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I am a PhD student. This is my first month in the program. I met my advisor a while ago. Very nice guy, but as the title says, he does not know what I am writing about. I don't mean it figuratively. He literally does not know what I am writing about.

I was taken aback when I realized he is not specialized in my area of research. But not knowing what my research is about is just plainly freaking me out! (He thought that I was writing about a different subject, and he doesn't have any other PhD students besides myself)

There is only one professor who is specialized in my area of research in the school, and she is not taking students.

I thought about it, and decided that transferring to another school is on the table. The thing is that the closest school is ranked higher than mine. (Mine in the top 50, the other school in the top 15), and I am not sure if they are going to accept me.

Should I go to the other school and talk to the admission office? To the dean perhaps? For my major, it is not common for students to contact prospective supervisors. (I don't know anyone in there who I am interested in working with because I did not see this coming).

What should I do?

*This a comment that I posted below, but just because it came up many times, I'll put it here:

"Just to clarify, and this is something I clarified above, it is not a common practice in my field that we -students- contact supervisors before getting into the program. We apply and then the school itself assigns students to supervisors. Actually, some departments ask explicitly that you DON'T contact any faculty member. I did not choose my supervisor. I was not given his name until I get into the program and started"

Someone has pointed out another question about a similar case, the lonk has been useful. But, my situation is different as I have no other alternatives. (Advisors)

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    What country, and what field? (In some fields it's common for PhD students to have different research interests than their advisors; in others it's impossible.) How did you end up in this situation? Why aren't you changing your area? Why aren't you thinking of 10 other schools to do your PhD? Jan 26 at 11:33
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    I don't understand how you've been accepted by a supervisor who doesn't work in your subject. Why did you apply for a PhD with them if you want to work on something different? Ultimately if you've only been there a month you have nothing to lose by leaving and going somewhere else where your research interests are more in line with your supervisor's.
    – astronat
    Jan 26 at 12:46
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    Do you have only a bachelors or also a masters? For the US it seems unusual to have a commitment to a specific research topic with only a month in the program. Was this advisor assigned to you or was it your choice?
    – Buffy
    Jan 26 at 13:39
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    @Basha re: "My advisor did not give any comments about what he thinks. In our first meeting, he actually told me that he is not specialized and that "we will learn together" " - actually your advisor did tell you what he thinks, and it seems to be that he thinks this will not be a big problem.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 26 at 18:19
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    How do you know what your research is about one month in? Jan 27 at 0:20
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But not knowing what my research is about is just plainly freaking me out!

So it seems like there are two issues here. One is the classic "my advisor works in field X while I want to work in field Y" problem (you will find lots of discussion of this problem if you search this site). The other is that your advisor is hands-off to the point of you being completely on your own. Given both of these factors, your decision to seek a new advisor seems reasonable. And yes, if you are unwilling or unable to work with anyone locally, then it follows logically that you will have to transfer.

The thing is that the closest school is ranked higher than mine. (Mine in the top 50, the other school in the top 15)

You may need to consider schools other than the closest one. I assume you were not able to be admitted to a top-15 school when you applied last time. Unless you've done something impressive in the last year, your odds of getting admitted are probably lower than they were last year, not higher.

Should I go to the other school and talk to the admission office? To the dean perhaps? (For my major, It is not common for students to contact prospective supervisors.

You say you are in the US, so I am surprised by the question. Graduate admissions are usually done by the department, not by the admissions office; the admissions office is usually for undergraduate admissions. The dean is also not usually involved in such things.

The only way to "short circuit" the usual admissions process is to find a professor who wants to work with you, and have them help you from the inside. But if you don't have such a person in your network already, this is a long-shot; most professors will just say "please apply to the program and we can talk if you get in."

Bottom line: You should pursue all the options in your desired subfield, not just the closest one. But if your subfield is small and all of the programs are highly-ranked, you may need to consider other subfields, "like it or not."

I don't know how I ended up here. I just found myself here!

I suggest that you reflect on this. You did not "find yourself here"; rather, you applied for admission in this department and then agreed to attend. There is no real harm in making a mistake; we have all made many. But it's important to recognize what went wrong so that you can avoid having it happen again.

Update: OP has since clarified that their field is Law. I cannot speak to whether this answer makes sense for law, not my area.

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    That last paragraph is huge. It sounds like the OP somehow accidentally fell into a PhD, which simply isn't how it works. What was your plan on the way to this point? Why did you first ask this person to be your advisor, and on what grounds did they accept?
    – Jeff
    Jan 26 at 14:45
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    "Just to clarify, and this is something I clarified above, it is not a common practice in my field that we -students- contact supervisors before getting into the program. We apply and then the school itself assigns students to supervisors. Actually, some departments ask explicitly that you DON'T contact any faculty member. I did not choose my supervisor. I was not given his name until I get into the program and started"
    – Basha
    Jan 26 at 16:24
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    Yes, I saw that clarification in the original question, though it is interesting that the school assigns students to supervisors. Is it possible that you misunderstood something, and this person is just your "supervisor" until you find an actual research "advisor"? At any rate, this all seems very irregular, so I really suggest that you specify your general field (not your specific subfield). As it is, it's hard to tell whether you're just in some really weird corner of academia, or if something else is going on.
    – cag51
    Jan 26 at 16:51
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    @Basha Like cag51 I really have no knowledge of what a PhD program in law is like. However, I can confidently say that in my own field if students were to choose their own research projects and then be assigned a supervisor randomly, everyone would be in the situation you describe. So, if that is the case, how do other students in your program handle it?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 26 at 18:16
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    "Graduate admissions are usually done by the department, not by the admissions office; the admissions office is usually for undergraduate admissions. The dean is also not usually involved in such things." I'd suggest talking to whoever is in charge of the PhD program for the department, or the head of the department as a whole.
    – nick012000
    Jan 27 at 3:35
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Since you describe your university as top 50 and your field of study (based on your comment) is a mainstream one, I will assume that both the university and the PhD program you’re in are not new, but have been around for at least 10 years, and probably much longer.

Based on this assumption, it seems highly probable to me that the reason you are “freaking out” is because you have some misconception about your situation and about the significance of discovering that your supervisor does not work in your exact research area. My bet is that this is simply not the catastrophe you imagine it to be.

I don’t know what your misconception is exactly. But start by taking a deep breath. The key thing to remember is that this PhD program is an established, successful one. Whatever their procedures are for assigning advisors to students, they have been using them for a while and they have been working. If mistaken or suboptimal assignments occasionally get made, the department will have resources and people in place to hear out what you are unhappy about and help you correct the situation. Keep in mind that by admitting you into their PhD program, they are effectively betting a large amount of money on your success. So they have every incentive to not let that gamble be a losing one.

What I suggest you do is:

  1. Take another deep breath.

  2. Go online and look at your department’s website to see what advice and resources they offer to incoming graduate students. Is there a graduate student handbook/survival guide? Is there a list of staff and faculty advisers with their contact details? Is there an explanation of the process of getting started with your thesis research? Since you are from abroad, be aware of the possibility of language issues that might lead you to misunderstand some of the explanations. Use google translate or ask friends for help if there are things you’re unsure about. (By the way, based on your post your English is excellent so I don’t think this is very likely to be an issue, but thought I’d mention it just in case.)

  3. From the website, find an adviser or relevant administrator (faculty or staff) you can talk to in person by making an appointment or calling them during office hours. I am serious that this needs to happen over an actual voice/video/face to face conversation; do not settle for trying to get advice over email unless there’s absolutely no other option.

    When you have the appointment, explain your situation to them, calmly and in detail, and ask what your options are. Do not be shy about asking about switching to a different advisor or other creative ideas of this type, even if you don’t think they are likely to be allowed. And again, make sure there isn’t a language barrier that’s standing in the way of you understanding things accurately and correctly.

After you follow these steps, I believe you will already be much better informed and feeling much less despondent about your situation. The bottom line is: you have a misconception. You need to be sure that you have diagnosed the problem correctly before being able to plan a solution. Right now, I strongly suspect that you haven’t diagnosed the problem correctly. So that should be the first priority. After that, remember, your school is invested in your success and has resources to help. So use them, and I believe you’ll be all right where you are and not end up needing to switch schools. Good luck!

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  • Thank you for your commet. I am actually afraid if I discuss it with someone in school, my advisor might know about it and I don't want to find myself in another problem. The thing with money, I have a scholarship from my employer, the school is not paying a penny. That what made me think they are just "milking money".
    – Basha
    Jan 26 at 21:58
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    @Basha well, I don’t know what to say. I wish you the best of luck, but again I get a strong feeling that you have misconceptions about your situation and what’s a helpful way to approach it. In particular, I think your caginess and reluctance to share information, here and at your school, are going to make it hard for you to get good advice and reach good decisions.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 26 at 22:36
  • There's no shame in switching advisors fwiw.
    – bob
    Jan 27 at 0:05
  • Note that OP got a scholarship or some kind of support and that the department may find little incentive to work hard to fulfil OP's needs, since it's not their money at stake (at least not until OP decides to leave). Jan 27 at 0:06
  • @CaptainEmacs perhaps that’s relevant information, perhaps not. We know so little about the situation that I find it pointless to speculate about such things. I stand by my opinion that the root of OP’s problem involves some misconception, which, when cleared up, will likely make the situation seem a lot less catastrophic than it does now.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 27 at 0:23
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Because your own advisor admitted that he is not informed about your topic proposal. I suggest starting there.

Sit down with your advisor and discuss the situation. At the very least, the advisor should be interested in helping you to fix the situation:

  • Is your topic proposal relevant after admission? Sometimes a proposal is required to judge your critical thinking/writing/argumentation skills during the admission process and not to guide your life for the next few years.
  • How much expertise in your specific area is needed to supervise you?
  • Is it feasible for you to adjust your topic to have a better fit with the advisor?
  • Is the advisor willing to bring other more knowledgeable people to the advisory group?
  • Understand mutual expectations

Is such discussion if fruitful, great! If not, consider transferring somewhere else.

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Looks like lots of good advice already. I will add that this does not sound like a deal-breaker to me.

In the US, Masters candidates learn the field they want to study before jumping into a PhD program. Most professors will tell you that they expect their PhD candidates to know more about their field of study than the professor themselves. At the beginning of your study, you may not know more than the professor. But the expectation is that very quickly, you will surpass the knowledge of your professor in your particular field of study.

Your advisor seems to be setting an honest, realistic, and proper expectation with you.

Lastly, in the US, PhD candidates have a committee comprising of multiple professors. Ask the other professor, the one who is an expert but is not taking any more students, to be on your PhD committee. So they are not your advisor but are still aware of your work. This way, you can still get advice from them. Also, because they are the expert in your field, they will help you make connections once you complete your PhD.

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