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like many others I'm here to ask for advice about switching groups. I'm a third year PhD in physics. I have been working in my current lab for about a year. Prior to that, I worked on another project with a different professor for about 2 years. I want to leave my current group because I realize this area is not my passion. Good thing is there's a professor from math department who wants to work with me on a project, and I absolutely want to work with him. But I'm not sure how to tell my current advisor that I want leave.

I must say that my current advisor is an excellent advisor in all aspects. He is supportive (both academically and financially); he is absolutely smart and has deep understanding of the field. He cares about his students' overall progress and growth. In addition, the group dynamics is great. I have zero things to complain about. The only thing making me want to leave is that I realize I have absolutely no interest in this area.

His financial support (RA) to me has one more month before it expires, and he is willing to extend it for the summer. But I do not want to stay for another two months, since it does not fit my academic development and I don't think it's ethical to take his money and not willing to work productively. I don't know how to tell him my decision. I definitely don't want to be ungrateful or disrespectful, because I very much appreciate his support in the past year.

Any suggestion would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much for the help.

  • This is not exactly the same situation, but closely related (especially the top answer). – cag51 Apr 23 at 2:10
  • It sounds like you'd need someone from your current department to coadvise you if you don't want to have to start grad school over – user120011 Apr 23 at 3:19
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Wow! a really tough situation. On one hand you have the opportunity to continue to be supported by someone whom cares and believes in you. On the other you want to be free to make decisions about your own life without anyone taking it personal. In life people take things personal! Yes, it's not professional but when someone puts time and resources into you they want you to remain committed despite your reservations.

Yes you could leave your group and go for something you're more passionate about, but would you get the same type of deal? People talk to each other even if they seem like they don't. Would your new group look at you as a "trader" if they found out you had support and turned your back on your previous team because it got a little rough? Drama, folks love it, thrive off of it and will at your expense. I would say have a heart to heart with your current team let them know of your intentions while remaining politically correct and discuss with the new professor about your reservations to leave your old team but you can be more committed to this new challenge.

Do what's in you, try and be prepared if things don't work out the way you want. Live with whatever you may regret.

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If your advisor is a great as you describe then they will understand your situation and be willing to either work with you to help you enjoy your current field more, or be happy for you to go into an area where you are more passionate.

It is to no advantage to a good supervisor (who is looking out for your best interest) to have you work in an area that you dislike. But, they may have a broader perspective and want to talk to you about that. Things like: What caused things to change? Is there anything that they can do to help improve things? They may see that you have strong potential that you can't see as clearly - which could be influencing your desire to leave the field. (Or not, I have no idea - but a good advisor may want to talk to you about these things.)

So, my advice is just to be direct and honest. Set up a meeting as soon as is appropriate and don't be afraid to have the discussion.

I left a professor that was funding me during my PhD and she was great about it - no hard feelings. And, I have no hard feelings about students who have, in the end, decided not to work with me.

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In academia, like in any other professional environment, we appreciate people who are interested and passionate about their job. But we also appreciate responsible people who get the things done.

Research projects require considerable resource, and PhD projects are not an exception. Your contributions via doing the RA work does not fully cover the cost of research - your PI and your University contribute most of it by maintaining the lab, the office environment, and probably by paying your stipend. However, it is you and only you who can complete your PhD project. And it is you who are responsible for it.

Please analyse your feelings and motivations. After two years in, you feel that you lost interest to the topic. How did you realise when it happened? What would you feel if you had to stay on course for another day? week? month? year? until completion? Which timeline here really starts to hurt and why is that?

Are you sure that what you feel is not an anxiety induced by your fear to complete your thesis and make it public, exposing your work to the external world, where it can be met with criticism (or praise)? Perhaps, you may need someone to help you better understand you feelings and motivations.

Academic professional work consists almost entirely of publication deadlines, milestones where our research projects must be completed and results must be made public. At the same time, we never can fully predict or anticipate the results of research. Living and working with this uncertainty is a part of academic experience. You won't be able to escape this part by moving to another group. There are no easy solutions here, and perhaps the easiest is to embrace responsibility for the resources and trust put into you and to get your work done.

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