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Background info: I am a PhD student in Germany who is rather frustrated with his research progress. I am almost 3 years into my PhD now. My field is Theoretical Computer Science. I started working in subfield A, which is my current advisor's specialty, but gradually became more and more passionate about subfield B. Subfield B is a much more "hot" and theoretically demanding topic than A, but unfortunately there is no-one in my department who works in it (so changing advisors is not an option).

My dream is to be a researcher in subfield B. I have tried to find connections between A and B and have managed to "squeeze out" a publication that was accepted at a mid-tier conference, but I feel I am just terribly handicapped. Neither my advisor nor me have any connections in subfield B. I feel I could get to grips with the current state-of-the-art and make some contributions had I more time to do so, but my contract (as a research assistant) is only being extended for another year maximum. I get the feeling I am essentially being told to "get the thesis done and get out".

I have no real intention on further working in subfield A, so I am thinking of just throwing everything out the window and starting my PhD from scratch at a different institution. It appears almost all renowned researchers working in subfield B are in the US (with perhaps a couple exceptions in the UK), so I thought about enrolling into a PhD program there. I have a comfortable financial situation, so personally I would only really have "wasted" 3 years of my life here (but acquiring some useful experience nonetheless).


Question: How likely is it for me to be admitted to a PhD program in the US compared to I never having started my current PhD in the first place? Am I at a serious disadvantage (as, e.g., questions like this seem to imply)?

Since I studied in Germany too, I have a master's degree from there. So far, I have 4 publications in total, two of them being from my master's and bachelor's theses (one publication each). I am the single author of 3 of them, the other (about my bachelor's thesis) has my advisor as co-author. My grades are fairly good.

My fear is that my application might be frowned upon (e.g., "Why doesn't this guy just finish his PhD where he's at?") or possible advisors might be highly skeptical of me due to me "almost having a PhD" (even though I'd be willing to start from scratch).

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    I am in no position to give advice in regards to your question. However I am intrigued by your story and I am wondering what subfield A is and what subfield B. This might also be informative to anyone trying to help you out
    – BranBar
    Jul 1 at 12:54
  • @BranBar I suppose I can say that subfield B is within complexity theory. I am afraid disclosing A would give away my identity though (since I am possibly the only person working in the intersection of the two). Let's just say it is a rather offbeat field and very Europe-centric.
    – user142370
    Jul 1 at 13:01
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    Get your PhD done asap and look for postdocs in field B. The PhD to postdoc transition is a great time to switch fields. Also, after three years of PhD it's quite normal to be frustrated with your research :) everyone goes through it and it's a sign that you're nearing the finish line!
    – astronat
    Jul 1 at 13:52
  • Don't enter field B just because it is "hot" as measured by number of publications / reports in the news than your current field A. It may be a disadvantage for you if it is so popular that seemingly everybody in your community aims to implement it in his / her research because it is just en vogue; e.g., keeping up with the literature (while performing your research) and visibility of your work (it may feel like standing on an overly crowded market / by chance of many researchers in the field, someone else may publish an idea very similar to yours you hadn't yet the manpower to complete.).
    – Buttonwood
    Jul 1 at 16:54
  • Are other European countries an option? Switching to a different university within Germany will be tricky due to the 6-years-before-PhD employment rule in academia (but technically doable in the scope of a third-party funded project). Switching to the US is tricky, as a PhD there involves coursework, so it actually needs a long time. But perhaps the UK is an option? They have this system with short PhD times which are very challenging to make, so some advisors may be grateful for incoming PhD students who are actually ready to make it in a short time span.
    – DCTLib
    Jul 1 at 19:38
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While some people might wonder about your motives and/or commitment, I think that most will believe you when you give reasons for the switch. So, there may be some small effect, but I doubt that it would be a true block.

However, changing might be the longest and riskiest path to your goal. Certainly it will cost you time, as you need to pass comprehensive exams in any new program unless (unlikely) they are waived. That takes time and maybe some courses for preparation. You would also be starting from "scratch" in a new research area and it will take time to manage the "deep dive" required.

It might be more efficient to just finish your current program and then work to get a position, maybe even in US, in which you have some freedom to set your own research agenda. This is pretty common in some fields, especially math. There is nothing in academia that ties you forever to the research you do to obtain the doctorate.

If you follow this path, look for positions in places that support your desired new field, with several faculty and (preferably) an continuing faculty seminar.

Think long term. You aren't locked in.

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