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I am a second year PhD student in physics at a US university. I have been working with a group for one year. Recently, I have become more and more attracted by another subject. In particular, I have become more interested in investigating certain theoretical topics. The group I have been working with is concerned with a particular form of computer simulations. But, as I explained, I have become more and more interested in theory rather than this particular approach to numerical calculation.

I am wondering how to approach this situation? There are different groups at my university studying topics I am more interested in. How can I approach my supervisor and inform him that I am more interested in other topics?

Another issue is that my supervisor is a senior person, so I can only discuss physics with the post-docs in the group. I wonder if there are downsides of this.

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  • Do the other groups of interest have openings? Don't burn any bridges until after you have crossed them...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 17:19
  • Actually, the PI is the right person to talk to, not postdocs. The PI will have the broader view to assist you.
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 20:42

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In my experience (in theoretical physics and mathematics) PhD supervisors are usually sympathetic towards students pursuing their own interests, even if those are different from the supervisor's. You are still very early in your PhD; it is in my opinion normal to discover that your interests lead you in a different direction than you originally thought -- so do not panic. This is normal and in my experience can often be resolved fairly painlessly.

The question is what you want to do about it:

  • Do you actually want to formally change supervisor? This requires careful consideration and some administrative effort. I do not know what the formal process is at your institution. Is there a graduate programme advisor that you could confidentially speak to about your options? They should be able to tell you how to identify a potential new supervisor as well.

Since you have already been admitted as a PhD student, it seems likely that a different supervisor at your university will be willing to supervise you instead. My advice would however be to not hide your intention to switch from your current supervisor (unless they have already proven themselves to be unsupportive and vindictive), and to have an honest discussion with them: If you are interested in switching supervisors, get your current supervisor on board. They can introduce or recommend you to to potential new supervisors!

  • There is also often the option of pursuing a different line of research without necessarily fully switching supervisors. (This could also be a first step, if you are not sure yet.) This is definitely most easily accomplished by having an honest discussion with your current supervisor, who can offer advice on how to get into the new topic, including introducing you to potential collaborators or co-supervisors. They might even be able to help you set up a stay as a visiting student at a different institution, if that's something your interested in. Again, in my experience, many PhD supervisors are open to having such discussions and to allowing their students to pursue other areas of investigation.

In the end, whether the second approach is feasible depends on the goodwill of your advisor -- as well as on external constraints with regards to funding that they may well have -- and also on how closely related your chosen field of interest is to your current project. I unofficially switched my PhD from theoretical physics (string theory) to pure mathematics (geometry) using the second approach. It worked out because my official supervisor was so kind as to introduce me to exactly the right people, and those people took an interest in advising and supervising me. For such a full subject change, it is probably usually better to entirely and officially change supervisor.

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