I am pursuing PhD in materials engineering. My advisor is an expert in molecular dynamics (MD) simulations and density functional theory. She works with nanomaterials and batteries. However, for my research, she wants me to work with finite element analysis (FEA) and smoothed particle hydrodynamics as I will work in simulating additive manufacturing process. She doesn't have knowledge or past experience on these methodologies.

I tried to argue about using MD for my research as there are groups who use the method in similar research work as mine. But she says that those groups are not doing good work and MD can't be applicable for my research. She says, just because they can publish papers doesn't mean that they are doing good work.

Now, I am worried that how I will get proper guidance if she doesn't know about my research methods. How should I proceed? I don't have a co-supervisor.

5 Answers 5


A PhD is a learning experience, so don't worry about stepping out into a new domain. It's also not uncommon for the supervisor to not be familiar with all the research methods you use, since the field has changed a lot since they were engaged in active research.

I understand that this seems daunting, but try to find a support ecosystem where you can get practical tips on day-to-day technical support. There are good resources available online, and very often you are expected to find those out by yourself. If the supervisor is otherwise good and has a good track record, I suggest you continue with her and give it a shot with an open mind.

Finally, having dabbled in all the areas/tools you mentioned, I have to say I strongly agree with your supervisor, especially from an applied research perspective. In the long run, the effort will probably be well worth it.

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    This is a good answer and I can't add enough for my own. But, I would add, that the advisor can also take this as an opportunity to learn along with you (the OP). Having more experience, she might learn more quickly than you and be able to provide good advice - or at least help you avoid potholes. I asked and answered something related on another site: cseducators.stackexchange.com/q/4379/1293, but that is advice for the advisor, not the OP (corrected).
    – Buffy
    Apr 21, 2021 at 12:57

I would echo everything that the @TheCodeNovice said (I would upvote but I don't have enough reputation). When I was in graduate school I also found myself exploring many areas that were less familiar to my advisor. This tended to not cause me problems so long as I communicated clearly and frequently. However, I would say that you are much more likely to have publications come graduation if you work with techniques or on a problem that your advisor is familiar with. With that said, you should internally evaluate your career goals. Do you eventually want to pursue a career in academics? How much do you value your independence? Are you able to thrive while working independently? If you want to pursue a career in academics then you will need publications. While you can collect more publications as a post-doc, it can be incredibly advantageous to publish 2-4 articles while in graduate school, and it is usually much easier to do this if you work on things that your advisor has expertise in. If you aren't locked in with your advisor decision (i.e. haven't gone through quals or candidacy) then you may want consider a different advisor.

Reflecting back on my experiences, I would say that my situation was not exactly "ideal". However I did end up graduating with a fair amount of success. A large part of this success was me being mentored by a different faculty member that was more interested in my project. I initiated that connection after taking one of their classes. I would recommend that you also find a faculty member that is knowledgeable about FEA/SPH. You can develop a relationship with them, possibly publish with them, and they can be a powerful voice on your committee. These relationships can often be very productive since neither the student nor this second faculty member have direct skin in the game (i.e. they are not paying your stipend). If you do choose to use FEA/SPH then it is of paramount importance that the problem you are studying is very well defined. It is much harder to simultaneously learn about new computational methods and come up with an interesting research problem that the method can be used to solve. When I was working on things outside of my advisor's scope of expertise I often felt as though I didn't know how to progress the "field" that I was investigating. Part of this was because I didn't have a well defined research problem and so I spent lots of time trying to see if I could improve various computational methods. However part of this can also be the primary advisor's fault, as what is currently "state of the art" in a field is usually only learned by attending conferences. My advisor would not send me to conferences and so I had to rely on reading books and talking with other faculty to make progress.

(As an aside) I studied similar things that you are talking about including SPH, DPD, SDPD, and FEM. When I was looking into SPH I found the book, "Fluid Mechanics and the SPH Method: Theory and Applications" to be helpful although it did contain a few errors in various places. I was working on a few different colloidal/active matter hydrodynamics problems and eventually settled on using the boundary element method (BEM) to simulate and explore several problems.

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    Just to add while there are risks invovled there is a huge upside if you can find ways to blend your newly aquired knowledge and skills with you PIs knowledge base. You may find the road to publication easier if you plan strategically. Apr 21, 2021 at 20:05

Adding to the excellent answer from @AppliedAcademic

Your advisor may have less experience in the particular field you are moving into, but she has more experience conducting research. That's how she reached a position where she can teach new scientists how science works.

She may be wrong in this instance. If she is, I hope she can acknowledge that. But you will have to convince her. Your argument should be along the lines of "FEA is better than MD for this particular project because ...", listing the pros and cons of each method. Just saying "Other groups use MD in work like this" is not going to convince her - particularly if she has reservations about the quality of their work. You might want to ask her why she thinks that work is substandard - not to argue with her, but to learn from her.


I found myself in a very similar situation where my work was carving out new territory for my PI. You will spend a lot of time in jungle navigating the dense foliage. I would suggest establishing relationships with faculty who are familiar with that new direction. You could add them to your committee and establish a good resource when you are stuck. A good way for initiating such a connection is through a class.


It really depends whether your supervisor is willing to go through that learning process with you. I had a very similar issue in one project and I was only able to get a good result because I knew some people from a previous project who had experience with this technique.

While the other answers mentioned that it is good to have someone with expertise I would add that you should have someone to discuss technical details with! Otherwise your work will get a bit lonely. Also your results will be less trustworthy if you only work for yourself and only present high level results to your supervisor.

Often faculty does not have time for this, especially if they would have to invest time learning it.

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