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I was offered a PhD place at an Institute of Technology in my hometown to do interdisciplinary work in Psychology and Computer Science. Although it wasn't my original interest, I was offered to have at least my fees covered so I took it.

Three months in however and I am having serious doubts about the program. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was registered as a Computer Science PhD student. My background is in Psychology and my supervisor's area is in Computer Science. I am working entirely alongside computer scientists and there isn't any faculty members or even other graduate students in the institute who are experimental psychologists (there a few psychotherapists). Not only has it been very isolating socially (there isn't a great campus atmosphere and the people in my lab are introverted. In some cases the language barrier has been difficult), but academically it has been frustrating also. Given our respective backgrounds, I am expected to be the expert in Psychology right away, when I always conceived of a PhD as the process of becoming an expert in a particular (sub)-discipline over the duration of the project. An example of this expectation is when I offer work to be reviewed by my supervisor, I don't get a lot of feedback, primarily because my supervisor doesn't know the relevant psychology literature (I do get on well with my supervisor however). I have also felt held back by the Computer Science aspects, as I feel I need to shoehorn in technology into any project idea I have thought of.

As a consequence of these issues, I am considering dropping out of the program and taking up a Psychology PhD at a University in my hometown. The University is considered one of the best in the country and has a good Psychology department. I would have to self-fund (unless I manage to snag funding somewhere down the line), but I would have the opportunity to focus on Psychology entirely. These last few months have really made it clear that I love researching Psychology and I want a career in it.

Some of the already practical steps I have taken is to ask previous supervisors or lecturers I got on well with for advice, and I have also sent initial inquiries into potential future supervisors at University. I am yet to hear back (which is no surprise given the year and the fact I only sent these emails a few days ago).

I would love any advice or comment on whether I should switch. Also, I guess my ultimate question is about: Would I be better of switching to the other University in terms of future career prospects (e.g. getting a Post-Doc Psychology role afterwards?) Or do you think as long as I work to ensure my current PhD is heavily related to Psychology, I should be fine? Thank you in advance.

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    How did you get into this situation? Did you fail to do any research at all on the program before joining? I'm concerned that you'll just end up in another program that doesn't meet your expectations if you take the same approach to a new program as you did for the one you're currently in. – Glen Pierce Jan 6 '18 at 21:11
  • I jumped the gun. I had been searching for quite a well for a funded PhD place in the UK, but without much success (a lot of time I was immediately disqualified for even applying because the funding required me to have been residing in the UK for the previous three years). And it was approaching a time period where I noticed that funded PhD opportunities would dwindle (based on previous observations whilst doing my BA and MSc). I was about to just take out a loan and apply to the University I mentioned above, but then this offer came in, so I took it. – B.R.D Jan 6 '18 at 21:44
  • There was other factors that swayed my decision, but that's the crux of it. I am aiming to rectify that (potential) mistake I have made by making sure I talk to as many people as possible who might have insight and to see what they think about my current situation, my potential alternative, and future prospects so this time around I do not make the same mistake. – B.R.D Jan 6 '18 at 21:48
  • Also I should add, some of the things that were proposed to me when I agreed to the PhD haven't materialised. One was that I would have contact and access to a Psychology Department in another part of the country. Two, that my secondary supervisor would be an experimental psychologist. Three, despite the fact that I met with the department head of Social Studies, my PhD was registered in Computer Science. Now none of these things did not materialise because I was lied to or deceived, but a result of other factors. However, there repeated occurrence is another reason for my current concern. – B.R.D Jan 6 '18 at 21:56
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    @TJK It's only been in the last few weeks, when I've had some off time over Christmas, that this idea grew. Before that I've noticed quite a few things that bothered me (namely the lack of psychological knowledge and resulting feedback) but put my head down and got on with it. I haven't made any decision each way, as both come with potential costs and advantages. And ultimately the decision that would sway me the most is the one that suits my future goals (i.e. research in Psychology). If I come to the conclusion that this institute serves that goal I'll stay with this institute and carry on. – B.R.D Jan 8 '18 at 18:24
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Although it wasn't my original interest, I was offered to have at least my fees covered so I took it.

You made a wrong move here, in my opinion.

A PhD is not an undertaking to be taken without strong motivation. It is certainly not something to do while what you really want to be doing is something else (whether that something else is another kind of research or a different activity).

Also, being a PhD candidate is work. They don't "cover fees", they pay you - because they need your research output; a university is (among other things) a research institute, and it hires researchers. The payment might be super-low, but that's because academic staff members are often non-unionized, or have extremely weak unions, to fight for decent recognition and pay.

So you're telling us that you took a job you weren't interested in taking because they pay a salary; as opposed to a job you are interested in (again, if I understand you correctly), but which doesn't pay at all.

I'd say the decision now depends on your economic predicament.

Option 1: You have some economic fall-back

If you have some money put aside - even not a large amount; or parents to support you; or can stay somewhere where you don't have to pay rent (dorm, friends' place etc.) - then I'd advise you switch to the university and department where you actually want to do research at.

As A Ph.D. candidate, you mentioned you might be able to "snag" some funding; but there's also the possibility you can be employed as a teacher or teaching assistant. And sometimes you might be eligible for a dorm assignment or other benefits. Try to look into this with your prospective PhD advisor or department administrator.

Caveats:

  • If you don't feel absolutely sure about the Psych department either - especially seeing how you don't have a specific intended research subject, even a tentative one, nor an intended supervisor - I would try to "flesh out" the alternative a little bit more before leaving.
  • Leaving is not entirely binary; you might want to read on even if this option sounds more like your case.

Option 2: You absolutely have to have your steady income

If simply have to have your monthly income, and have nothing to fall back on; and especially if you have dependents (spouse, children, parents with no income) - then life has been cruel to you, and you're stuck. You can't be a PhD candidate and live off air. Where you're at right now is certainly not the best of all possible worlds, but it seems you're not failing to do what you're expected - you're "just" dissatisfied and are worried about the expectations from you.

In this case, try to find some in-between arrangement, such as letting you spend half a day or a day a week at the other university - for grad-level courses, for meeting with potential collaborators etc. Since you're an inter-disciplinarian, and you're the "ranking Psychologist" around, it's quite likely they'll oblige. Maybe you'll even manage to arrange for inter-university collaboration on some project, and have a co-advisor from the other university? Who knows.

If that doesn't work out, well, I guess you'll have grit your teeth and try to do your job as best you can. Psychology won't disappear, not will the other university - nor, in fact, the possibility of doing academic research there in a few years when things change. You might consider devoting some of your time to forming a Graduate Researchers' Union - so that people who follow in your footsteps would be able to save up money more quickly, or alternatively, get paid as Psychology Ph.D.s from the get-go.

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