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I am a PhD student in physics at a US institution. I've worked with a very good and supportive professor last summer in some area of research. The goal was to try a particular research group and see if it is a good fit. I was not committed to that group. The research work in that group is very much focussed on a particular method of computer simulations.

Now, I discovered that I am extremely interested in a different field of physics, which is much more theoretically oriented. I find that I am naturally much more capable of doing pure theory work in that other field of physics. I have to decide on which field I should be doing research on next spring. I found that all professors working on the field I am very interested in are not available next spring. At least one of them will take students next September though, but he still has to decide on which student he would take.

I am still very interested in one of the research questions that I started to think about last summer with the original group. The PI said he is available next spring.

My question: Would it be ethical to continue working with that group even though I know there's a possibility that I will switch fields next Fall? If I join, I intend to work as hard as I can on the project given to me, but I feel much more interested in (and capable in) the other field of research.

Thank you.

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  • I think you should stress US by tag. In my country, doing that might lead a supervisor to remain without PhD students for a few years. Do not suppose that PhD positions are infinite in number, often there is a kind of timetable. I don't know how it works there. In many places it would be wrong, or at least a waste of money, time, effort etc for the leaved group/supervisor.
    – Alchimista
    Nov 19 at 8:38
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Mostly, it is. However, like the previous answer suggested, there is no problem in leaving a group for another if the particular subject that you're not working on is interesting enough. But it is important to be upfront about it with your supervisor, especially since you say that they are very supportive.

I had a friend who did this- he got an opportunity in another (better) institute, but as he was looking for this opportunity, he had told his supervisor that he may not stay in the group for long, because the topics didn't interest him. They had a good relationship, and the supervisor was supportive of this decision. Moreover, during this period, he completed all his pending work and published two or so papers with the supervisor. Now he is in another group, and they still occasionally collaborate together.

At the end of the day, you do not want to spoil your relationship with your current supervisor, since they can always be helpful in providing recommendations in the future. Be honest with them and tell that even though you love working with them, you feel you'd be better suited in another field of work, and that you want to start trying to look for other opportunities. Ask if you could stay longer to finish all the pending works, and if they agree, you can continue until you find yourself a new position. And when you apply for the new position, you again want to be upfront about already having a position, and the reasons for you to leave that.

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The only ethical issue I see is if you were to abandon work that others depend on, leaving it unfinished. That might be a minor or a major issue, depending on circumstances.

But, it seems to me that you are leaving a sure thing for a possibility that might not work out. Perhaps you need a discussion with your supervisor about your direction. They might be amenable to a more theoretical turn (or not).

Your doctoral work doesn't set your career direction for life. It has an effect on what is open in your first positions afterwards, but you can always switch directions at some future point, especially if you attain tenure in academia.

So, I encourage you to look at all options and think long term.

There is a saying "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." Perhaps it is that, and notice that the saying may still be true if you cross the fence.

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  • I think I have been focussed on a particular research field from the start. It's just that I discovered there are also interesting problems in other areas of physics as well. There's another problem that I'm not as good in computer work as I am in mathematics. This might change since programming can be seen as just another area of maths. But now, I feel much more interested in pursuing a certain kind of theoretical physics problems.
    – PhDstudent
    Nov 18 at 19:11

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