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Will people look down on me if I say that I plan on doing research that I end up not doing due to various reasons, especially if I'm a PhD student?

I guess it's somewhat expected, and that experienced professors don't always believe that I'll end up doing what I say (because unexpected bugs and events happen all the time). And sometimes you also end up going on detours.

That, and professors always say that they do things on smaller timeframes than what it really takes them to do.

I guess if I always meet my commitments, then people might believe me more. But on the other hand, it always helps to get more feedback on ambitious projects that I don't necessarily believe that I will finish.

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The question is subjective in nature, but the answer is almost certainly no. Academicians are always applying for funding, looking into collaborations, reading research articles in different fields, and generally taking an interest in new research venues. It's expected that you'll occasionally (maybe even regularly) expand your research interests, and it's the nature of the game that some of your attempts will not pan out.

Anecdotally, my graduate research advisor completed a whopping 10 grants a year for a very wide variety of research projects. Each grant entailed a good deal of preparatory research, in which we would explore a new field and try to find some preliminary results strong enough to drive the grant through. Some of my (and my colleagues) most interesting work (medical ontologies, intelligent systems, lung-powered electricity generators) came from these failed grant attempts.

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  • Your answer made me understand how different the situation is between fields. A failed research program is still a research that have been done, so I considered that "not doing some research" was a way of saying "not working" and not "failing to have results". – Sylvain Peyronnet Feb 19 '12 at 19:03
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    @SylvainPeyronnet - Many projects fail, but all projects have results. It's important for your ego, if nothing else, to consider the quote attributed to Edison on all his failures: "We now know a thousand ways not to make a light bulb." – eykanal Feb 19 '12 at 19:12
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    "Many projects fail, but all projects have results" — This is simply not true, especially in more theoretical fields. – JeffE Feb 20 '12 at 9:29
  • @JeffE - very good point, that statement is definitely limited to particular disciplines. I didn't consider that when making the comment. – eykanal Feb 20 '12 at 13:28
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There is a huge difference between saying that you will do a given research effort, and saying that you will obtain a particular result. If you have guaranteed the latter, you made a mistake, it's research, there is no guarantee on a result !

So, if you give a work planning to your adviser, you have to stick to it. Of course, you can have (once, not twice) a real problem that ruins your effort (house on fire, a relative at the hospital, etc.).

To summarize, you can promise that you will work, but not that it will work ;) If you always fail on your commitments, you will never be seen as reliable, and people won't work with you, it's that simple.

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    +1 for "if it's research, then there is no guarantee on a result!" – user102 Feb 19 '12 at 19:12
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    If you don't fail occasionally, you're not trying hard enough. – JeffE Feb 20 '12 at 9:27
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In my experience, the answer to this is no. Projects die for various reasons all the time - the funding vanishes and there's no one to work on it, it turns out to not to be a particularly productive line of thought, or as a graduate student, your interests shift.

In my mind, the important thing is that you have put in as much effort as is expected of you. If you've told your advisor you've had a random musing you'd like to pursue, then come back a month later having not gotten very far but decided upon poking around a bit that it's not worth doing, then no harm, no foul.

I also have to agree with aeismail that it depends on what you're framing as "research". Not being wedded to X, Y, Z things must be done, come hell or high water means if thing Q turns out to be really interesting, you're free to pursue that instead. But that's a long-term question.

If, on the other hand, you've said "Sure, I'll make a figure for that data by next week" and you consistently fail to do things like that? That is going to have an impact on your reputation.

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I lean towards agreeing with eykanal and disagreeing with Sylvain.

A PhD project is inherently a somewhat fungible plan—what you do depends on the results that you've obtained. And obviously equipment failures, unexpected obstacles and delays, and other unforeseen circumstances are a natural part of research. So I wouldn't be too concerned about failing, as a graduate student, to reach the long-term destination of your research project.

In particular, with my own students, I try to sketch out as little as possible the actual outline of the projects they are going to pursue. That way, there is much more flexibility in the future development of their projects, as I plan to tailor them based on the students' expertise and interests. (Moreover, I would suggest that if you know everything you need to do to reach your goal, and you accomplish exactly that, you haven't done any research at all!)

That said, there is the issue of meeting short-term goals as well as long-term goals. You shouldn't promise your advisor something will be done in 1 to 2 weeks if you don't intend on having it ready for 2 months. (I would also argue the reverse is a dangerous situation, too, because you could fall into the "competency trap," whereby the advisor thinks you really know what you're doing, and continues to expect you to know what you're doing for the remainder of your time in the advisor's group!)

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