I joined graduate school in the US with interests in theoretical chemistry/chemical physics. Though I was enrolled for a PhD in chemistry, I was taking classes in physics for an entire year. This made me realize that I was more interested in physics related research than my current work in theoretical chemistry. While I was still in a dilemma, I convinced myself that I should continue in chemistry and joined my current advisor's group. Things were going fine for a while until I ended up having a minor confrontation with my advisor that made me feel sick about myself. I didn't know some of the basic things he was asking me and I was left stupefied by him. This made me think if I really wanted to pursue research in this direction. As a reaction to the flashpoint I had hit, I approached another professor in the physics department. While he rejected my request, he also notified my current advisor about my intentions. I really didn't mean to hurt my current advisors' feelings about this but, I was dumbstruck when he confronted me about my emails to another professor and accused me of unethical behavior. I am really confused about what to do with my situation. There have been a few students who have had similar issues of feeling disconnected from their research in my current research group, in a case even one of them switched to another group abruptly.

What should I do if my current advisor decides to step down?


How do I really find out what I am passionate about and is there a way to separate the reality from noise?

2 Answers 2


Things were said between the two professors that you couldn't control. It puts you in a difficult position, but might also be an opportunity.

To switch fields you need to satisfy the university about some things, but also find an advisor in the new field. Either of these could be a stumbling block. The worst case, I think is that you need to find a new university, but that isn't entirely uncommon. It would cost you a bit of time, of course.

But there is little worse than spending your life doing things that don't interest you. There is no replay button on life.

Re-evaluate both your desires and your options. But also connect to those at the current university who see you in a positive light. They can also give you advice.

FWIW, I think your advisor behaved badly in making accusations against you. I don't see your explorations as unethical in any way.

  • But, given that I am an international student and the current cycle of admissions has ended for grad schools in the US, I really don't know what to do? I mean I am really confused about my desire to do anything at this point, as I am threatened of lossing whatever I have.
    – user105165
    Mar 20, 2020 at 15:13
  • Talk to someone local that you trust. Preferably someone who knows the local educational system and the options better than yourself. As an international student your options may be narrower, especially with the pandemic raging now. But think long term about where you want to get to. In the US there may be some administrative solutions. The head of department might be a useful person to talk to - maybe both in chemistry and in physics.
    – Buffy
    Mar 20, 2020 at 15:15
  • But, I don't know if there's anyone who would be willing to do that.
    – user105165
    Mar 20, 2020 at 15:28
  • Another student might suggest someone. There might also be an office at the U that deals with special student problems and can intervene.
    – Buffy
    Mar 20, 2020 at 15:30

I feel like a big part of the problem here is that by the time you're at the PhD level of work, you're expected to know that you want to do that work. You're making an enormous commitment to go through a PhD, and, rightly or wrongly, the time for flirting with different majors is when you're in undergrad.

At least that's how it's "supposed" to work, and is likely what both of these professors expected of you.

I don't mean to make you feel bad here; what I'm wondering is if you've asked yourself if a PhD is really right for you. Why did you start a PhD in chemistry in the first place? Was there something you loved about the subject that made you want to go this far, or was it an ill-thought out decision to begin with? If it was a good decision at the time, then is this really a change in your interests, or is it just a reaction to the difficulty of PhD work? It's quite normal to get discouraged and/or become sick of your work as a PhD student - it's something we all push through. Or was it just a reaction to the confrontation with your adviser, and can you get back on track by clearing that up? Are your reasons for changing to physics more compelling than the reasons you had for starting chemistry, or are you just repeating any previous mistakes?

If you've asked yourself hard questions like this and are sure you should be here, you need to commit. Fully and right away. The whole thing with being a chemistry student while taking physics classes seems bizarre to me. Assuming you are funded through chemistry, I'm surprised you were even able to do that. Regardless, I would strongly discourage you from continuing anything similar.

If you do decide to stick with chemistry, get with your adviser and have a frank talk, right away. Explain what happened and express your commitment to continuing on. If you decide to change to physics, Buffy had some advice in his answer. All I would add is that you shouldn't lead on your current adviser and take up their time if you're not committed to staying, so start collecting information and make a decisive move. And if, when I said "you need to commit" above you though "Well that doesn't help! Where do I commit?" then it comes back to asking why you want to do a PhD in the first place. Maybe consider some time off to re-evaluate?

  • Taking classes in Physics is a very common thing for most PhD students in physical and theoretical chemistry, infact it was my advisor who suggested me to do so in the first place. As most of our research involves the implementation of quantum mechanics, statistical physics and a lot tools from mathematical physics. The first thing that drew me close to this subject was that it was the closest I could get to physics. For some reasons I didnt realise that until I had come to grad school that I was more inclined towards these ideas.
    – user105165
    Mar 20, 2020 at 16:38
  • But, as I reflect I am not completely against my current line of work as I further ponder over this situation, I see it as my frustration about my advisor pushing me towards research while I was getting overwhelmed with coursework and Teaching duties.
    – user105165
    Mar 20, 2020 at 16:38
  • That seems like a really solid reflection to have. I hope you can clear the air with your adviser and refocus successfully. Good luck.
    – Jeff
    Mar 20, 2020 at 16:53
  • But if things go south, what are my options given what has happened so far.
    – user105165
    Mar 20, 2020 at 17:09
  • I'm not sure there's any way we can answer that for you. Go talk to your adviser, apologize (it doesn't matter so much whether YOU think you need to; your adviser clearly thinks you do) and express your desire to get back to work. If it goes poorly and there's no way to rectify it, you'll need to ask your adviser and/or department what next.
    – Jeff
    Mar 20, 2020 at 17:11

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