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When is it advisable to switch PhD projects if you are not making progress and have a promising alternative project? Is it worth going from guaranteed research assistantship funding to less reliable teaching assistantship funding?

Background:

I've been working on a particular funded research problem for 2 years now. So far, I'm still trying to reproduce previous results and learn. I am making progress, but it's very slow and frustrating. I don't anticipate finishing a PhD on this topic in less than 5 years, and think 7 or more is likely. At this point I am frustrated with this project and losing motivation.

This is mostly due to certain unanticipated faculty changes at my university. I originally came to work with 2 professors in a field that overlaps with both of their previous research. Unfortunately, one of these professors left and has declined to participate further. Had this professor stayed, I'm confident I would have made a fair bit more progress already. My current advisor is capable, but they freely admit they are far out of their comfort zone with my project. I'm making many basic mistakes that would be easily recognized and fixed if my advisor was more knowledgeable on my topic. My advisor has tried to interest other faculty in the project, but unfortunately none at my university consider themselves adequately competent in the subject to advise.

For fun, I recently published a paper on a particular solution to a problem which grew out of a homework assignment. I have received a surprising number of positive comments on this side project so far and see many research opportunities in this field. This topic fits my advisor's capabilities much better than my current research topic.

I think I'm at a juncture where switching projects may be a good idea. I discussed this with my advisor, and they said either way is okay with them, but I think they are leaning towards me switching. We have no funding for the second project, but my advisor thinks it's worth trying for a grant application and they told me they would support me financially either way (even if it's making sure I get TA positions).

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It seems to me that essentially all of the considerations lie in favor of switching projects. So -- guess what? -- I think you should switch projects.

The one consideration that cuts slightly against this is the lack of funding. It sounds like when your former advisor departed, he didn't take all his funding with him and there is still some left over to be used by others on the same project? That's not the greatest situation either: probably the end of the funding cycle does not last as long as it will take you to complete your PhD if you continue working on the project. It may (or may not be) be that the department can transfer that funding over to your current project. Anyway, that's not critical because your current supervisor has guaranteed your financial support. (By the way, if you want to continue in academia than having at least some TA work is probably a good thing.)

Just a couple of random comments:

1) I find it strange that you refer to your advisor as a "they". That doesn't really make sense: "they" is a plural. I guess you want to keep your advisor's gender confidential. I don't really understand why, but okay: that's up to you, of course. A grammatically correct way to do this is "he or she".

2) You wrote

I'm making many basic mistakes that would be easily recognized and fixed if my advisor was more knowledgeable on my topic.

This leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I have very often had the experience of having students work on things on which I am quite knowledgeable, but nevertheless they often make mistakes. Sometimes student mistakes are not displayed to the advisor for a very long time. Sometimes advisors let students make and recognize their own mistakes: that is an important part of the learning process. If every time a student does something wrong the advisor swoops in and fixes it, the student is not really doing their own work. [Wait, I did it myself. Hmm, I think "their" works for a generic, abstract genderless person. It doesn't work for a specific genderless person...]

A lot of students on this site (and, I believe, elsewhere) are full of theories about how their lack of success (or limited success) is due to some specific external factor that was outside of their control, and that if only they had been placed in an optimal situation they would have succeeded. That's not so much factually wrong as unhelpfully centered. No one is in the optimal learning situation all the time. Learning how to succeed in a real (academic[!!]) world rather than an idealized one is obviously key. Your mistakes are your own and you should take ownership for them. Based on your description, your current advisor has been optimally generous and helpful with you. You should not give off any whiff of a "too bad you didn't have the expertise to help me out the first time" sentiment; that kind of baggage could only negatively impact your continued relationship.

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    Regarding "they": it is just as grammatical as "he or she." – jakebeal Jul 6 '15 at 9:49
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    @jakebeal: That's not really what the article says! The issue is a complicated one. All I'll say is: (i) My mother is a retired English professor, and she has corrected the use of the "singular they" when she's seen it, including from me. (ii) I was, sincerely, confused the first few times I read the OP's post, because I thought he was referring to more than one advisor. Note finally that all of the usages in the article you link to are to a generic singular, not to a specific, known person. – Pete L. Clark Jul 6 '15 at 13:23
  • Much appreciated, @PeteL.Clark. I used the singular they for anonymity, and can understand any confusing. Also don't want to give the impression that I am skirting responsibility for my own difficulties. I think there's a difference between learning on your own (which I fully support) and going on months-long wild goose chases to learn one thing which could just as easily been said. My PhD has been more of the latter than the former, unfortunately. I have learned through this, just not efficiently, and I don't have forever. – AtomicAcorn Jul 6 '15 at 22:44

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