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I got accepted to a top PhD program. I did not expect this to happen, but I am quite happy about this. A certain professor A voted for me (e.g I was accepted to a program because he liked me during the interview and voted for me). He expects me to work with him when I arrive. But, I am not sure if I want to work with him. I know nothing about the area he works in and most of his students did not join academia after graduation (which is bad for me). I would like trying to work with professor B, but I am not sure if this will work out either. Professor B might not want to work with me, or I might fail in his lab (the work that professor B does is harder and expectations are higher). So I afraid that if I try working with professor B - how will I explain this to professor A? What if I will not succeed with professor B, then most probably I cannot expect to work with professor A again, since nobody wants to feel like a back-up option.

How does it usually work for students in PhD? Can students easily try working with different professors and then choose the one they like? Is switching advisors/ coming back to them easy? Or most often students stick to the professor who accepted them?

Country: US, field: CS

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    First of all, congratulations! It will be easier to give input, if you add the country and the field. – 12345 May 2 '17 at 5:08
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    @OlgaK added. Phd in CS from US university – YohanRoth May 2 '17 at 18:12
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[Background: I'm a full professor in a top-5 American CS department. My answer is skewed toward standard practice in theoretical computer science, but I regularly give the same advice to all incoming PhD students in my department.]

As others have said, practices vary in different departments, and in different sub-fields within each department, but as a general rule: It's your PhD. Of course you can switch advisors!

Professor A voted for your admission, but he did not admit you. The department admitted you. Prof A's vote does not oblige you to work with him at all. It's natural for Prof A to anticipate that you will work with him, but he has no right to demand that you work with him. (These are all shadings of the word "expect"; I'm not sure which meaning you intended.) If you prefer to work with Prof B, you do not need to justify your preference to Prof A. (You should still communicate your preference to Prof A, of course, especially if he asks you about working with him.)

More generally, you should never feel constrained to only work with one professor, just because that professor happens to be your advisor or happens to be paying you. Nothing prevents you from working with both Prof A and Prof B, provided you are meeting the obligations attached to your funding. (Exclusivity is not a reasonable obligation for a research assistantship. Progress, yes. Good-faith effort, definitely. Results, sure. Exclusivity, no.)

In my department, faculty in my research area strongly encourage entering PhD students to work with multiple faculty — in the first year, to help everyone make more informed advising decisions, and in later years, so that students develop a more diverse research portfolio, and to provide a backup in case research with one faculty member doesn't pan out. Yes, even the students I am supporting from my own grants.

All that said, it's best to approach the situation under the assumption of good faith. Assume that Prof A and the other faculty in your new department have your best interests at heart, and approach them to discuss options under that assumption. Be clear with Prof A that you are not sure you want to work with him and why, and ask for advice on how best to meet your professional goals, including approaching other potential advisors. If Prof A objects, or tries to guilt-trip you into working with him, or tries to convince you not to even talk with other faculty, then congratulations, you've identified someone who does not have your best interests at heart. Best to learn that early, before you waste your time working with them.

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To give a different perspective, though this is not from CS, but probably still relevant since it is unlikely that all CS programs, especially top ones, follow the model where advisors fund PhD students from their own budgets.

It is possible that you do not officially commit to an advisor until after you pass your quals. Which is about 1-1.5 years into the program. In fact, you are not even officially a full PhD student until then.

So you can use that time to investigate the options by asking other students and building relationships with faculty members (also beyond A and B). The latter can be done through coursework, discussions of their papers, etc. And also pay attention to interpersonal dynamics, not only research topics.

If you feel uncertain which case you belong to, you could ask the program to connect you with other students and also give information on the structure of the program and advisor selection process.

Also, to the point of prof A supporting you. In the case where funding is not an issue, voting doesn't necessarily mean they are really dying to have you. If advisors are selected at a later date, I wouldn't rush into declining their lab. Wait until you are on campus, ask to meet (and thank for supporting in person). They'll probably ask you about your research interests at which point you can tentatively say that your interests are x,y,z (such that x,y,z are aligned with B) and they may actually suggest you to talk to B anyway. But also give A a chance - the reality on the ground may be very different from what you perceive at the moment.

And overall, I'd recommend reading this book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/082183455X/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_awdb_GdxczbYQWFSMD it's meant for mathematicians, but a lot of tips apply across the board and it very well written.

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I think this greatly depends on the school and it's corresponding funding model.

In some CS PhD programs (like the one I attended), your advisor pays a portion or maybe all of your tuition each semester, plus a stipend for living expenses on top of that. My advisor paid for roughly half, and the remaining came from being a student apprentice (e.g., helping to grade in undergrad classes). In other terms my advisor paid for all of my funding so I could dedicate more time to my thesis.

If this situation applies to you, then an advisor that is accepting you is also going to be paying for you, so if you know secretly that you aren't thrilled to work with them long term, it may come off as dishonest to accept their offer and then later ask to switch.

It's not impossible to switch advisors and sometimes it happens for legitimate reasons. E.g., you think you're interested in X but later find out that you're really not, and want to work on Y instead. In this case switching advisors to an advisor in topic Y might be totally agreeable to all parties.

The best advice I can give is to be up front about your uncertainty and your plans so no one feels betrayed or let down later.

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