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I'm a few months into my PhD, but I'm finding that I'm not interested in the my project. I joined my research group with a masters in electrical engineering. I wanted to do research that incorporates electrical engineering and biology, but somehow I ended up with a project that is exclusively biology. A I'm worried that if I continue down this path, I'll end up stuck in a career I don't like. I've talked to my adviser about my concerns, but he made it clear that I must work on my current project. Here's what I see my options are:

  1. Finish my PhD with the project I currently have and switch fields immediately after
  2. Try to switch research groups
  3. Quit school and get a job

Eventually I would like to work in industry developing medical devices. How feasible is it to reach this goal from where I am now? I'm also interested in hearing from people who were in a similar situation I am in now and what they choose to do.

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"When you do your Ph.D, make sure you do something that you love, because you're going to be sick of it after doing it for five years." Paraphrased from a Master's advisor I had. I wish I had followed his advice more literally! –  Irwin Mar 7 at 18:47
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@ Irwin, What happened if you don't mind me asking? –  user12757 Mar 8 at 1:16

6 Answers 6

Eventually I would like to work in industry developing medical devices.

Did you tell your advisor this when you had your discussion ? Did your advisor tell you why you need to stay on this project ? It's possible that they had a better vision of how this might help you with your long term goals, but it's also possible they aren't really thinking about your goals.

I've had students who had strong opinions about what they wanted to work on, and did NOT want to work on what I suggested. They always won, and that's how I think it should be. But it took time for me to understand their reluctance to work on my project, and it helped immensely when they came to me with their own project ideas.

So I'd suggest you think about a project that you'd prefer doing, and go to your advisor with that idea. Hopefully it's not too far removed from your advisor's expertise (otherwise they'll have a hard time - well - advising).

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"they came to me with their own project ideas" sometimes (may be the case here) the ideas of the students (or supervisors) don't matter at all, there is funding to do one thing (possibly decided by politicians) and that's pretty much it. You can work on your ideas in your spare time, if you get to have such a thing. –  Trylks Mar 7 at 11:30
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I did mention that I wanted to work on medical devices. He gave me a few reasons why my project will help me, but I don't agree with his reasoning. I'll try suggesting a different project, but the trouble is my adviser has funding for this specific project and since we're a small group, I don't think there's a lot of room to move around. Still, I have a few ideas related to his previous work, so I'll give this try. –  user12757 Mar 7 at 20:22
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Funding is always a constraint, and you do have to realize that. If your advisor has a grant to work in certain areas, then it will be difficult for him to support you to work in completely different ones. This is one of those things where compromise can actually help. –  Suresh Mar 8 at 3:27

Before I try to answer, I think it's really difficult to advise on such a major decision without knowing you and your situation. Personally, the best advice I can think of is to seek out a senior researcher who is unbiased, who knows the area, who knows your context and who can talk you through your decision.

But based on what you've said, since you are early in the PhD process and since your reason for wanting to switch seems genuine and not a temporary disillusionment (i.e., your PhD project is in a field you are not interested in and that's not going to change), you should probably try to apply to other PhD positions, keeping your current position until you find something better (or at least see how difficult it would be to find something better).

I've talked to my adviser about my concerns, but he made it clear that I must work on my current project.

Also, need it be said, you should take the advice of your supervisor with a pinch of salt: they are biased and will want you to stay in the PhD, even if it's not in your best interest. You don't need to work on the current project: you can always quit and go somewhere else.

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A good advisor will want what's "in your best interest." If you think yours is a good advisor, you should take his advice seriously (although of course you can still disagree with it). –  ff524 Mar 7 at 5:28
    
@ff524, agreed yes. –  badroit Mar 7 at 16:17

First, and foremost, this is your PhD. Not your supervisor's.

The question that you choose to address in your PhD needs to come from you. You might take guidance on this from your supervisor(s), but if you don't own the problem wholly, then I doubt you will have the drive to survive the slings and arrows that will come your way during your PhD, including the general malaise that hits almost all PhD students during their thesis. If you are working on a problem in which you are not fully invested, I doubt you will succeed.

You've done the right thing in bringing your concerns to your supervisor. If he is resolute that you must continue on a path that you don't feel sufficiently in control over, or which is not addressing the question you seek to answer, then I suggest you switch research groups - or indeed find a suitable job for the time being.

Regarding the job you mention - medical devices - I suggest you make contacts with the recruiting agents for a number of firms and get their feedback on the general qualities that their successful hires have. Try and identify recent hires yourself and introduce yourself, asking them for a little about their training. This will give you a good idea of how to proceed with your own training.

You might find people on this website to offer advice, however I think that their answers might be off-topic for this question.

Best of luck.

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"If you are working on a problem in which you are not fully invested, I doubt you will succeed." This depends on your definition of success, you can finish a PhD on an uninteresting topic with a good track of publications, but would that be success? Maybe for someone who wanted to do that. –  Trylks Mar 7 at 11:32
    
+1 for suggesting to get in touch with firms to find out the qualities they would like in their future hires –  L Platts Apr 5 at 21:16

Now this is just my opinion and it worked for me. Per Steve Martin in the movie "Mixed Nuts", "In every POTHOLE, there is HOPE" (if you re-arrange the letters and so on).

I was faced with a similar situation. I sought out the challenges of the project I disliked and tried to, as dispassionately as possible, look at the aspects of the project however small that I would consider working on. I did exactly that. Yes, I had to construct a convincing argument for my adviser as to why focussing on a sub-aspect of my project whilst not losing track of the bigger chunk would be useful for me and the project. Yes, I did have a quasi-supportive adviser and an quasi-supportive department chair who wanted me to succeed since the "greater good" of my public university was at stake.

Since you have already "talked to your adviser", you may need to wait it out for a semester or so before you broach the subject matter again. i.e., if you find aspects of the project you like (time can change our perspective).

If you don't... perhaps you would need to cut and run to another research group or university since your professional life would be at stake.

So in summary, those are the two options that I had:

  • Focus on a sub-project of the main project. Link that to the success of the main project and work in that direction. Worked out for me! I am happier with my contributions to the field.
  • If things go from "bad to worse", cut and run to another group/univ.

Subplot: Yes, per Badroit's answer, you should generally heed your adviser's er... advice. Since they would generally look at the greater good and the bigger picture. But you would know best about his/her personality and you may need to use your gut feelings in such situation.

Good luck! Either way, it will be a character building exercise which will also provide you with interesting technical skills and temperament which are the subtle skills necessary for success in industry or academia (or so I am told).

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I'm a few months into my PhD, but I'm finding that I'm not interested in the my project. I've talked to my adviser about my concerns, but he made it clear that I must work on my current project.

"A few months in" is still very early in a doctoral program, so it shouldn't be too early to switch research groups. If your adviser said that you "must" work on your current project, I assume that means, "If you're going to keep working with me, you'll have to work on this project." (It's not too unusual for an adviser to balk at the prospect of advising a student who wants to start a new project, particularly if they don't feel they have sufficient expertise or interest. Some research efforts take months or years to get underway, and students can't expect every faculty member to put aside what they've been working on just to accommodate a new student's whim.)

I would start looking around your school to see if there's another research group working on something more closely related to your interests. If not, you've left out a fourth possible option, which is to transfer to another school. If you're not even a year in, then it may not be too late to switch, particularly if you can find a faculty member who is working on exactly the kind of work you are hoping to do.

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You present three options:

  1. Finish my PhD with the project I currently have and switch fields immediately after
  2. Try to switch research groups
  3. Quit school and get a job

Let's take a closer look at each of them:

  1. "Finish my PhD": This is what you are doing now. This is the default option, the base with which you have to compare everything else. Be aware this is not a particularly easy path.

  2. "Switch research groups": Do a quick search, can you find something? Because this option only makes sense if there is some research group to switch to, where it's possible to switch (being admitted, it's not like saying hi and crossing the door...), where the advisor is not a jerk/moron/whatever, where it's possible to do the research you want to do (it could be the same or even worse). We don't know, you don't know, nobody knows. Search, get information. It's not easy, IMHO, but you may have skills for this, I've no idea.

  3. "Get a job": what kind of job are we talking about here? How interested are you in doing a PhD? (the one in option 1 and the one in option 2), would it be a dream job in what you want or simply something to earn some money? how much money? Again, search.

Try not to invest/waste more time in searching than what you need to make a decision, in either case, you have already decided (by default), you are in option 1, you have not enough information to make a specific decision and the clock is ticking. Any of those three options could be a life-saver or a death-in-life depending on specific details (but most probably it will not be any of both, there is a lot of room in between).

Good luck.

PD: I know people that have started a PhD on a different topic after 3 or 4 years of working on a different topic. People that have started a PhD after years in industry and paying the loan for the house (big deal). People that have quit a PhD after 2 or 3 years. People that have published the thesis as a (free public) book, so that it's there in the record, but have no made the defense (and probably never will, because there is a limit in time for that).

In short, this ((academic?) life?) is not like the rails of a train where you make specific decisions that cannot be changed (ever), is more like a sea you sail, think about it in a more open way.

Also, shipwrecking is possible, as well as going adrift, getting lost, etc.

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