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My PhD advisor wants me to work on two different problems during my PhD. One is the a problem of their suggestion and another is collaborative work with some company. Both the problems are disjoint. I have been given the option, that if I want to work on one problem then it should be the problem on for my advisor's collaborative research and I should leave the problem initially suggested. However, I don't want to give up my present problem as that sounds interesting to me and I have already worked for one year on it. When I told my advisor that I don't find the collaborative work interesting, it was suggested that I work on both the problems. However, I am finding it hard to work on two problems. Its like a dual PhD for me. I cannot say anything to my advisor as I'm told I have to work on the collaborative work as my stipend comes from it and else I should leave the PhD. My advisor also does not advise me when I propose ideas about my previous research. Please suggest what should I do?

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Is it possible to find a new advisor? The situation doesn't quite rise to the level of "don't walk; run", but it certainly suggests that you and your current advisor are not a good match. – JeffE Dec 31 '12 at 23:19
And the problem is...? Depending on your field it may be typical (or even - expected) to work on a few different projects. So, is it about projects requiring different expertise (and not enough time to learn both), about workload, about your preference to focus on one, etc? – Piotr Migdal Jan 1 '13 at 12:06
Please edit details back into your question. By deleting the specifics of your situation the question and its answers become meaningless. – Paul Hiemstra Jan 1 '13 at 12:54
I am just passing my comprehensive exam now (3.5 years as a Ph.D. student) and I have already worked on about 4 different projects due to funding...I work on what I want in my dissertation on the side (the 4th project). My advisor, and another PI that I was doing work with, and myself together wrote and submitted 3 separate grant proposals to continue my initial work, and I wrote 5 fellowship proposals to continue my initial work, and nothing was funded (so I had to switch). It isn't surprising when projects are funding dependent. At least I have become a better writer... – daaxix Jan 14 '13 at 0:39

The most important line in your post seems to be one that you didn't give much weight to: "my stipend comes from [the collaborative project]". From my experience, this is a common situation, where the money for your stipend comes from a project you're not interested in pursuing.

Unfortunately, the only real alternative for you is to write your own grant proposal, which is a significant investment of time for both you and your advisor, and carries the not-so-minor risk that the grant won't be funded, which leaves you exactly where you started, with the added problem that there hasn't been much progress on the existing grant.

The second alternative is to leave the advisor and try to find someone else, but I would recommend against that for two reasons. Firstly, it's hard to find someone else with funding on a project you like. Secondly, the problem you're having now—the funded project is less interesting than the unfunded project—is one you'll likely face again in the future. Your advisor's approach of pursuing both projects is (again, from my experience) a typical way of dealing with this, and it will likely benefit you to have experience with this approach during your PhD years.

I recognize that it means extra work for you, and I don't really have much advice on that front. Try not to think of it as extra work, but rather as extra publications in different research areas. That helps minimize the sting.

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Secondly, the problem you're having now—the funded project is less interesting than the unfunded project—is one you'll likely face again in the future. — Really? Why? – JeffE Jan 1 '13 at 4:17
@JeffE - From my experience (in neurosci & various engineering subdisciplines), there are many cases where the overarching grant—which you applied for because it's where the money is—was intended for one purpose, but interesting and only tangentially related problems crop up on the side on a regular basis. Managing the actual grant expectations with the side projects is an art that I never really understood, and got burned by on more than one occasion as a grad student. – eykanal Jan 1 '13 at 4:34
But (ideally) that's the advisor's problem, not the student's. What I find puzzling is the eagerness of the advisor to hire someone onto a project who isn't enthusiastic about that project. (No, that's not obviously better than not hiring anyone.) – JeffE Jan 1 '13 at 6:05
@JeffE: "No, that's not obviously better than not hiring anyone." - I suppose that depends on how strong an obligation the advisor has to fill the position. – O. R. Mapper May 12 at 21:00

It depends on how committed you are to the research project. Your Ph.D. thesis can strongly influence your future course in academia and research. That being said, plenty of Ph.D. recipients have gone on to do research in fields quite distinct from their thesis work.

If your funding is tied to one of the projects, it would certainly be easier to find the time to complete your thesis by working on that project alone. However, you should only make this shift if the funded project is also interesting to you. There few things as difficult as finishing a thesis on a topic in which you are not interested.

Ultimately, what matters most about your Ph.D. thesis is that you finish it. If you think that finding time to work on your thesis will be most limiting, then you should choose the funded topic. If you think that staying interested in your research is the biggest hurdle, then you should choose the topic you are interested in, even if it takes you longer to graduate on account of your other obligations.

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There is nothing inherently wrong in an advisor asking you to work on two projects — depending on the subfield you're in, this could even be common practice. The two common approaches are:

  1. Choose a single topic, drill down till you have enough material for a thesis.

    • If you're successful, you have a pretty nifty thesis and you can call yourself the absolute master of the subsubtopic X that you focused on.
    • On the other hand, if you reach a dead end (which sometimes happen after 4 years of hard work), you have nowhere to go! You'll have to find a new research topic, which can take another 3-4 years, which is pretty depressing.
  2. Start on one project as a fresh graduate student, but gradually start working on multiple projects. Advantages are

    • you'll have a good pile of publications when you finish
    • If you hit a dead end on one project (or funding dries up), you can focus your attention on a different project
    • If you find one project moving faster than the other, you can switch focus to that to graduate on time (or sooner).
    • If the topics are diverse (but connectable by a common theme), you can spin that to your advantage by demonstrating you have broad research interests. (pretty hard to get a position if you only want to do X).

I honestly can find no disadvantage with the second route except for the fact that it can be a bit overwhelming for a graduate student, especially if their advisor doesn't realize that the work load is heavy. I tend to look at it as training for the future — as a postdoc/scientist/faculty, you'll most likely be juggling several different projects of your own, in addition to collaborating, teaching, advising, etc. So this is a good way to start learning efficient time management.

In short, I don't think your situation is alarming and you should take this as an opportunity to learn some soft skills (time management, recognizing a hot potato, identifying paths that lead somewhere, etc.). Now, if you're really uninterested in the project, then that's a different issue — you probably have to look for a different advisor.

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