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EDIT: I should clarify this is not the first draft of my PhD, it's the first draft of my upgrade document to go from MPhil to PhD.

I have been working on my PhD for about two years now, it is a six year part-time program. I have a very good relationship with all my supervisors and they are very supportive. I am fortunate to be part of a good university which is open-minded and free-thinking. I also have attracted the interest of a well-known external academic who is an authority within the field and who wants to be involved. I am very lucky.

The problem is that I am just not that interested or convinced by my research [chiefly its significance]. I have to submit my upgrade document [MPhil > PhD] in about five week's time, and the viva is a week after that. I have written a draft document which is 12,000 words and my main supervisor has written a lot of comments which are suggestions for improvements. The issue is that I do not feel that interested or compelled to work through them.

I am under the impression that my supervisor is not that convinced by my research, even though she keeps saying she has no concerns. I feel my research is too vague, too broad but also too overbearing. It incorporates three disciplines [at the advice of one of my supervisors], disciplines A B and C. Discipline A I am not that interested in - I was for my master's but now I find it quite tedious but it is quite an important part of the whole. It is a well-worn discipline and feels rather old and stale to me now. Discipline B is quite new and interesting, I have published within this discipline. Disipline C is very new and up-and-coming. I find it quite exciting and my supervisor has written the least amount of comments about it in my draft paper, which I take to mean she has the least amount of complaints about it [she has a lot of comments to make about dispclines A/B]. She has also said that discpline C is a 'key' part of the PhD.

I do not know what to do. I am really not that interested and the whole thing seems so daunting. My PhD focuses on A and B mostly with C being only a feature, but I am wondering whether I should switch things round entirely and make it more about C. I feel I will not really be able to convince my panel about the significance of my research in the viva if I am not excited about it or convinced myself. In my master's I was always keen to research and write, now I am not, but I know I would be if the topic were carried out a bit differently.

What shall I do, how shall I regain interest? My PhD seems rather fluffy and not sharp enough. Additionally, I am daunted by the scope of the whole thing: it seems too large to work through and 'bigger' than me. I am kind of at a loss for what to do.

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    Sounds like the usual almost-done slump. The good news is this means you’re almost done! – JeffE Jun 15 '19 at 15:07
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+400

What you are going through is common among graduate students. I had it back when I was doing my M.Sc. and then my Ph.D. Now my students have it from time to time. The other answers offer good advice but they might apply to different phases of a Ph.D. journey.

So here is my advice. Don't burn the bridge behind you. You've come all the way, so you might as well get your Ph.D. Ph.D. is not just a dissertation, but a journey. All the people you meet, all the new books and papers you read, all the new tools and skills you learn, they all contribute to making you a better person/researcher. From your question, I understand that you could be satisfied with those things. Even though you are not satisfied with your dissertation, you have all the time after your Ph.D. to pursue other interesting fields.

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  • Thank you, very encouraging response. – C26 Jun 28 '19 at 13:21
  • You're most welcome. Good luck. – Ehsan Jun 28 '19 at 15:51
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my supervisor (...) keeps saying she has no concerns

Believe her.

Having lots of comments and suggestions for improvement does not mean she doesn't like what you have done. It may be the exact opposite: because she likes what you have done, she wants to make sure your research is presented in the best possible way, clearly demonstrating its potential and value.

I would suggest taking some time off to recharge your batteries and then working through the list. You've made it this far, now do what it takes to complete your PhD. Judging the value of the research is most likely better done in a less stressful situation (i.e. once your done).

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  • This is a good answer. Taking some time off would mean interrupting, since I have already taken a couple of months off for other reasons. I will consider your advice seriously, thank you. – C26 Jun 21 '19 at 14:30
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First, I think that your first paragraph is a bit at odds with the rest. If I read it correctly, you are in a good place even if your current "mood" is down rather than up. But that is a common reaction for a grad student, especially one who is aware of things. One reason for thinking your research isn't very valuable is that you are now, unlike a year ago, understanding it much better. Before it seemed hard. Now it seems routine. But that is an effect of your mastery of it.

I suggest that you think both short term and long term. In the short term you want to complete your degree and move on. Changing your path radically now might negatively affect that. You have made some progress.

But thinking long term, you may also want to move to a somewhat different subfield. There is no reason you can't do that, but it would be easier to do so after you finish your degree and have a regular position. But you don't have to completely abandon thinking about, and taking notes on, the new field while you pursue the main thread toward completion.

I've recommended in a number of other posts here that researchers keep a research notebook in which they record ideas for research that might be explored and developed in the future. When any idea of potential research directions occurs to you, make a page in the notebook for it. Periodically review the notebook and update it whenever related ideas occur. With judicious use you can keep fairly current in a somewhat different subfield without abandoning the path you are on.

The advice you are getting seems to be good. Don't let it confuse you, however. Deal with the short term to enable the long term. Your first work (dissertation) isn't likely to be your best work over a long career.

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One of my PhD professors told us something like this: "Make sure that you pick a topic that you absolutely love, because by the time you're done, you're going to hate it." I've found this to be an excellent piece of advise. The PhD journey is so intense and soul-consuming that you should not go that road on something that you're not emotionally invested in. By the end of the road, students are often sick and tired of their deep dive into the same topic over a few years, so it's best to start with something that you really like to begin with.

You don't have to literally absolutely love it (in fact, there are problems with taking that too literally), but emotionally, you do need to like your topic a lot and you certainly need to believe in its importance. Put aside your need to convince your committee: you need to first focus on convincing yourself. So, rather than trying to motivate yourself in your topic, I strongly suggest that you switch topic for something that genuinely motivates you.

That said, resource support is very important, and this comes primarily from the professors whom you are working with. So, I generally recommend to PhD students to look for a topic or sub-topic that a cooperative professor is already interested in, and then go with that for the PhD. If you can find a topic that you like that your potential supervisor also likes, then they are emotionally invested in supporting you and you will find that your PhD journey goes much more smoothly.

So, in brief, I recommend that you carefully examine the topics and sub-topics of interest of the supportive professors that you have access to, then pick the one you like best as your PhD topic.

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It's a bit difficult to give actionable advice without knowing the specifics, many aspects of a PhD depend on the field, the institution, etc. So I don't know to what extent my advice below applies to your case. That being said, I see three points worth mentioning:

  • The supervisors. There seems to be many people involved in your work. You mention that they are supportive, this is obviously good and it's not always the case so good for you! But too many people involved can also make things messy, each might (consciously or not) put pressure on you to go in the direction that they favor, they might not always agree together and you might end up spending more time managing their expectations than focusing on your own ideas. It's important that everyone's role in your PhD is clear to them and to you: there should be only one supervisor who acts as the lead, this implies that the others have an advisory role only (don't try to satisfy their requests unless they really fit in your schedule). This is also important in order to know who has the final word in case of disagreement: it's likely to happen sooner or later when many people are involved, and this can have quite bad consequences if there's no clear strategy in place.
  • The scope You are right to be concerned about your topic being too vague and too broad. To me this shows that you have a good understanding of what you are doing, you are able to spot the weaknesses in this PhD plan. Identifying the issue is important, the next step is to find a solution to this. It's quite common to start with a broad topic and refine it along the way into something much more specific. I've seen many PhDs in which the final work covers only a small portion of the original topic, but this is fine as long as there is a strong rationale (why it makes sense to focus on this particular point). But here again it's important to make sure everyone is aware of that from the start: with a broad topic, it's unavoidable that there's going to be some parts left unaddressed. If possible, try to establish a preliminary plan or a list of priorities of what you are going to focus on, and make sure your supervisors are ok with it.
  • Your own interest. Your personal motivation is critical. It's normal to feel a bit scared. Every PhD student faces the question "am I really able to do that?", and the only way to get an answer is to try. The answer is almost always positive if you are persistent enough to go through it, small step after small step. In my experience, it's the personal motivation which makes the difference: if you start with an half-empty tank, you are more likely to run out of motivation in the middle of the work (or apparently even at the start in your case). So you want to make sure that (1) you know what you'd like to do yourself (even only intuitively, intuition is usually a very good indicator) and (2) you make sure that most of the PhD work is going to be about that. Of course, the largest the overlap between your interest and your supervisor's interest the better: some things you like might not be realistic in this context, adjustments are ok but at the end of the day it is your PhD, you should feel a sense of ownership with it.

Bottom line: if you really don't feel comfortable with the direction this is taking, re-discuss the details with your supervisors before committing to it. It might not be an easy discussion but the longer you wait the harder it's going to be.

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