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I started my PhD some months ago. My advisor was also my Master's advisor. He was impressed by my skills and passion so I enrolled in a PhD program with him. What happened is that my topic changed quite lot and he didn't tell me clearly before enrolling. Basically my master thesis topic is in the trash for him now (FYI we published in a top conference with that). He wants to work on a totally new idea, on which not even him has the right expertise, so basically I have to study a whole new state of the art, have the ideas, acquire the skills and present the results - why do I even need a PhD advisor then..?

I feel lost, abandoned (I have nobody, nor other PhDs or PostDocs to work with) and hopeless. Yes, I tried to explain my advisor that I'm not excited by the new topic, but he's like "I pay you for this, so you'll do this".

Any experience on situations like this? Should I quit and say goodbye? Am I wrong expecting more by a PhD advisor?

  • I think you can try to contact other PhD students from another universities which work in the same area as you. In general people are friendly. – Mikey Mike Sep 21 '18 at 12:43
  • @MikeyMike its a nice start, but PhD students at other universities can't provide the support necessary for a debuting PhD student – Emilie Sep 21 '18 at 12:45
  • What do you mean by "my topic changed quite lot and he didn't tell me clearly before enrolling?" A PhD (and a Masters) should be your research, not somebody else's, should it not? – Mick Sep 21 '18 at 12:46
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    based on what I read I believe that your advisor was not transparent enough about his intentions on the PhD topic and this is not a good quality. Unfortunately, if you are being paid by his research grant he is your ‘boss’ and he will always have the final decision on the research to be done, unless he proves to be flexible, which however doesn’t seem the case. It’s a difficult situation and my suggestion is that if you desire to succeed you must work on a subject that is exciting for you. Otherwise, it will be a waste of time (and money) for both you and your advisor. – aaaaa Sep 21 '18 at 13:13
  • Hi @Ariel, I had a similar experience during my master's degree (2006/07) and let it go on for too long. I eventually severed ties with my adviser and with that experience, found a much better person to work with. – dearN Sep 21 '18 at 16:24
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You have good reasons to feel abandonned, and it is the good moment to decide whether or not to pursue a PhD. This decision is a difficult one to make, and you will need to reflect on your professional goals and alternatives for you. Starting such an endeavour, and not being excited by the subject is a big deal.

No, you are not wrong to expect more. A PhD student is not a researcher you pay to have something done. A PhD student is someone with some skills, but that still need training.

There is things you can do if you want to continue your PhD on this topic:

  1. Ask your advisor to include a coadvisor with expertise in this new subject. You could even try to find yourself a coadvisor.
  2. Find course on this new topic, either at your university or at another. Sometimes it is possible to take classes at another university and have it include in your program. It depends on your country and university.
  3. Make the subject your own, by developping your questions around it. A little bit difficult when you are starting, but this is doable.

... and this is not an exhaustive list.

  • I agree with nearly all of this except the idea that "it is the good moment to decide whether or not to pursue a PhD". I don't accept that as a conclusion. However, your suggestions about changing the conditions are all good. I'd add to your final not exhaustive list, to look into the possibility of a different institution if that can be done without too much disruption. – Buffy Sep 21 '18 at 13:01
  • @Buffy yes, another institution is a great other option. I've added the decision about pursuing or not, because I think everybody should remember that it can be done. However, I don't want the OP to think that it's necessarely the best option. – Emilie Sep 21 '18 at 13:59
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I offer this as merely a suggestion and not a recommendation. The conditions you face seem to be intolerable.

On the other hand, however, consider that your goal in receiving a doctorate is to become an independent researcher, coming up with and solving new and interesting problems. Many (most?) students don't get a chance to do that from the beginning and are led through their research by an experienced researcher. Usually this works. After you already have a doctorate the fact that exploring a new problem has risks of wasted time and effort is less critical than for a student.

However, if you can trust your advisor based on past work (maybe, or not) then exploring a new field with him/her could be a marvelous experience. In order to do that, however, you would need to have a take charge attitude, sometimes leading your advisor. If successful, it would put you in a good position later.

But before you embark on such a suggestion, first explore with your advisor the likelihood of your success in obtaining the degree, since exploring a new field entails more than a little risk. You need assurance that no matter what you will emerge with your degree and a future in academia. You need to trust both the ability and the attitude of your professor to adopt this suggestion as a working model.

Again, this is something to think about only. If it still feels too risky, the answer here of Emilie seems to be appropriate in the main.

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