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Two years into my PhD, I am troubled by a situation that made me having to decide on whether to focus mainly on my supervisor's assigned project or my own project as part of my thesis.

The story begins like this. My supervisor promised me a PhD project at the beginning of my PhD to attract me to join his lab (I have my own PhD studentship with all funding attached at that point). But after I joined the lab, I found out that the project is never meant to be done as no one in our lab works in that area or possess the technique.

He then assigned me a few projects that come to the lab from collaborators. The projects did not pan out well due to miscommunications with the collaborators that involve multiple parties, and I begin to lose interest in them to the point that I just want to get them over with. When the assigned projects get stuck in limbo, I started to work on my own project, as I really want to finish my PhD. Doing my own project is difficult as the project involves some knowledge that falls outside the expertise of my supervisor, but I persevere and the project starts to take shape. I am fairly confident that I can get a publication out of it and should be able to write my thesis with it.

My supervisor is unhappy about this, but he lets me do my work as he was occupied with other matters. Recently my supervisor told me that he expects me to treat those assigned projects as my PhD project and to include them in my thesis. I am happy to work on those projects as my side projects, but I want to focus mainly on my own project as it is beginning to take shape. However my supervisor wishes me to work mainly on those assigned projects, and he made it clear that he is not interested with my own project.

My impression is that a PhD student should be able to determine what projects to work on and to include in the thesis. Obviously I am happy to do some side projects to keep my supervisor happy, but I am hoping that I should be able to decide what I want to work on without offending my supervisor.

Any opinion and advice is much appreciated.

  • Perhaps this is a mini version of another question on whether professors can work on whatever research they want... academia.stackexchange.com/questions/66618 – GEdgar Apr 26 '16 at 23:33
  • the project involves some knowledge that falls outside the expertise of my supervisor, How much is this some? – scaaahu Apr 27 '16 at 5:11
  • @scaaahu The experimental aim is within his expertise, but the approach used is completely outside his domain of expertise. As the approach is new to my field, I am learning about it by myself and applying to the experimental aim in question. – anon Apr 27 '16 at 8:16
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My impression is that a PhD student should be able to determine what projects to work on and to include in the thesis. Obviously I am happy to do some side projects to keep my supervisor happy, but I am hoping that I should be able to decide what I want to work on without offending my supervisor.

In an ideal world, yes. In reality, there are practicalities to consider:

  • At least here in Europe the biggest factor is what the grant that pays for you says. If you are, for instance, funded via an H2020 project, you are most certainly not free to decide what you want to work on. Your money comes with a clear "description of work", and substantial deviations from this work plan need to be justified. Other grants may be less (or, in case of industrial funding, even more) strict, but there is certainly no universal rule that as a PhD student you should be free to work on whatever.
  • Another factor is the strategic research plan of your advisor. Your advisor has, or at least should have, a long-term plan, and if your project does not fit in with the plan, your project may be, speaking bluntly, a waste of time and money for him, even if it is an otherwise nice project.
  • There is also the problem that your advisor also requires some competency in your project, both to help you when you are stuck and to evaluate your progress and final dissertation. Many advisors will be unwilling to supervise students on research attempts that are too far outside their core expertise (usually also in combination with the previous point, that those are often simply not very valuable to their long-term goals).
  • Finally, your advisor may also be wary that the project may not be academically promising enough. I have seen often that younger researchers tend to confuse projects that are "interesting to work on" with those that are "likely to lead to interesting results". You should at least consider why your advisor is "not interested in your results", and ask yourself the question whether other senior academics will feel the same.

Of course this does not mean that you always need to slave for your advisor and should bury all ambitions of developing projects on your own. In practice, the best PhD students juggle their own interests with the interests of their advisor.

  • Thank you for your answer. My PhD is funded entirely independently of the lab and is not restrictive in area of research, so the funding issue raised in point 1 is not a concern. But I agree with your point 2 and 3, they are some points that I have not think about before. I plan to overcome point 4 by talking to external group leaders who know about the area of my project. – anon Apr 27 '16 at 13:17
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    I agree with you that the best PhD student should be able to juggle both interests. But miscommunications between me and my supervisor have become quite deep that anything anyone of us said will be misinterpreted. I want to make amend, but I am unable to overcome my distrust of him since the initial event that occurs at the beginning of my PhD (see above), and also the fact that he said he wanted to use my research expenses (that come with my PhD) for other projects in the lab that does not involve me. Any idea on how to overcome this psychological barrier? – anon Apr 27 '16 at 13:23
  • "anything anyone of us said will be misinterpreted (...) I am unable to overcome my distrust of him" Your problems go way beyond what is described in your question. You need an advisor that you can trust. Look up other questions in this SE - we usually strongly recommend looking into transferring if your relationship to your advisor is this disturbed. – xLeitix Apr 27 '16 at 17:28
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    As I am halfway through my PhD, I do not plan to make any drastic changes. I will try to juggle workload from my supervisor as well as my own project. Although the situation is not good, I am confident that I should be able to graduate. The lesson I learned from this is that, the politics in academia are as dark as those in industry, so I will most likely be leaving academia after this. – anon Apr 28 '16 at 13:53
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Having previously worked in a research granting agency in Ireland, I thought I would include a few comments, at least from my perspective. For us, the goal of the PhD, MSc, and post-doc, was always to ensure that the grantee created sufficient new knowledge that would expand the overall knowledge in their field. This could be through novel techniques, industrial applications, entire new areas of expertise, etc.

When it came to the project that the grantee applied for, a requirement was that the supervisor also signed up to the project. This involved them undertaking that they would guide the grantee through the completion of their chosen project. If a grantee felt that the supervisor was trying to derail the project, or move it in a direction that was not in line with the stated goals and objectives, then there was an onus on the grantee to inform their awarding authority.

We would occasionally get a similar issue to yours. This was the advice we gave to them. Speak to your supervisor regarding the matter, and see if there has been a miscommunication, or some compromise that you can both work to. This can include switching supervisors, agreeing to move you project to be in line with their area, or seeing is there is a way to match the needs of both people in a final thesis. The same applied in reverse with the supervisor and the grantee.

Failing that, I would write a letter to them, explaining your issues, and asking them to reply to you in this manner. I would also copy your granting agency/sponsor, on the letter, explaining the matter.

  • Thank you for the reply. I have the opportunity to talk to my funding agency before regarding a non-related issue. They are very helpful and supportive of students, however they have very limited immediate power in resolving conflicts between the grantee and the institution. The request from the funding agency will be ignored, at least until the institution needs to apply for the next round of funding from the agency. – anon Apr 28 '16 at 13:57

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