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First of all, I am sorry if this sounds like a simplistic question. But I am a first-year PhD student and this is really troubling me.

As per the requirements of my department, all first-year PhD students have to complete a research project by the end of their first year. When my advisor pushed me to pick a topic to work on in fall, I have half-heartedly committed to an area that I had previously worked on in my undergraduate institution and therefore was no longer super-excited about. But it felt like a safe haven, and I didn't want to undertake a very ambitious project right in my first year.

But the research project I developed has failed to provide results, sadly. The experiments I conducted did not yield any interpretable results and I don't know at this point whether it was because of a design flaw or whether the hypotheses that we were testing need revision. But at any rate, my gut feeling is that the experiments are not salvageable and that it would be much better for me if I switched to a different project for the upcoming years. (Thankfully, my department doesn't seem to mind lack of clear results for the first-year project - what they care about in the case of newbies is that they completed a project, with or without publishable results.)

But I feel very uncomfortable about this and don't know how to broach the subject. My advisor wants me to continue working on the same topic in summer as well, and I don't want to give her the impression that I am a "quitter" - but at the same time I know that it is pure folly to pursue a certain research project that is hopeless. I've lost a year already, and if I stick with the same project because of my advisor, I'm afraid I might lose another year which would cost me dearly.

How can I tell my advisor that I would rather start working on a different topic?

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    Have you told your advisor that you don't feel like the project will produce results? – Collin Apr 24 at 18:46
  • Yes. Technically she sees as well as I do that we are not getting results. – Freya Apr 24 at 20:11
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If you are really doing research, then the results are not predictable. However, even when the research "fails" to reach some more or less expected end, you learn something. If all your research reaches the expected end, then you aren't doing research, but just confirming something already known, if only approximately.

To say that some experiment fails to find significance is actually knowledge gained. The relationship between the pre-conditions and the result are, at best, weak. If nothing else, you learn that the methodology wasn't sufficient to establish a connection. But all of that is knowledge and it is worth the effort to obtain it.

Moreover, along the way of doing such "failed" research, you may gain some insight into why the relationship is weak or non-existent. Even a failed proof in mathematics shows you something, even if it isn't as satisfying as providing an actual proof. Maybe the "theorem" isn't actually true in general.

The other issue, of course, is changing topics. If your research shows you that a certain topic is unlikely to bear "satisfying" results, then it is certainly proper to request the opportunity of looking at something else. Do that.

I worked in mathematics as a doctoral student on three problems. The first turned out to be so easy to advance that it lacked substance. The second turned out to be so hard to advance that nothing useful could be learned. Both of these were abandoned. Then I found just the right problem. Hard enough to have significance, but not so hard as to make advancement impossible. Luckily my advisor agreed with me on the abandonment of the earlier problems. But I had to ask and did so in a timely way.


However, don't neglect to keep a "research notebook" in which you record both ideas and insights for research as well as the progress made on failed attempts. This notebook gives you some place to "mine" for ideas in your future when you are looking for something interesting to do.

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    Well, thank you for your encouraging answer. The truth is, the productivity pressure placed on us makes it hard for me to think in a self-affirming way. People may pay lip service to the idea that any research is valuable if it is methodologically sound, even if the results are non-significant. But deep down, I feel like the results actually do matter and that's what we are being evaluated on as young scientists. Or maybe that's me being an insecure international first-year student who is too worried about not making a good impression in the beginning. – Freya Apr 24 at 20:13
  • Independent of that, though, I sincerely do think that the project itself is not very promising. But it is not super-easy for me to tell my advisor that I want to ditch this project. – Freya Apr 24 at 20:16
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    You may be the best person to make the judgement, of course. Have a discussion about it and see where it goes. – Buffy Apr 24 at 20:33

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