I have just passed my transfer for a PhD project I don't enjoy, and am trying to decide what to do next.

Some background first: I graduated originally as an MEng, but have been out of engineering practise for approximately 10 years. I started my PhD at a UK Doctoral Training Centre with a view to re-entering engineering with some more up to date knowledge/discovering academia was where I wanted to be and staying. With 20-20 hindsight, I should have probably done a Masters to find this out, but anyway. I had a fairly free project choice, and chose something I thought would be interesting, but in a new area for me. I have had doubts for about six months, but told myself that I was just stressed about transfer, and shouldn't make any decisions until I had got through that and could think clearly. In doing so I may well have dug myself in deeper. I have two years of funding left, and could leave with a Masters at any time.

Anyway, as far as I see it I have three options:

Re-shape my project to see if I can finish it. My reservations about this are that I am not really part of a research group and one of the difficulties I have faced is not having anyone to guide me when I get stuck. I'm pretty much learning everything for the first time, alone. While I could reshape the project, I worry that I will just find myself back here again in a few more months. I have convinced myself a number of times already that "it will be alright" but it still isn't.

Approach other academics at the Uni to start again with something completely new (I am funded, not the project). Has anyone else completely changed their project a year in and completed on time? Has anyone changed after transfer/upgrade - is this even possible?

Go to the engineering industry and try and convince them that the masters I have as a result of the first part of my studies is useful, and that the career path I have had to date (which has been varied) will settle with a return to engineering. How I convince them that I have the sticking power and the skills after 10 years off and a half-finished research degree is another matter...

I have started to talk to my tutor at University about option one and two, but would appreciate some advice from those not invested in the outcome. Thanks

  • You can definitely change your topic after nearly a year in (or close to that) - in fact this happened to a colleague of mine whose funding stipulated that he remained at this university while the whole department moved to another university. - Obviously that requires that whoever "takes you in" is interested in doing so. How this works out with regards to funding would be up to your funder - it may be possible that it leaves you with only 2 years of funding. A lot of things are possible if there is interest in it - i.e. if you have the support of your supervisors/the faculty in general.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:25
  • A second comment I would make is that it is unfortunately not unusual for PhD Students to end up working on topics on their own with little support and with no clear plan as to where it goes. The lucky ones become part of a team - but they are the minority. It is also a further reality that a PhD often starts out in one area and then develops into another.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:27
  • An on a final note, I will leave you with a link - which originally popped up on LinkedIn a long time ago but could be very well relevant to you - you are not alone with those feelings: crypto.junod.info/2013/09/09/…
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:28
  • Thanks DetlevCM,it's good to know that others have done it. Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 8:47

4 Answers 4


Is there something that does interest you? From your question, it appears that you don't already have something in mind. In practice, this means you would likely spend another 6 months casting around for a research question. If this is true, then your timing is tighter than you think. One option is to suspend while you are working this out (and get a job during that time).

Ultimately, you should consider why you are doing a PhD. If you are after the piece of paper to get access to an academic career, then the project itself is less important. In this situation, you could try and address the 'working alone' problem without changing projects. For example, do you have some skills that are different to your project team and you could collaborate on a small project with another student, or provide data analysis or programming assistance? Could you establish a journal club or something similar to learn with the other students?

On the other hand, if you are doing a PhD because you have a burning desire to do research in a particular field, then the project is more important. Not just because you want to develop expertise in that field, but also because the PhD research starts your contact network and partly positions you for post-doc jobs.

I did change topics (drastically) nine months into my PhD. I took a 3 month break during which I earned some money, did some reading and thought about a new question. My particular scholarship had extension provisions so I was funded for 3 years after I re-entered. I did complete within that extended time and could definitely have completed more quickly if I needed to. I wasn't in the UK system, so I can't comment on how much change you are permitted, but I had to do some paperwork that was mostly because I changed part of the supervisor team.

  • Thanks Jen. There are other things that interest me, yes. The question was quite vague, mainly to avoid it becoming huge. I moved away from my original research ideas and interests when I chose my project, because I couldn't find the "perfect" project in that field and thought a new challenge would be preferable. That, in hindsight, was the first step to where I find myself now. I'm going to see if I can take a break and go back to re-explore that field and what is on offer. Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 8:53

I am going to assume as a funded science PhD, you have something in the region of 3.5 years of funding.

You're only a year in, so it's not too late to change. There is even time for you to change completely (though it could be a lot of work to get done on time before your money runs out).

Typically I would say the first year of your PhD will involve you gaining useful knowledge and skills, though a project that may well not end up being what you write about in your thesis. It's your second and more the third year where you have the skills and can really do some research for your thesis.

Saying that, don't hang about! Organise a meeting with your supervisor asap to go over the options with them, they are given the position of supervisor as they should know how to steer their students to get a good PhD, but they can only help you if you tell them that you're not happy and what you want to do. You will have gained useful skills, so the time hasn't been wasted, but you do need to sort it out sooner rather than later.

I would hope there are other projects available you can move into, but the worst case scenario isn't the end of the world. Like you say with minimal effort you should be able to write up what you have done and get a Masters, then move on with that qualification and experience.

  • Thanks Matt. Just to clear up some points I didn't get across for future answers - I have two years of funding left, and could leave tomorrow with the masters already accomplished. Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 13:27
  • 1
    @Anon-ee-mouse: You can edit the question to add this (IMHO relevant) information. Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 13:29
  • @Matt depends on the funding body. Some people on industry funded PhDs get only 3 years - and then it is up to the department to find money. In other cases you can get the sponsor to provide some extra funding. If it is EPSRC in the UK it is generally 3.5 years, then again they apparently prefer doctoral training centres which I believe would be 4 years.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:30
  • @Anon-ee-mouse: I went with 3.5 as it was the middle of the usual 3-4 year funding period. As the other answers suggest, 2 years left is enough time if you work hard, it would just be easier if you had a bit longer. It sounds like it depends on what your supervisors suggest or are willing to do. Theres no point being unhappy for another 2 years, but if they just didn't realise you weren't happy, hopefully they can work something out with you that is better. As you say, they have an interest in not losing you, so they should want to help!
    – Matt
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 14:22

Short Answer: Stick with the PhD, if your problem is the project approach and/or solving problem on your own.

Read your question carefully two times, and here are couple of points based on your question, my own and other friends' situation similar to yours:

Aim of Ph.D.: Ok, lets go back to basic. What is the aim of Ph.D. at least within UK universities: to 'contribute' something to a field, and learn how to read and write research.

'Perfect' Project: There is not such a thing, at least at the Ph.D. level; and don't waste time looking for it. This is because, perfection in your eyes are subjective and based on your incomplete knowledge of all the sub sections of your field. The point here is that, there is a Ph.D. level problem and you want to solve it and contribute a solution to its field.

I'm Alone & Depressed: If you are fortunate enough the supervisor(s) gave you the freedom to 'sink or swim' then take the challenge and learn how to 'swim' and contribute to the field. If you suffer from depression you need to talk to the student service first hand; if not useful talk to your GP (free in the UK) he/she will guide you to get professional help.

Two Years of Funding: You have actually enough time and money. You will have a year to finish your research and another one to write up your thesis and submit.

  • I wouldn't say it is "fortunate" if your supervisor leaves you excessive free reign - because it often comes coupled with a lack of resources. (Some personal experience there...) - Now if you are working on pure maths or something else purely theoretical, that is no issue, however in any field that requires experimental setups or first hand data that can be a huge problem. In addition, the ability to discuss a topic with someone is very beneficial - they may notice things you overlook and vice versa - so being alone can be very problematic.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 16:38
  • Of course the other extreme of a very controlling supervisor isn't any better.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 16:39
  • Thanks Dave, your reply definitely gave me pause to check what is driving my thoughts and feelings. Though I know there is no "perfect" project, I am pretty sure there is one that fits much better than my current research. Finally, using your analogy I am all up for learning how to swim, but perhaps with a research group around me to point out that different strokes exist. Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 9:01

My own Phd drifted off from its initial question and I spent considerable extra time to finish it. This required financing out of my own pocket by keeping a job and doing the thesis in parallel. I cannot recommend it, but at least 'I got it my way'. I have no advice, but a comment: Your framing of the problem reveals two different logics: Your engineering training shows through in a utalitarian idea of normative decision making. But wondering if the options will be accepted by your fellows and former emplyees suggests an approach to decisionmaking as appropriatness. Amartya Sen has argued that there are different levels to be considered, where acting morally or appropriate is at a different level than acting opportunistic or utalitarian. It might be that your problem is situated at a conflict between your trained rational-choice reasoning and your intuitive ideas of what is the right thing to do. I have no idea where it would lead you, but what about asking your gut what you feel is the right thing; towards yourself, your financiers, the academic community, the engineering business environment or your friends and family: Which option will make you and your fellows proud of your choice? If you prefer an intellectual approach to adjacent lines of thinking, you could do some reading on 'the logic of appropriateness' or 'social contract and choice'.

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