I am a PhD student in physics at a US university. I am currently in my third year and I do not feel that my research interests are perfectly aligned with that of the group. Besides a mismatch of research interests, the advisor (PI) is a senior person and it seems difficult for me to interact with him directly aside from a 2 min talk during the group online meeting each week.

Now, there are several people in the department that I like their research better. However, I do not actually know how to approach the situation, since I actually don’t know if they are willing to take me as a PhD student. Let’s suppose two possible scenarios:

A) I go talk first to the other professors and see if they’re interested in working with me. In that case, I have a feeling that I’m doing this behind the back of my advisor. Also, they will ask me which group I’m in, so I’m not sure what they will think when I tell them that I’m currently in professor X group

B) Talk to my advisor first, but then I would be very worried about what will happen if the other professors whose work is interesting to me are unwilling to take me as a PhD student.

Which one of these options should one take?

I also have this question: if I’m working in a certain group, can I just study whatever I find interesting in the subject, then contact and collaborate with other professors in the department not in my group? More precisely, if my group is interested in a subject X, but there's a nearby subject Y that I find much more interesting. Can I just work on Y in parallel and contact other people in the department working on Y?

  • Please only ask one question at a time, otherwise the question will be closed due to needing more focus.
    – Sursula
    Jan 16, 2023 at 6:43

1 Answer 1


Yes, you can go talk to people, expressing interest. If they are interested in you then you can explore changing with them. But note that it will probably cost you time if you switch. This might be acceptable (but see below).

If you come to an agreement with someone else, have them speak to your current advisor, perhaps along with you, to work out the details of the switch. They probably have more insight into how to keep the waters calm and smooth. If your current advisor is that busy it might not be a terrible disruption for them.

And, yes, you can collaborate with whoever you like, though you need to meet current obligations and expectations. Ghosting your current group or advisor is not a good career move. A wide circle of collaborators is a good thing for almost every researcher.

But the other path is to continue with the current group/advisor and finish the degree. This is probably the shortest path, though it might not matter too much in the US (three years in from a bachelors isn't really that deep). Once you have a degree and a secure position (hard these days) you can decide on your own future research direction. People do change; sometimes quite dramatically.

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