What should one do if one is interested in working on a subfield not within her advisor's expertise during PhD? I'm still in 1st year but have been working with current advisor for 2 years before PhD. I just become really interested in this other topic. The final PhD advisor pick is not confirmed until 2nd year but I feel it's not right to "abandon ship" because the advisor was main reason I was here in the first place. Plus I have become "estranged" from my advisor. We met twice in the past year and is not working on anything together. Usually it was me who read and work on things and approach her for a discussion. But since I shifted my attention elsewhere, this link is broken. She was like a friend who would occasionally check in on what you are reading and are doing what, as opposed to someone who guides you on which research question is important in the field and which direction you should and should not go. I feel it is right to approach some other people because I can genuinely use some expert guidance and I'm sure she wouldn't mind it too much so long as I eventually kept her as co-advisor. After all, most her previous advisees did the same thing because of her hands-off style.

The main issue is when I approach professors in this other field, what should I say? Do I just ask if they want to advise me directly or do I beat around the bush by talking about a "potential research question" etc as an interested student as opposed to someone who is looking for an advisor. Also how should I address my relationship to the current advisor? In fact, I think whoever I approach now will become the primary advisor. Should I just present myself as a "vanilla" student who is looking for full, devoted advisory or someone who they will advise on a shared capacity?

1 Answer 1


There shouldn't be any issues with this, but people have different personalities. In the best case your current advisor wants what is best for you. You seem to have that opinion of her.

I would open any discussion with another potential advisor as an "exploration" of the possibilities. You are interested in their field and wonder what problems there might be to work on for a degree. If you have your own ideas about a problem, bring them up, surely, and ask for advice. You could mention this to your current advisor first, though it isn't truly necessary. You are early in your studies and it is a good time to be exploring your options.

If both individuals are willing (and able) to advise you it might be good, but having your current advisor just as a support, rather than a formal advisor, is also good.

These sorts of conversations are best done face to face if that can be arranged safely now.

  • Thank you sir. It's very helpful. If I understand correctly, you support the "beat around the bush" approach. But what would you say is the right time and approach to reveal the "I want to work with you" intention. A prof could misunderstand it as "here is a student who just wants to have a friendly chat" as opposed to someone who intends to have them to commit their time in a significant way.
    – Josh2123
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 21:00
  • Make it informal, but clear that you are looking for a formal advisor. One thing that might occur is that you get turned down but recommended to someone even better. This happened to me, actually. The person I approached said he had no real ideas and sent me to the top person in our sub-field, who took me on.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 21:03
  • Thank you sir. So basically something like "I'm interested in the field. What are some interesting questions in your opinion? I have this or that ideas etc. I'm looking to do phd in this field. Would you be interested in taking a new student?"
    – Josh2123
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 21:29
  • Along those lines, yes. Good luck.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 21:32
  • Thank you very much!
    – Josh2123
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 21:33

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