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I am a 2nd year PhD student in Germany. I am working on computational mechanics. It is on modeling the mechanical behavior of a composite coating. My background is metallurgical engineering. When I had started with the research, I was very interested in the field. It's a field which was a hot research area a decade back, but now it's not.

As time went by, l have grown unsure of the implications of my research. I feel that my research is wasteful as I would never be able to publish in top journals like Nature and Science. As my research area does not belong to a hot field. I feel that I should have researched a bit more about the research area before coming for PhD. I think I made a poor decision.

All these concerns make me distracted and unenthusiastic about my work. I feel that even if I graduate, I won't be able get any good academic positions.

Are these concerns common among PhD students?

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    I'm not sure composite coatings were ever published in Nature or Science. Doing a PhD is learning how to do research, hopefully in a general area that will interest you over your career. If you wanted 'hot', mechanical engineering wasn't the path to take... – Jon Custer Aug 19 '16 at 2:20
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    It is normal for PhD candidate to be dissatisfied with their topic, in any field. – Stig Hemmer Aug 19 '16 at 7:25
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    the "modelling the mechanical behaviour of a composite coating" is interesting and relevant. Your difficulty is probably a lack of contact with the right cliché (narrow group) that really need these answers, techniques and other results. As a 'surface effect' you may need to seek out specialist groups in larger industries, or those who specifically apply the coatings if you want to feel 'engaged', but that does not stop it being useful. Seeing the woods for the trees is always tricky. – Philip Oakley Aug 19 '16 at 9:34
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    @PhilipOakley Do you mean a clique rather than cliché? – curiousdannii Aug 19 '16 at 14:20
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    Is publishing in Nature or Science that important to you? Because, as a scientist, I prefer publishing a paper for real fellow scientists. Explaining to the mass is the cherry on the cake, but definitely not my purpose! – SteffX Aug 19 '16 at 19:22
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From your question it seems that the only reason you chose computational mechanics was because it was "hot", and you are now regretting your decision because the field is no longer "hot" and thus it's hard to publish in high-impact journals. This is the wrong approach, not just because it's impossible to predict what topic will be "hot" when you enter the job market. More importantly, as a general principle, you should choose a research topic that you are really passionate about. Since doing a PhD is a long, hard, tedious, and sometimes frustrating experience, you will be miserable if you do not actually love your research. What matters at this point to you is not whether such dissatisfaction is common; rather, you should carefully reconsider your decision to enter the field in the first place and reevaluate your values and priorities. Such introspection will help you decide your next step. Depending on which stage you are in your PhD career, switching to an entirely different field might be the best choice.

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My take on this: yes your feelings are normal, but Hotness is overrated (by definition).

Researchers who are only passionate about "hot" topics are, many times, not good researchers scientifically, and professionally. The reason is that "hotness" is not intrinsic to the scientific subject you research, rather an external, almost purely social phenomenon. Hence, people who are after "hotness" have passion to "succeed socially" more than to seek truth and do research.

I use to stay away from hot topics. They also tend to diminish after a couple of years, and then you have to jump on the next wagon.

Remark & reservations: The above it is an ideal simplification of the matter, but still should be helpful to understand my argument.

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    I don't know. I think there is also something to be said about stubborn professors that still work in the same tired sub-field ten years after everyone stopped caring about it. – user8001 Aug 19 '16 at 17:28
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    What matters is the intrinsic importance of the sub-field. What people "care about" is a lot of times influenced by fads. One has to reflect critically about his/her field, but not in terms of social impact, in my opinion. – Dilworth Aug 19 '16 at 17:44
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    Hotness is definitely overrated. Sadly, it's also really helpful for getting a job. – Cliff AB Aug 19 '16 at 20:58
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    Many times recent developments indeed make something "hot", but then not much is left for other people to progress further as more and more people start jumping on the wagon. Also, "hot" subjects tend to be shallower than traditional subjects, due to the fact that they are new. – Dilworth Aug 20 '16 at 18:57
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    @Dilworth: It can mean that there is a higher chance to "find gold" because the current state of the art provides possibilities in many directions. That seems like it's something intrinsic to the topic. Indeed, it does not say anything about the importance, because if anything, I think it's the importance that is defined by social factors, rather than intrinsic to the subject. – O. R. Mapper Aug 20 '16 at 21:12
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Before you do anything drastic, like talking yourself out of finishing, be certain that you're not just having a version of a typical reaction to the length and difficulty of the work. Granted my field is different than yours, but there's not a single member of my cohort that hasn't go through multiple periods of feeling like their research sucks and they'll never finish. This happens despite being told by others who would know that the research is interesting, including classmates, conference attendees and advisers.

Are you currently stuck on something difficult or tedious? Were you excited when things were going well? Did you recently have to discard a bunch of work and follow a different track? In other words, could there be a different root cause that has led you to come up with a better excuse than "this is too hard" to stop working?

Only you can really know if you should legitimately consider leaving your PhD program, because there are just way too many factors for anyone else to get it right. There may be lots of justifications, even including a legitimate "I just don't want to do this anymore", but "because this field isn't as hot as it once was" doesn't seem to me like a very good reason.

If every econ PhD such as myself bailed on research we didn't think would get published in the QJE, AER or Econometrica, there wouldn't be very many economists (queue self-deprecating joke about there being too many economists).

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    --- Good answer! – Dilworth Aug 19 '16 at 20:45
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I recall working with medical doctors during my Phd who always labelled topics "hot" or "not-hot", which is simply crazy from a scientific point of view but very logically for the one seeking glory and fame. Their aim with their research was to "do something hot" so they could get ontop of all the other ambitious medical doctors in their race to become head of a medical department at a high ranking hospital. They all failed. Unfortuneately science is complicated matters and the likelikhood is that when you achieve glory and fame both your youth and beauty have vanished. Alternatively, a carrier as pop star might seem as a quicker and more secure way of hitting main-stream fame.

A second note about classifying "hot" is always about finding those inventions who are reported in high ranking journals. However, these findings often represents years of hard work of groups of scientists and when finally solved the authors gets credited by others for having found the explanations or proven the theories. At that very instance - that topic is only "hot" in that particular article and chasing "hot" is like chasing the rain-bow.

My advice is to be genuinely interested in the topic you are working on and solve the problems you encounter, report the discrepances you notice or formulate theories to combine results.

2

PhD work is one of the most difficult tasks to undertake and the choice of subject for one's thesis even more so. When I started, I wasn't so much interested in "hot" topics in my field of Cybernetics, rather, what problems could be solved. This way, one could circumnavigate the publication process and get quality contributions into the public space. That said, Nature and Science are widely-read journals but also look toward others that have high impact factors, a good metric to see what is being worked on in the community. However, there is one caveat: "hot" topics would have begun to be noticed in the past. When you have noticed this, it is probably too late to get involved--unless you get lucky. What, I think, happens oftentimes with quality contributions to the state-of-the-art in academia is that they are not highly cited but because of the implications of the problem being solved, such papers are pioneering and you must wait a sufficient amount of time, generate follow-up work, and exercise patience in the field. Bottom-line, if you don't love the topic you are researching, it will only make the process harder.

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Yes, it's normal. I would be shocked if there was ever a grad student in the history of grad school who did not at one point hate their job. I'd be shocked because it would be living proof that aliens exist and walk among us.

Of course, if you want to be tenured professor at Harvard (or, say, Max Planck - let me not be chauvinistic) and thrice Nobel laureate, it sucks to not have a hot topic. Although, consider how a topic becomes "hot" in the first place: A very talented scientist makes a fascinating discovery, and everyone wants to get a piece of the action. Fields are not "hot". Good research makes them hot.

Even if it does turn out as bad as you think, there is more to a PhD than being an academic rockstar and publishing the "next big paper". If you can finish your PhD, it proves that:

  • You were disciplined enough to go through several years of independent hard work
  • You could manage your time and the direction of your project effectively
  • You are an expert in that field (even if your original research is unexciting, it doesn't mean that you don't have very good knowledge of existing research)
  • You are smart, capable, have good critical thinking skills and so on

These may seem like boring, second rate consolation prizes, but if you think about it in perspective, there are very few people in the general population that can boast having such qualities on par with a PhD holder, let alone combine all of them. These are all very valuable things outside academia, much more valuable than what you happened to publish. Even many hirers of of professors and post-docs understand that where you published in grad school is not necessarily indicative of your potential as a scientist - for instance, rigor alone is not very important for Nature (they care about impact), but in a postdoc candidate, you might be more interested in looking at the quality of the work, not the relevance of the results.

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Having done my PhD in germany as well, I can say that there is a lot of flexibility. And being unsure at the end of first/second year is kind of normal. This is not the topic you will be working on for the rest of your life. And PhD is just to show that you can work in a scientific manner. Computational mechanics you can apply to other fields as well. Also it should have direct applications in the automotive industry. Hotness of a subject is definitely subjective and surely not the right way as others have pointed out. But if it is something you cannot definitely do it, then go ahead and change your subject NOW. Life is too long and two years don't really matter.

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