than this other person; others respond with disenchantment with their topic, which now seems so unoriginal, so commonplace, and not worth pursuing.
So what should you do when someone’s thesis covers the same ground as yours, or is at least concerned with the same topic? My immediate thought is: get used to it. The idea that we all do distinct and absolutely unique research is a myth, and thinking that your work is only worthwhile if you’re absolutely the only one on the planet doing it is actually something that goes against what I’d consider good scholarship. You wouldn’t get away with citing only one secondary source in your literature review, in your journal article, or in your thesis chapter, and you know the reason: research is all about digging deep into a topic, about uncovering the different possible approaches to it, and about discovering perhaps the inherent contradictions which define it. So, generally speaking, your topic, and indeed your work on it, should be enriched rather than diminished by a fellow researcher’s work on it.
In fact, discussing your research with someone who works on a very closely related or seemingly identical topic should be highly beneficial to your thought processes, analysis, and writing. See your fellow researcher as a collaborator, and find out where you disagree and where your findings or interpretations converge. Talking to someone whose thesis topic heavily overlaps with yours should present an opportunity to hone in on the originality – for want of a better word – of your own approach. What makes your PhD different from your peer’s, despite the seemingly similar subject matter?
I used the word “seemingly” again and again here, and for a very good reason. Even if someone was writing their thesis on the same author or the same texts as you, and even if, on top of that, they also use the same theories to frame their study, it’s incredibly unlikely that the two theses end up saying exactly the same thing. Unless you have plagiarized someone else’s work, no one will fail you in your viva voce because someone somewhere else is writing or has just written a similar thesis.
“But what about the book?!” I hear the humanities researchers ask in panic! There are actually very few instances in which the book that arises from your thesis is literally your thesis. No publisher wants a 10,000 word introduction and theoretical framework, so that’s usually the first thing that has to go. Unless you have made a very good job of writing something that works both as a passable doctoral thesis and a monograph, it’s also likely that there are other things you’ll have to change about your study before it gets the go-ahead as a book. I’m a firm believer in the idea that our work is never finished. A publication could always have done with revising that paragraph, or adding this new piece of research. The same applies to your thesis. It should evolve into book form, meaning it’s even less likely that someone will be submitting exactly the same monograph proposal (if they’re submitting one at all).
So don’t be put off when you meet your PhDouble. They’re your peer, your colleague, your potential collaborator, and can even be your mock external examiner. In my case, they even had the same supervisor, the same funding, and became my best friend and housemate. Academia is about the creation of knowledge, meaning that at its best it is always collaborative, never solitary, even when you’re alone in your study.