I'm trying to figure out the path I take when I return to my PhD (UK). I want to develop research skills and 'capability' in an area of physics that is not my thesis title. I've asked multiple times to change focus but the answer is always no.

I've already published a single author paper at an international conference on something that wasn't related to my thesis title, and I would like to take it further.

What are the consequences of not following instructions from supervisors?

(As far as I can tell, the only way they can fire me is if I fail the internal check points for thesis progress, but with my topic you'd really have to do no work at all; I'm more advocating like going 50/50 or maybe a bit more)

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    What are the reasons that your supervisor gives you? (Listen to them by all means; even if they ultimately don't convince you.) Aug 17 at 13:51
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    Do you mean 50/50 also with the fundings, or simply with the workload? be as fair as possible to your advisor and other PhDs, even if they are unfair to you (not an issue here, but it is worthwhile to remark not to fight ijustice with injustice...).
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 17 at 13:58
  • So if I understand you correctly, you still plan to finish your PhD with your original topic, but you intend to do this in just 50% of your time? It is important here how you are funded; it would make a big difference if it'd basically be your supervisor's money that pays for you. If not, chances are you have a lot of freedom. Aug 17 at 14:06
  • I think the reason they won't let me switch topic is because the funding is tied to the thesis title (+ is part of a national lab). Having said that, I've now worked in 5 research groups now and it seems absurdly straightjacketed here. My thinking for the 50/50 was to do 50/50 work. I can finish my actual thesis, albeit it would be a bit lighter, but ensure I have enough time to work on what interests me. I think doing 0 work would be unwise, as it might mean I would fail the relevant progression checkpoints. Aug 17 at 14:17
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    "the funding is tied to the thesis title (+ is part of a national lab)" - that's a very legitimate reason to insist you don't switch topic. Nobody here can know whether you can do the thesis on your original topic with half of your power. Maybe, maybe not. In any case given the funding situation it makes sense to do what is needed to finish it properly. You are paid for doing this. Aug 17 at 14:47

3 Answers 3


I suggest that you prioritize your degree completion and keep your advisor(s) happy about that.

But there is nothing in academia that says you should turn your brain off to other thoughts.

In fact it is useful to keep a notebook of thoughts for future study/research, with a separate "page" per topic and that you revisit it periodically or whenever some new thought occurs to you.

And, the sooner you finish, the sooner you can set your own path.

But if you have a setback in completion of your thesis you will be in a very bad spot. First things first. Let the rest happen as it must.

  • I do want to believe you, but somehow, despite my ongoing criticisms that I lack research freedom, I think the postdocs at the national lab have less freedom than I do. I can't tell if that's all postdocs, or just because this national lab is a poor place to work? Of course those on research fellowships have more say, but for the rest of us mere mortals it makes more sense to get the skills to go into a scientifically worthwhile postdoc -- not something I can do with my current thesis! Aug 17 at 14:19

First, make sure that you are not in the crank zone. The fact that you already published at a conference makes one think you are not just a crank thinking they know better than their advisor "just because." So assuming that you are on solid ground:

It takes a very confident, generous, and wise advisor to accept the deal you are offering. You are suggesting to continue getting whatever benefits you are getting while minimizing what your advisor is getting back. So your advisor's response is not unreasonable.

Having said that, you do what you have to do. The consequences you will face will depend on your publication output. If you end up just doing the minimum for your advisor while publishing a dozen papers in the other field, your advisor will be pissed, but you win. If you end up doing the minimum for your advisor and only getting mediocre work published in the other field, it's a lose-lose. Ideally, you'll publish good stuff with your advisor while keeping a foot on the other field, and that's a win-win.

  • I hope I'm not a crank! Judging by the fact I had a queue of people at the conference wanting to see my poster, and even someone asking me for a selfie, I think it went well :P I think the sort of work I want to do could lead to a couple more papers but it's fairly nieche. For me it's more about gaining the skills so I can pivot out of my field, and I think that having some publications in this area would be a signal to do that. Aug 17 at 14:22
  • @RealDisinformation Then follow your heart. Just don't expect your advisor to be happy about it.
    – Cheery
    Aug 17 at 14:25

You have not mention what what the reason of your changing interests. Why you have entered a PhD program if you do not like the topic?

Anyway, even though you have different research interests, you cannot change the topic of your thesis at will. There are constraints. The major one is the funding. This you have already mentioned that in your comments.

The second one, you need some supervision in any case. It is not possible to do science solo. You might get some impression of the progress because the progress is faster at the beginning. But sooner or later you will face difficulties and will have no one to discuss. But even the selection of topic for your solo research is not that unambiguous. You need to communicate with people with a broader vision.

I strongly discourage you of going this way. Please, focus on producing excellent thesis in the planned topic. If this does not appeal to you, there is only one solution, change the PhD program and supervisor. To stay in the program and doing something different is even morally wrong.

  • I applied for group A at Institution X and B at Y, where X>Y. However I got an offer for C at X. Naive young me thought that institution was all that mattered. Far from the blue sky thinking X is known for, my project is not "computational" as I was told at the interview and is so micromanaged that it isn't my PhD -- it's my supervisor's. I'm simply academic fodder. Remember I've worked in 5 other groups and this is the worst experience by some margin. I'd love to switch but the "morals" of academia forbid me from switching / applying again because it isn't "the done thing". Aug 25 at 7:22

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