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I just finished my master's and I am about to start my PhD studies. As I am very used to do many independent projects during my bachelor's and master's, I am willing to continue a side project on a fairly related topic. Actually, this is project is on a topic completely related to my potential PhD project and even during my job interview my supervisor said it is a plus for me to have experience with these kind of projects.

I have been working on this project from second year of my master's and I worked only about 3-4 hours per week on that, so I guess I can manage to keep it as a side project. The thing is it still needs some work to lead to some acceptable results, but I'm sure it will pay off, if I can make it. Yet, learning about the methods used in the project are really helpful for my PhD project as well. The problem comes where most professors want concentration from their students and this might not be Ok with working with another researchers. Besides, my collaboration in the side project seems not to be very efficient since it is a side project for my collaborators as well.

The question is should I discuss this with my professor even if I want to dedicate some of my free time to that? Should I risk my relationship with him in the early stages of my PhD studies (in case he is not Ok with that?)? Do I look like some trouble maker if I ask him about this? Do you think I should continue this project or just simply drop it and concentrate on my PhD project?

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    If you ask him about this, then you would look like someone who has independent thoughts. – Austin Henley Jan 2 '15 at 23:35
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Let me answer in two parts:

  1. With the right advisor, projects undertaken on your own initiative will be valued rather than seen as a problem.
  2. You definitely need to talk to your advisor now to make sure you're with the right advisor.

Expanding on this a bit... one of the hardest things for many people to learn in a Ph.D. program is how to organize and initiate their own research portfolio. You show signs of doing this right from the start, so as long as you are willing to accept feedback and guidance, this is potentially a really good thing.

Whether it is a good fit for your advisor, however, depends on what your advisor's needs are at their current stage in their career. Some professors really need their students to be focusing on particular problems that the professor currently wants or needs to tackle. Others are able to give their students more freedom to wander intellectually. This is partly based on career stage (pre-tenure professors are likely to demand more focus), and partly on personality (a control freak or an empire-builder will not be mellowed by tenure; a highly confident professor may give much free rein even before tenure).

So: talk with your advisor about your desires and plans. If your advisor is receptive to the idea, great: now you can sort out how to balance things and make sure you aren't neglecting any responsibilities or making strategic mistakes. If your advisor is not receptive, you need a different advisor.

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As an addition to jakebeal's answer:

I am sort of terrified of an advisor for which a side project of 3-4 hours / week, strongly related even, would be a dealbreaker. That being said, you need to make sure that the side project runs on the side. That is, don't let the 4 hours become 15 or 20 hours, and never, ever use the side project as a reason to justify why you can't achieve your goals in the main project.

This also means that there are side projects which are more suitable than others. It needs to be ok that there will be weeks where you spend a total of 0 hours on your side project, because there is e.g., a deadline in your main project. If there are hard deadlines in your side project as well, you may get into problems if the hard deadlines end up coming in at the same time.

For example, what is a notoriously bad side project for PhD students is any kind of light consulting work (as my students in applied Computer Science are sometimes prone to take on). Yes, helping some non-IT company with some technical issues now and then takes almost no time and pays quite well, but if there is a big problem at your customer's side at the week of the deadline of our major conference, we will get into arguments, even if you worked more than 40 hours per week (or whatever your nominal contractual workload is) despite being at the customer's site for a day.

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It depends on how good you are at multitasking. You don't want to neglect your advisor's projects because you're working on a side project. At the same time, you don't want to neglect your side project because you're working on your advisor's projects. (Your collaborators will probably be happier parting with you on good terms than collaborating with you on a project that you'll never actually work on.)

Keep in mind that you'll also have other side projects with more urgent and demanding deadlines, like classes or being a teaching assistant. As a PhD student my attention is normally split between two or three tasks, even without external side projects.

If you want to continue your side project, you should definitely ask your advisor if you can keep working on it, so he knows about all your commitments (and is okay with them). You might even be able to pull your advisor in as a collaborator, and then everyone's happy!

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I believe it is more productive to pursue your work from Masters to PhD rather than having them running separately, as PhD requires a dedication and focus.

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