6

I started an engineering PhD program this year with an excellent advisor that I get along well with. I just finished my first semester where students are mostly required to focus on coursework with minimal research work.

When I first started, I was asked to choose either project A or B for my PhD. Both projects are funded, but project B is actually a joint project and is not fully the area of expertise of my advisor and requires co-advising from another professor who is the main investigator of the project. I preferred project B to project A so I chose it.

However, as the semester started, I emailed the other professor and he responded positively, but he then stopped responding completely when I asked to meet him. I tried to send him multiple friendly follow-up emails throughout the semester, but there wasn't any response at all. After I met his graduate students and talked to a couple of alumni, I got the hint that I will have a hard time working for him. Is it ok to change the project after choosing one?

How can I bring it up to my advisor that I want to change my project from B to A without burning bridges? I am afraid that I will disappoint my advisor and be perceived as flaky and not serious.

5
  • 1
    I changed the format of your post. However, there is an important question. What is your question? Please add the question to the title and also to the body of the post.
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 2:17
  • 2
    I suggest the title "How to talk to my advisor about changing the research topic after already choosing one?". What do you think about it? A good title will attract more viewers, making it more likely for you to receive useful answers.
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 2:26
  • 1
    You have, of course, been informing your advisor of the difficulties trying to collaborate on B?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 15:25
  • Hopefully this will reassure you: of all possible reasons to want to switch topics, this is one of the best ones an advisor could hear. "I liked both these projects, my student chose B, but now wants to switch to A—a project I still like—for real reasons that aren't my fault. No problem!" Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 19:44
  • I emailed the other professor and he responded positively then stopped responding completely when I asked to meet him. Review your correspondence with a friend to ensure that nothing was said that could be perceived as unprofessional. Regardless, this is an issue best handled by management. Talk to his/her manager - the dean. Then request that all three of you sit down for a meeting. You're paying to attend this school.
    – user246821
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 1:02

3 Answers 3

9

It's much better to have this kind of conversation with your advisor as soon as you realize the issue. I remember as a student being reluctant to discuss this kind of issue with my advisor, but now as an advisor, I'd much rather a student bring it up early.

Let's consider the case in which you wait. Will you make as much progress on project B if it's not your expertise and you need help from the other advisor? If it's difficult to meet with them (e.g., they're really busy) you will probably have trouble learning the techniques yourself.

Now, it's possible that your advisor might want you to stick on project B. Maybe they need the funding, or they need the collaboration with the other group. In that case, I think it's on your advisor to help get the project off to a good start, either by arranging a meeting with the other professor, or finding out which member of that group can help get you started.

Your concern about your advisor's perception of you is, I think, unfounded. Coming with valid concerns about getting a project off to a successful start is (IMHO) a very good sign in a student.

6

The way to handle this is to just do it, preferably with a sit-down meeting in which you can discuss options and your reservations. If your advisor agrees to a switch then let them deal with the other professor. There is no need to "burn bridges" with anyone.

There is little worse than setting out on the wrong path, knowing that it is the wrong path. Let your relationship with your advisor carry you over the murky bits, both in this and in the research.

Yes, it is OK to switch. Some of us actually switched universities in order to find a happy home. Face to face, though. A conversation.

1
  • That's true. He/she should always do things that makes him/her happy.
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 16:39
3

First, a couple preliminaries/considerations that don't directly answer your question

  1. Have you tried anything other than emails and gossip?
  • Not trying to be harsh, just some people respond much better face-to-face.
  • Are there office hours for the professor?
  1. Is there money involved?
  • Has the funding explicitly/implicitly already paid for your tuition?
  • Has the funding paid for anything else?
  • Will it go away if you switch, or at least require significant behind the scenes money shifting?
  1. Is project A still available?
  • If I was a professor, and had a student choose B, then I'd look for student for A.
  • Research doesn't stand still, and often there's a limited time window.

Given these, resolve Question 1:

  • if( !(Tried anything other than email) )
  • then: Attempt to have a meeting with the 2nd professor anyway, even without an email response. Or trying calling them and leaving a voice message. Or go to their building and try to arrange an appointment (maybe a receptionist?). Or, show up at the office hours and introduce yourself. Talk about your concerns politely, yet honestly, especially if you feel there's a need for significant research guidance.

Resolve Question 2

  • if( know money is involved )
  • then: Show far more care about changing. If you do meet with your Advisor or 2nd Professor then its definitely something to discuss. It's not so much an issue of flakiness, as whether your education will suddenly stop having funding.
  • elsif( don't know )
  • then: Find out. If your Advisor is easier to find and talk with, then its a point that probably needs to be comprehended.
  • elseif( money is not involved )
  • then: Far less issue with changing research topics.

Question 3 resolution should be fairly obvious

  • if( project A was assigned )
  • then: You're probably out-of-luck. Especially if student on project A has already started working and performing research.
  • else: Far less issue with changing research topics.

Personally, I think I'm slightly less positive on switching than the other answers (especially if you've only tried email). You're in a profession where you're expected to track down answers, and pursue (somewhat) independent lines of study. I'd expect that person to at least meet the other professor. That said, understand the issue as I had a PhD experience with very distant advisors, and many undergrads => PhD's go from lots of advice => "nothing".

If you try meeting 2nd professor (even without an email confirmation) and it still does not work, and there's limited risk for education support (money), and Project A is still available, then its probably acceptable to request a project change.

Meet with your Advisor. Get their opinion on the situation, explaining what you've tried and your concerns. In their position, I would probably pick up the phone and try calling 2nd professor. If you're set on switching, try to make the switch as painless as it can be, and offer to do whatever legwork is necessary. IE: Don't just dump it on the prof. and expect them to deal with it. Personally, I find that passive aggressive. Also, I cannot stress this enough - try more than just email. Do you want to go to your Advisor, and they'll ask "what you have tried?" and your response is "I sent some emails."

4
  • There aren't supposed to be questions in an answer (this is not a forum), not even rhetorical ones. There are seven questions in this answer. Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 22:21
  • Ok. Did not realize there was a prohibition against asking the question starter questions. Also, confused, since contributors on StackOverflow often ask clarification questions. Most can be rephrased in anti-Jeopardy language.
    – G. Putnam
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 23:18
  • 2
    @G.Putnam I think your answer is fine. You're pointing out that certain questions are things that OP needs to consider, before deciding exactly what to do. I don't see any reason to object to including secondary questions in a response to a question; and I certainly don't believe there's any kind of prohibition against doing so. Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 2:02
  • 1
    Yep, agree with Dawood here. Peter's take is too harsh. The supposed questions in this answer is a fine answer.
    – justhalf
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 7:17

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .