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I am a 3rd year PhD student (started in fall 2017) in Canada in Materials Engineering. I have completed my qualifying exam and proposal last year. I am soon to publish my first publication in a decent journal. However, I am not feeling enthusiastic about my research and future prospects. I joined my PhD to pursue research on a particular topic, which has good prospects in industry and academia. But, after a year, I had to pivot to a different topic loosely related to my original interest area due to the lack of technical support from advisor and collaborators. I have struggled to find motivation since then.

My advisor is very supportive and encouraging. But, his expertise is not in my field of research. That was the main reason for my pivoting from the original research topic. During meetings, he just provides direction and superficial comments about my research. That makes me feel extremely isolated in my research, and all my work is almost independent.

My groupmates are all working on different research areas, and thus are not able to provide any technical support either. I have 2 more years to go (my advisor does not allow students to graduate before 5 years). I am confident that I can publish 2-3 papers more during the period.

I eventually want to be in academia. But, I don't know if my profile will be any good post PhD.

I don't know if I should just continue doing what I am doing now and graduate by 2022. Or I quit this PhD without anything to show. I already have a master's degree from India. What should I do?

  • how far did you get? I mean: do you already have publications? Or are you still struggling with the first steps? A supportive advisor is very important. – JHBonarius Feb 6 at 13:35
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You seem to be pretty close to the end. The topic of your dissertation doesn't require that you never study other things. You future is for you to decide.

Many people change fields quite drastically after finishing a doctorate. I switched from math to CS because of the job market. I knew nothing of CS, nor even programming until I'd finished the doctorate.

My suggestion is to push through it, but keep your eyes (and options) open for the future. Make a lot of contacts and some collaborators while you have the chance. After a while you will be responsible for your own future. You may well be able to return to your original ideas.

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  • Did you find the PhD process useful for learning how to do research? – Patricia Shanahan Jan 25 at 16:56
  • @PatriciaShanahan, yes. But in mathematics the nature of the beast is widely known. The advantage was being able to work with others at a high level. Not just my advisor, but a research group and even faculty in other sub-fields. I always had someone to bounce ideas off of and others to suggest approaches that I might miss on my own. I find that even math is very difficult to do as a sole-practitioner. The coffee-lounge is one of the most important facilities in any department. – Buffy Jan 25 at 17:10
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A deliberately blunt answer from someone who started in academia, pivoted, then worked in industry, and has now pivoted fields again and works in a mixture of academia and industry.

Suck it up and get your Ph.D. It sounds like you're doing just fine, progressing along. It's not exciting you, but what my trail (listed above) has taught me is that one spends a lot of time doing not-so-exciting stuff even in the context of a long-term exciting career path. It's not clear to me -- at least on the basis of what you say -- that the grass is greener on the other side; and you don't have a specific other side in mind anyway.

It sounds like you're making good progress, merely feeling others are getting more direct guidance. Again, to be a bit overly blunt: the Ph.D. is about learning how to be an independent researcher. You're just having to do it a bit more and a bit earlier than most. In fact, in most fields only a few decades ago, academics-in-training were arguably expected to be far more independent and self-sufficient, with their advisors advising rather than directing or employing. In many fields, the rise of the directive, in some cases micro-managing, lab director/advisor role, with graduate students and postdocs working on that director's/advisor's agenda with rather limited independence, has arisen primarily out of funding challenges, plus the degree of specialization needed to reach the edge of existing knowledge. So working on something where you drive the direction, and your advisor advises where they can, could be rather refreshing.

This doesn't mean coast along and let the situation manage you. You're clearly not happy, so that's a good motivator to start thinking about what a research direction change, whether before or after your Ph.D., might look like. Or what post-Ph.D. career options might be inside and outside academia. Start building a broader set of relationships to open such doors.

But there doesn't seem -- based on what you say -- reason to jump tracks immediately; to contemplate leaving without a "Plan B". If and/or once you have a Plan B, and it starts looking attractive compared to the Status Quo, then you can consider the tradeoffs. Right now it just feels you're in the doldrums.

If it later turns out a concrete non-academic Plan B is right for you, great. But I've found even outside academia, the credentialling effect of having a Ph.D. is fairly strong throughout the duration of one's career in many professional or professional-related fields, so it ought to be a pretty compelling concrete Plan B to encourage you to jump ship part way through if things are actually going quite well.

Good luck!

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I'd suggest staying on and getting your degree. The reason is that a materials science PhD can be valuable even minus the thesis because of the training you get en route.

In a typical US / CAN materials program, for example, you would likely have trained to use at least some experimental tools (SEM, TEM, EBSD, XRD, OIM and so on).

These can be very useful for postdoc positions and are sought after outside academia as well, e.g. in industry / national labs. I've never heard of an unemployed transmission electron microscopist.

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  • My PhD is entirely computational modeling. I use finite element analysis. – ConcernedPhD Jan 26 at 18:49

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