When I joined my current PhD program I talked to my advisor about wanting to work on a different research topic than the one I was to work on initially and he said yes. I made clear I wasn't interested in working on the initial topic long term.

A year has past and I talked to him about switching over to the topics I am interested in - he says "OK" but wants to continue funding from the initial project which is a large multi-university research project with frequent meetings. He wants me to continue to go to meetings associated with the first project and basically told me that we can jerry rig the funding into supporting what ever we want. This sounds good except the rest of the people on the initial project continue to think I am working on the initial topic full time and are expecting results. I'm not really sure how to handle this.

The outcomes I can see are.

  1. The advisor starts complaining to me about not working on the "funded" research topic when the rest of the team starts complaining. If this is an issue, I will find a different advisor or exit with MS and enter into industry since I have no interest in working on the initial topic long term and I made that clear upon entering.

  2. The rest of the team starts complaining to me about not making enough progress on the topic under the idea that I am working on it, when the reality is I have no intention to work on it and the advisor knows this.

Basically, I feel I am put into a difficult situation where my advisor wants to keep funding under the guise of working on this project while not working on it and I feel I will take the brunt of the inevitable blowup that will come eventually.

This wouldn't be a problem if the topic was broad in the funding documentation but the writing for my advisors role in the grant is very specific.

3 Answers 3


This might be field-specific, but nonetheless: in my field (cond-mat), it is very, VERY common that people (phd students and postdocs) officially employed withing certain funding schemes bound to specific projects spend most of their time working on other stuff. In the end, what counts is that your supervisor is happy with your performance and your results, and lack of progress on the "funded" research topic is going to be his problem, not yours. It is very unlikely to hear a supervisor complaining about their students not progressing well on one topic while doing really well on the other. Of course, a certain level of mutual trust between you and your supervisor is necessary, but that is good to have in any case.

  • Thanks, a problem is this extends beyond other universities to involving at least 60% of my department faculty and a couple professors are obsessed with pushing it. This faculty I am sure is going to develop a poor opinion of me as incompetent unless they know that we're basically working on other things. Apr 23, 2021 at 20:07
  • @FourierFlux You know, at first I was going to reply with smth like "you are worrying too much, it's all your supervisor responsibility". Indeed, if your PhD is going to be "successful" (I mean not just you get your diploma, but you also get good results and publish good papers on your topic of interest), no one is going to judge you on the progress within the other topic you did not want to work on. Literally no one. So, by switching topics you - sort of - "raised the stakes" during your PhD. Do it well and it will be ok.
    – sleepy
    Apr 25, 2021 at 9:19

If the supposed contribution is very specific there might be problems, but they should concern your supervisor rather than you.

This is valid assuming a coherent behavior from its part.

It might be unpleasant go to meetings with no updates but this happen to some of the participants nevertheless. Trust your supervisor. S/he is the one responsible and the one potentially loosing collaboration or future funding. Not you. Just try to be as brilliant as you can during the international meetings, so that people have a good impression of you.

Edit: of course you and supervisor must still play. A situation in which you go to meetings just saying "we are not interested and do nothing on this" is almost untenable. I experienced such situations, just they were natural outcomes of projects. They were not cold planned as in your case. Indeed my answer has nothing to do with the overall correctness of this choice.

  • And I've also upvoted Earl Grey and sleepy answer below.
    – Alchimista
    Apr 22, 2021 at 9:39
  • For clarity: I answered before the other answers had appeared. Otherwise I would have upvoted both of them, only.
    – Alchimista
    Apr 23, 2021 at 8:32

It sounds bad, it is bad, it is reality: if the multi-university research project is an european funded project, you need only to formally deliver the deliverables and respect the milestones on time. There are no other duties. Then every partner in the project will do its own research, publications and so on, which may or may not aligneate 100% with the project.

So yes, your advisor is setting to sail along course 2, if the other partners get very loud then switching to course 1. Take fundings for granted, do research on your theme, ask directly your advisor what to do with the multi-university project. From the way your advisor is acting, it looks like they are not really waiting for your results to progress in the project, but the results will be needed at the end to present a nicely done project. However, results in science are publications and papers, not some figures in some report sent to the bureaucrats evaluating the goodness of the project (hint: they cannot, they can only evaluate the form, not the substance).


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