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Let's say Alice is a PhD student who's well into the research phase of a PhD. She's got a nice exciting project she enjoys, a helpful supervisor, she's making good progress. And then there's a big discovery. She's excited about the new discovery, she wants to work on it, and her current project suddenly doesn't seem so interesting anymore. Real life example: suppose Alice is a Chemistry PhD student from the late 1980s working in condensed matter, and the big discovery is cold fusion.

Can Alice ditch her project to work on the new discovery? What if the new discovery is in an area that is not her supervisor's specialization? I'm also curious whether Alice can make this switch if she's a professor (as opposed to PhD student).

My guess would be that it's hard for Alice to do this as a PhD student even if there's another supervisor available, because she would have to start over again and therefore take longer to graduate (running into funding issues). It'd also be an administrative hassle especially if she has to change departments (Chemistry to Physics in example above - the fields are related, but not that related). If Alice is a professor then she would presumably be stuck, because she's got to work on her grants. She could apply for new grants related to the big discovery, but it would be a while before she can work on it. Am I correct?

  • I wrote my answer before reading the final paragraph. I'm glad I did, because the third paragraph makes the question leading. I'd suggest shrinking the text of the final paragraph and prepending with a remark along the lines of Here are my thoughts, perhaps read them after you've given an answer. – user2768 Dec 19 '18 at 7:27
  • Are you considering a change of field? (You needn't answer that.) – user2768 Dec 19 '18 at 7:31
  • Can Alice do this? Yes. Should Alice do this? Much more difficult question. – Flyto Dec 20 '18 at 9:46
  • @user2768 Am I considering a change of field? Yes actually. But as Flyto mentioned, whether I should do this is a hard question to answer. It's not like my current work is no longer interesting, but reading about the exciting developments in the other field makes me feel like, damn, I'm missing out. – Allure Dec 20 '18 at 23:54
  • @Allure Have your cake and eat it: Presumably your current work is actively moving forwards, is well(ish) staffed, and financed. Keep that going. In parallel, start working on the exciting developments in the other field. Will that be hard? Absolutely, you'll have two full time jobs! Is it sustainable? No way. But, you can re-evaluate six- and twelve-months in. – user2768 Dec 21 '18 at 8:45
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Can Alice ditch her project to work on the new discovery?

Alice has many responsibilities in her life, including satisfying her sponsor and producing her thesis. Whether she should ditch her project depends on those responsibilities. IMO, she perhaps doesn't have enough time to fulfil her obligations and ditch her project (PhDs are short), so she might need to delay working on the new discovery. There's perhaps an exception if Alice is in the early stages of her PhD.

What if the new discovery is in an area that is not her supervisor's specialization?

That's not particularly relevant: Many students work under the supervision of advisors that aren't specialists in their research areas.

if she's a professor (as opposed to PhD student).

Then, she isn't bound to the time constraints of a PhD, but still has other responsibilities.

I'm also curious whether Alice can make this decision

Yes, she can. Who else would make it? Pressure may be applied by others, but, ultimately, the decision is Alice's. (That said, she may get sued for her decision, e.g., if she ditches her project without delivering upon contractual obligations, but that's perhaps unlikely in academia, even less-so for student-Alice, as opposed to professor-Alice.)

I'm also curious whether Alice can [feasibly] make this switch if she's a professor (as opposed to PhD student).

If Alice truly wants to switch, then Alice can make it happen. There may be many barriers: personal, institutional, contractual (including funding obligations), ... But, they can be overcome. That said, should she switch? That's up to Alice. She perhaps has a relatively easy position right now, switching will be a massive upheaval.

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    I was with you until the very end. Under what circumstances could changing projects result in Alice being sued? – Nate Eldredge Dec 19 '18 at 18:23
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    I changed "make this decision" to "make this switch" - obviously Alice is the one who makes the decision, but I was asking whether Alice can actually make it given the constraints she undoubtedly faces. – Allure Dec 20 '18 at 7:02
  • @Allure Are you questioning whether it is feasible for Alice to switch? – user2768 Dec 20 '18 at 9:02
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    @user2768 yes, that's what I meant. – Allure Dec 20 '18 at 9:06
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    @Allure Edited. (Perhaps related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/1696/… and academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2632/…) – user2768 Dec 20 '18 at 9:19
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So basically there is someone who is "motivated" towards new project and "demotivated" towards old one. One should consider theories of motivation in psychology here. Considering Psychology always helps according to my experience because it predicts our own acts accurately. So in this case “EIV theory of motivation” can be considered in order to take right decision. According to this theory you are motivated in current state because you see that "output" of the new project is very good as compared to your current project. Second thing is that you have presumed that you will get "more output" while putting "same efforts" in new project. Other thing is that, you consider everything in your favour so that you are fully "able" to discover something big. These thoughts are unconsciously in the back of our mind. The thing that person should really think of is validity of these unconscious thoughts. First motivational factor will not change irrespective of any condition and situation. At this current situation, as idea is new he/she is very energetic. So he/she may ignore extra work that will really add up in order to do something entirely new. This is surroundings as well as situation related factor. For e.g. he/she may require to change his/her guide person or idea may be entirely off-field for him/her. Other thing is ability and it strongly depends on self-determination and other surrounding factors. For e.g. you may be self-determined but if you are unable to raise funds which are unexpectedly very high then you may fail. He/she should consider all these internal and external factors in detail, consciously in order to assure goal accomplishment.

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