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How would potential research advisors view someone entering graduate school because of interest in particular "real-world" problems, with the ultimate hope of leaving or changing fields if these particular issues are resolved?

I can come up with a few examples. Perhaps someone is very passionate about a particular disease for personal or family reasons, and 15-20 years later therapies have progressed to the extent that they feel the problem no longer needs their attention. Maybe someone is passionate about climate change, environmental protection or missile defense because of the challenges of their hometown, and 20 years later political circumstances change (e.g., in the last case, the Cold War ends) such that they no longer feel these issues threaten their communities.

This model of thinking about one's career, "If society is successful the problem will be solved and we can all quit our job" contrasts the life-long academic model. At the same time, I feel that's how many people are motivated to enter research, not from the perspective of "I'm interested in X technology" but "I want to help solve Y problem".

My concern is, if I interview with potential future advisors with this kind of story, even if the political problem I'm focused on has a long, 1-2 decades timeline for resolution, a future advisor might find this kind of attitude "disloyal" to a field. When advisors ask about my interests, I feel that they're looking for a response that describes intrinsic academic interest in a topic, "I think X is really interesting", rather than a framing of research as "I'm concerned about Y political problem that you might not necessarily care about or may even disagree with, it's unlikely to go away in a 10 year time-frame, and I think getting a PhD in Z is the best way for me help my community in working through this problem". Especially for a pure-academic, "I'm primarily motivated by recent, specific political circumstances" may not sound very dedicated coming from a student entering a new field for them, even if all signs point to this problem staying around for decades. And for certain issues, like defense/ security, advisors may object to training students with this motivation because of their ethical views.

What concerns would such an advisor have, and how can I respond to them?

I'm in a technical field, for reference, but am interested in answers oriented towards humanities-oriented fields as well.

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My concern is, if I interview with potential future advisors with this kind of story, even if the political problem I'm focused on has a long, 1-2 decades timeline for resolution, a future advisor might find this kind of attitude "disloyal" to a field or otherwise unacceptable.

Importantly a PhD in a given field really is just a piece of paper signalling you are capable of independent and novel research. It's sort of a baseline expectation for a researcher and nothing more. Kind of similar to how your BSc simply qualifies you to speak intelligently about broad topics in your field.

I'm not aware, personally, if any situation where switching fields/leaving a field would be seen as a negative. In my field (Computer Science) it's not uncommon at all to see researchers publishing in broadly related fields such as math, engineering, economics, or really any other place Computer Science is used. Though, to be fair many more stick to their specialization.

This model of thinking about one's career, "If I'm successful the problem will be solved and I can quit my job" contrasts the life-long academic model. At the same time, I feel that's how many people are motivated to enter research, not from the perspective of "I'm interested in X technology" but "I want to solve Y problem".

10-20 years is more-or-less a career (using your numbers above). I don't think anyone would look at you negatively for quitting at that point.

"I'm primarily motivated by recent, specific political circumstances" may not sound very dedicated coming from a student entering a new field for them, even if all signs point to this problem staying around for decades. And for certain issues, like defense/ security, advisors may object to training students with this motivation because of their ethical views.

Political motivations really depend on your field. I can only speak for my field but if it wasn't for a need for better computing technology in WW2 the field of Computer Science may not be what it is today!

However, importantly your political motivations must necessarily align with your advisor's. If your advisor does not see your problem as important it will likely be disregarded. Your goal during your PhD is to learn how to do research under the guidance of someone with significant experience. It's approximately equivalent to a journeyman position in labor but for academia. Your advisor is there to help you find topics that will get you out of your PhD on time and hold your interest for 4-6 years. If you get a read from your advisor that what you want to do is ethically/politically contrary to their beliefs you can either accept this and do research with the end goal of contributing how you want after your PhD, or attempt to find a new advisor. Your PhD is not your entire career. If you get your PhD you'll have plenty of time to do work in things you enjoy.

In general your post gives off a small sense of superiority. What will sink you is this sense you seem to have that you will solve a major problem in a field. It's an honorable thing to think about but to use a direct example - if I told my advisor my goal is to solve P =? NP in 20 years I would probably be told to seriously evaluate whether I understand what research actually is.

Keep this in mind when broaching this question. It's good to have aspirations of greatness but remember to keep them in check. Research is incremental. Reframing your thoughts, and the way you broach the question to advisors, into something like "I am extremely passionate about XYZ and I want to advance the body of knowledge in this field during my career" will both make you look humble and intelligent.

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    Thank you for your comments, I've edited my post to better reflect my attitude towards my ability to solve problems. I certainly don't mean to say I personally can resolve a major problem, all I mean is, and to give a concrete example, if someone pursues a technical PhD with national security motivations due to political concerns, it'd be great if countries resolved their differences peacefully, the world reentered an "end of history" period, and defense research was no longer required. Sep 6, 2020 at 22:29
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    @Dragonsheep you never said what your technical PhD would be in. You might find it comforting to understand there is likely not a single academic field with a strictly defense focus. If you choose to pursue something for national security and you truly believe that you hope people will resolve their differences so it isn't necessary that is admirable. Defense research is often a subfield of a larger, more general and academic, field and there will be plenty of places you will be able to apply yourself should you want to leave the defense space.
    – user117751
    Sep 6, 2020 at 22:34
  • Thank you for your kind words, finding the right way to discuss (or not discuss) political motivations in the workplace, when advisors are very keen in asking about interests and motivations, is a new challenge for me. Your suggestions to reframe feel like the right way to balance being honest about myself while finding common ground with any supervisor. Sep 6, 2020 at 23:11
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There's a body of methods in experimental design called "statistical decision theory", and it works only if one has an "external/political motivation" of the kind you describe, encoded in a loss function. Hence, with anyone who uses statistical decision theory, it should be safe to discuss the general idea of having an external/political motivation to undertake research (although that doesn't entirely rule out the possibility that a specific external/political motivation might be risky to bring up).

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