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I am someone with an undergraduate degree in physics and am currently a over a year into a PhD in maths. However I am not feeling happy for several reasons:

  • I told my supervisor right from the beginning that my interests were in physics (and very specific areas of physics), yet I have spent a year without doing any physics.
  • I have been studying a problem that on the one hand seems extremely difficult and on the other contains no physics and doesn't interest me, though I'm worried about souring our relationship if I tell him to his face that it doesn't interest me.
  • Part of what makes the problem so difficult is that my supervisor has no clue how to solve the problem and suggestions he gives are never useful. In my meetings my supervisors often says things that are wrong and (combined with the lack of ideas on his end) it has somewhat shaken my faith in him. On one occasion he got angry when I disagreed with him on something, even though I was right. I get a slight sense he resents me for this. Instead of being supervised by someone who seems knowledgeable I feel I am for all intents and purposes working on my own.
  • I am concerned that I have picked an area that doesn't interest me as much as I thought it did.

All of these things make me feel depressed and make me want to drop out and start again somewhere else, somewhere I can do research that interests me. I don't want to waste 4 years of my life simply out of a desire to "see it through." If I drop out and apply to another PhD program is the fact that you've already dropped out once damning?

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    Why did you accept a maths PhD - just because it was there? You need to evaluate yourself and what you want to do - we cannot guess for you. – Solar Mike Jan 26 at 6:13
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    Is it possible for you to switch within the same university? That may be easier. – Thomas Jan 26 at 8:20
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    Move to physics Ph.D. – guest Jan 26 at 9:09
  • Well the PhD is in mathematical physics, and project title was very physics-y and in line with my interests. But the research I've been doing bears no relation to the title and when I ask him about it, he acts like he never had a concrete research idea. – Stosszahlansatz Jan 26 at 15:55
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[I] am currently a over a year into a PhD in maths. However...I told my supervisor right from the beginning that my interests were in physics (and very specific areas of physics), yet I have spent a year without doing any physics.

Seems like a rather obvious mismatch! Why are you in math if you want to do physics?

My supervisor has no clue how to solve the problem and suggestions he gives are never useful.

Another bad sign. Sometimes it's worth accepting a less-interesting area in exchange for an awesome advisor. But you don't seem to like your advisor either.

All of these things make me...want to drop out and start again somewhere else...I don't want to waste 4 years of my life simply out of a desire to "see it through."

Makes perfect sense. Also consider the quality of your work...once you have a PhD, people will care about your publications and letters -- slogging through a PhD you don't like is unlikely to produce nice publications or letters of recommendation.

If I drop out and apply to another PhD program is the fact that you've already dropped out once damning?

Nope, changing departments is a reasonable reason to drop out. But, it would be nice if you could declare victory -- "I was a brilliant math student who got awesome grades and interesting results, but I realized I like physics better" sounds better than "I got my a** kicked at math and physics sounds easier." Consider what you can do over the next few months to salvage your year (publishing, securing letters of recommendation, getting good grades, etc.)

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    +1, esp. for "if you could declare victory" - nice one! – Captain Emacs Jan 26 at 13:21
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Depending on your particular situation it might indeed be preferable to start a fresh PhD in physics.

However, let me also mention that some universities have interdisciplinary PhD programmes. (At my alma mater, the PhD regulations contained a special section on the particulars of such an interdisciplinary PhD — you need two supervisors from two different faculties, the examining committee should have two faculty members from each faculty, etc.)

Rather than quitting your maths PhD, it might also make sense to work with a co-supervisor from the physics department, working on a topic which is on the intersection of mathematics and physics (such as mathematical or theoretical physics).

I don't know if your current supervisor's research has any relationship to physics, but with all the ideas from physics floating around mathematics (from topology to differential geometry to number theory), chances are that a bridge can be built and this option seems worth considering, especially since in principle you seem to be interested in both mathematics and physics.

Whether it's something you would enjoy and feel you might do well in is something only you can answer. And whether your current supervisor would support such a move can only be discussed with them.

  • Thank you for your reply. Do you know if I were to switch to another department within the same university, would I have "lost" a year and a half or do I get to start again? (For context, I am in the UK and PhDs are supposed to last 3.5 years.) – Stosszahlansatz Jan 26 at 16:16
  • If you want to start a new PhD in a different department, my guess would be that the default is you start like any other PhD student from zero. However, if you receive funding, it gets more complicated. If things are already not going too well, your supervisor will also have noticed it, so they might welcome you asking for honest advice. For your background research about switching programmes you should probably find and read the degree requirements/regulations first, but at some point you should also definitely get advice from a secretary (best after talking to your supervisor). – Earthliŋ Jan 26 at 16:33
  • Part of the issue is that my supervisor does not think things are going badly. And research-wise maybe they aren't: I'm not against the idea of working on a hard problem for a year (and I have made progress). The issue really is that I don't find the problem interesting and I'm annoyed that my supervisor would allow me to work on something so obviously boring for so long. – Stosszahlansatz Jan 26 at 16:39
  • Have you told them that from your perspective things are not going as well as you hoped (bad enough to consider quitting)? Not sure I can actually say much more without knowing the situation. Perhaps you could also talk to other students, professors, etc. to help you determine the best path. – Earthliŋ Jan 26 at 19:16

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