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I have expressed my interest in the work of a professor. She does not perfectly match my interests but there is a good amount of overlap. Turns out that she has a PhD position open, with undefined topic, and that she would take me.

Can I, without commitment, suggest to try to find a topic of interest for both, and if the negotiation is not successful, opt out of the collaboration?

I find it quite dangerous to blindly accept working with her: maybe, later on, it turns out that what she specifically wants to work on now is not something I want to dedicate years of life to. On the other hand I appreciate that she will not want to take the trouble in working out a topic together, if I have not accepted being her student yet.

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Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to negotiate a topic for a dissertation. You both have something to offer, making negotiation viable. However, it is possible, also, that either of you can't accept the conditions set (or desired) by the other.

It is risky in either direction. Working several years, perhaps, on something of little interest to you isn't very pleasant, but it can lead to an advanced degree that sets you free.

I wouldn't reject any offer out of hand. I wouldn't accept any offer that doesn't meet your standards. But yes, you can negotiate as long as you realize it may lead to nothing.

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    At least for experimental areas, the 'topic' tends to shift over time as one is confronted by actual results, not what one thought should happen. And I still struggle with students who think only one specific topic is worth pursuing - they have limited experience and don't know all the interesting things out there to do.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:34
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Of course, you can do it. I did it myself, also researchers I know negociated to whether do some extension, changes or even compeltely change topic. In some fields, things evolve fast (in AI), and sometimes you are accepted 6-12 months prior to start date and at time you start your PhD, there can be more impressive and hot topics to work with. For example, recent LLM hype, it started in end of 2022 and probably a lot PhD students switched to that if they started in September/October 2022.

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One factor to consider is your potential mentor's career stage. They are likely to be more flexible if they are either just starting out or (even more so) are very well established in their career. In between, they can't really afford to deviate too much from their chosen research direction.

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Of course, it is always possible to negotiate and give out initiatives. Just go ahead. However, the fact is, the professor plays an important role for the phD process. If you had the possibility to choose other professors whose research direction matches you better, why do you need to negotiate with this professor? If you didn't have another choice or this professor could not accept your inquiry, spending the years to reach your goal is worthy, isn it? After success, you can do the thing you like. Just a PhD can not really say what you will really do in the future.

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