For a number of reason reasons I find myself in PhD position that involves very little real research activity and I'm having hard time to fully understand my situation.

To give some context, I started a PhD on a thematic scholarship on a project that I've not even touched since the start of the program and was eventually canceled. Instead, since the start, I am working as developer for an experiment that require the production of specialized hardware. My job could be described as "embedded hardware engineer", and my tasks range from designing very simple PCB boards to writing C code for embedded devices.

Given the scale of the project and the limited number of (human and practical) resources in this group, this endeavor was enough to keep me occupied full time. In no part of this job I had to apply or develop any innovative algorithm or find a solution to a problem that was worthy of a publication. It's a very technical job and now I am facing the problem of how to push out a thesis on this.

I had some discussions with my advisers over this, but between political problems (e.g lack of people working on this experiment) and personal problems (conflict of interest and some people just being difficult to deal with) I've not found a satisfying solution; the idea is that I should write a thesis on the scientific context of the experiment (of witch I have a very limited understanding. I know how the instrument works very well, but nothing about the science they want to do with it).

  1. Is my situation in some way "normal" or is there good reason to be concerned?

    While the suggestion of my advisers seem reasonable and well justified, I don't think it's normal or fair to spend a PhD doing grunt work and then ask me to "arrange" a thesis on a topic I don't really understand (or care about to be honest).

  2. Is it convenient to quit from this program if I want a "career change"?

    I am not acquiring any meaningful skills that I couldn't get anywhere else. I feel like I am wasting my time and don't really want to lose another year(s) in this situation. I would like to quit and build a more interesting career in industry (let's say, robotics or other embedded stuff). But many people heavily discouraged me from this, saying that a PhD is relevant title even in the industry and quitting is going to look bad on my CV. At the same time, I think that to continue means losing more precious time, that I could use to gain new skills and experience, only to get a (potentially irrelevant) title.

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    How far away from a PhD are you if you just write the stupid thesis? – user133933 Mar 14 at 17:44
  • Not sure, around 1 year in the best case scenario, up to 2 in case of extensions that can be "triggered" for example by quality issues with the thesis, or other work-related issues (I don't think I can dedicate like 80-100% of my time on writing the thing). – J.W. Mar 14 at 20:24
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    Not completely unusual for grad students on the large teams at, for example, CERN. A thesis might be on developing something to be used in a new detector, with sections on the physics, requirements for measurement, engineering analysis of solutions, and the actual solution. – Jon Custer Mar 14 at 20:46

Situations like yours happen, unfortunately. Development gets delayed, experiments get postponed and suddenly a supposedly nice scientific project becomes a thesis of half-baked tests and questionable results, which you can't be proud of. I'm very sorry it happened to you.

If you are sure you won't stay in academia, perhaps it's a good idea to start branching out now. In my home country it's possible to work and have a PhD position at the same time. Additionally, the experience is valued there more than a title. Based on that a possible course of action would be to start looking for a job and discuss with a prospective employer whether they are interested in you finishing the PhD programme. If so, you could perhaps arrange how much time you spend at work and at the institution so that you start to gain the experience and get the title, as well.

  • Thanks for your response, I'd like the idea of continuing the PhD part-time while I work, but I am a bit pessimistic about this since in the past they didn't like the idea of me doing unrelated internships. Just for clarity, the project was canceled in part of lack of interest, but most importantly to assign me (and at least another student) to others project that were in need of additional "workforce" (as programmers, lab technicians, etc..). – J.W. Mar 16 at 11:01
  • I have a very strong opinion on such treatment of PhD students, but that's not the place to express it... To the point: assuming you found a job, you'd have a very strong position in negotiations with your institution. The options they would have is either accepting you are finishing the PhD on your terms or letting you drop out, which will be (at least in my country) problematic for them. – Basia Mar 16 at 11:19

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