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I'm three months into a fully-funded PhD programme, following on from an integrated Masters and two years in industry. I should also say upfront that after seeing more what academic research is around, I feel lukewarm at most about academia in general - which definitely contributes to any dissatisfaction I feel.

While I'm broadly interested in the subject matter of my advisor's field (I switched to work with him after my Masters), I don't feel too keen on exploring the exact research directions he pointed me towards. That being said I still haven't clarified to myself what my dream research question would be. I know what themes I'm interested in, but even though they reside in the same general field as my advisor's work, they don't match his desired themes (It's like we are both interested in cooking but I'm a vegetarian and he is keen on catering for this new hot bbq rib joint.)

So on one hand I have an advisor urging me to jump into this idea I'm not interested in, and putting pressure to find a conference to publish anything ASAP (because the idea involves a recently hot buzzword). On the other hand I'm three months into this and I still don't know what it is that I would like to research really and I'm questioning whether doing a PhD makes sense at all. Both of this sides of the problem are incredibly stressful and exert really negative effect on my mental health.

Is it abnormal / bad / embarrassing to still not know one's research question this far into the PhD programme? Would it be bad / embarrassing / disrespectful to turn down my advisor's idea even though I don't have my own to offer in exchange, and ask for more time for 'reading around'?

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    From your description, I can't figure out why you chose this advisor. If your "themes" and his don't align, why are you two together? – Raghu Parthasarathy Nov 22 '18 at 19:10
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    He was the closest I could get to what I was looking for (or at least it seemed so at the time). I had maybe like two weeks total to switch my supervisors after I finished my Masters. Usually people just stick with their Masters one but I had a major shift of direction. – KubaFYI Nov 22 '18 at 19:14
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From an outside perspective, you are just getting started. Three months is just a warm up period. One part of me wants to advise that the doctoral study period is limited and you should do what you need to do to get through it and move on to other things. The other part wants to advise that it isn't fun to work on something you aren't interested in for a few years. Dilemma.

But, if you intend to stay with this advisor, I suggest, pretty strongly, that you take his advice. He has more experience and a wider view than you do. It would be fine, in my view, to ask for more time to find a mutually acceptable problem to work on, but if you get push-back, I think you either need to yield or find someone else to work with. But, it may be that you can come up with an idea that he has some interest and competence in quickly enough that it works out.

You will get the best help from your advisor, assuming you need it, if you work on a problem he is also invested in. It is possible, but harder, to work alone, but you still need his approval at the end of the day. If you can get by with minimal help and final approval, you can probably make a go of it, though it will likely take longer than if you have strong help.

But you should look, also, to see if there is another local advisor available who has more compatible interests. You also want an advisor who will support your future career. Fighting with him won't get you that.

  • Thanks! While I agree that he has more experience and wider view than me one of the reasons for my hesitation is that his idea involves applying method X to his field Y. He doesn't know much about X but it's a hot new thing likely to generate a lot of citations. To me, being more aware of X, I see it as trying to fix a nail to a wall with a kitchen knife - you can do it, but it really doesn't make much sense. He dismisses my concerns quoting another paper which applied X but to Z and got published and cited lots. That paper also ignores the limitations of X but I can bring myself to do that. – KubaFYI Nov 22 '18 at 19:00
  • It might be nice if, along the way, you could also improve X. – Buffy Nov 22 '18 at 19:01
  • You can make a knife with a heavier, hammer shaped blade but why would you if hammers exist? – KubaFYI Nov 22 '18 at 19:03
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    @KubaFYI your comment about making a knife with the wrong tool when hammers exist suggests that you know how to solve the problem in Y without using X. Is this the case? If so, have you told your advisor that you already know how to solve Y? If this is not the case, and you don't know how to solve Y, how do you know X isn't the right tool for Y? – Sean English Nov 22 '18 at 19:39
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It's perfectly normal to not know your research question three months into your PhD. Honestly, even if you knew it there's about a 99% chance it won't be the research question you'll write down in your PhD thesis.

Given that, I'd advise you to just go along with your supervisor since typically applying hot new method X to field Y works well despite all the misgivings of people who are well-acquainted with X.

You are also saying you feel lukewarm about academia in general, three months into your PhD. I would take that feeling really serious because that should not be the case. It might make sense to check back on that in a couple of months and if you are then still feeling lukewarm about academia, seriously consider moving to industry instead.

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To follow up on your comment on the other response: so what problem does your professor want you to apply Machine Learning to (to pull a hot topic out of the air)?

It's awfully early in your PhD program for your professor to want you to be publishing a paper in a new area at a new (to you) conference unless that Master's you did leads naturally into an extension in a related area which could be written up and submitted quickly. This isn't a reason to abandon your PhD program, but it probably is a reason to have a frank discussion with your advisor about their expectations and about what your interests are. It's still very early, and you need more than just their orders about what to do, you need their advice. They are your advisor after all.

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Is it abnormal / bad / embarrassing to still not know one's research question this far into the PhD programme?

You're working as a student. Your role is to learn not to publish. Publication is secondary to your studies, and no university can force you that. You don't even need a paper for your degree. You're not paid as a post-docs, your advisor or your university is in no position to force anything.

3 months is a short, learning a topic deeply at the PhD level generally take much longer.

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    Several PhD programs have obligation to publish. – Emilie Nov 23 '18 at 13:59
  • @Emilie In the first 3 months as a student? – SmallChess Nov 23 '18 at 13:59
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    It would be totally unreasonable for any PhD program to require student to publish in their first semester. But the entire point of (most) PhD programs is to train researchers, and researchers publish. – JeffE Nov 24 '18 at 4:02
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    @SmallChess no, indeed but your answer is not clear on that – Emilie Nov 26 '18 at 13:14

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