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I am accepted to a PhD program in engineering in the US with 1st year TA-ship as funding.

I have contacted several professor, and eventually, there is this one assistant professor (Dr. A) who want to accept me in his lab. I provided my research plan to him before he finally wants me in his team. His research is cool and I think I will be okay with that.

(Un)fortunately, the department just recruit a new assistant professor (Dr. B), which research topic is in my top priority. I love his research to the moon and back!

What do you think I should do if I want to work with Dr. B?

Until now, I have several choices that I probably take:

  • Stay with Dr. A :/ (I hope, there is another better solution)
  • Tell Dr. A that I want to move to another lab (I don't know what/how to write to him, though)
  • Ask Dr. B as my co-advisor (for now, I believe that I can intertwine both professors research, although I am not sure how to convince Dr. A with this idea)

Any suggestion/comment will be helpful :)

Thanks!

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Have you talked with Dr. B at all yet? You need to know if Dr. B would even be willing to take you on at all, and if so whether in a partial or full advisor situation, before raising the subject with Dr. A. If he wants to take on some or all of the duty of advising you, you can also ask Dr. B to advise you on the path to take with Dr. A.

There is not really a good way to say "Your subject is only second choice for me" and it could cool your relationship with Dr. A for a long time to come, so you should be sure that it is worth it before taking this step. Once you are ready to do it, and depending on the available choices, you could lay out the options to Dr. A and seek his input (would he agree to a shared project or not? and similar questions). His answers will then inform your final choice.

  • Do you think I just email Dr. B? Or, should I meet him to discuss face-to-face? Btw, thank you very much for your thoughtful answer :) – user168 Jul 25 '17 at 13:22
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    E-mail him to express interest in working with him and ask if he has time for a chat to explore whether you would be a fit. You could of course also try to talk to him without e-mailing him first, but in my experience professors can be a bit hard to find if you haven't set up a time... – nengel Jul 26 '17 at 14:26
  • I am doing your suggestion right away. Thanks @nengel ! – user168 Jul 26 '17 at 14:45
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    It's also really valuable to find out if Dr. B is a jerk in person, even if your academic interests are aligned. The only way you can do this is with a face-to-face conversation. Don't be so quick to discount any good working relationship you might already have with Dr. A! – NauticalMile Jul 26 '17 at 15:49
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    Absolutely! A good relationship with your advisor is invaluable. After an earlier experience with a disinterested advisor, I ended up choosing which university to do my PhD at based on which professor I got along with best. Every time I get stuck and need to talk over the next steps I am glad all over again, even three years later... (Also, tip for gauging if the environment will suit you, see if you can chat with another student of the professor about what it's like to work with them!) – nengel Jul 26 '17 at 17:04
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Almost every PhD program encourages you to find the professor which is the best fit for you. Approach Dr. B during your first week and express interest in their work, then see where things go.

  • This is a really brazen approach. I am not sure I will do it right away as it may hurt the previous professor whom I have contacted. Still, thank you for your answer :) – user168 Jul 25 '17 at 14:28
  • @user168 I'm not sure what about this appears brazen... I'm not suggesting that you go to your current professor and do anything, in fact. However, you don't know yet if you're a good fit with Dr. B, so it only makes sense to get to know them and their research better. The only way to do this is to approach Dr. B and let them know you're interested in what they're doing. – deckeresq Jul 25 '17 at 15:02
  • Aha! I got your point now. Previously, I thought that I need to leave Dr. A. My bad... – user168 Jul 25 '17 at 15:07
  • @user168 No problem! You may end up leaving Dr. A, but as mentioned by other answers, there's no point jumping ship yet. Build a relationship with both Drs. A and B, then decide with whom you'd rather work. – deckeresq Jul 25 '17 at 15:36
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I think you should give Dr A a chance. You haven't even started the PhD yet, and over the 4+ years duration your research interests are bound to fluctuate.

Start the program and find your feet first. There's also no reason why you couldn't ask B to be a second supervisor or an unofficial supervisor/ mentor at a later stage, but I would definitely discuss this in person with both of them first.

  • If, for example I continue working with Dr. A, and I do research well enough. But, in the middle of my PhD (e.g. 3rd year), I still think that my passion lies on Dr. B research. What should I do? – user168 Jul 25 '17 at 14:26
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    @user168 Most universities have a (sometimes soft) deadline by which point you must select a professor. At my institution, it's after 2 years, specifically to avoid the type of situation you describe. If your university doesn't have such a policy, you should set your own deadline for making this decision. – deckeresq Jul 25 '17 at 15:37
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    Perhaps you will find the way to catalyse their collaboration. I won't be surprised at all. Two years are long! – Alchimista Jul 30 '17 at 2:32
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This happened to me. Shortly after starting my PhD, I agreed to serve as a research assistant for a professor, but only 2-3 weeks later another professor started recruiting for a new, exciting project. It was awkward, but I pursued the new project and when I was accepted into that group, I had to drop the first one. It was definitely the right decision.

  • Wow! Finally, there is someone who share the same shoes with me. Would you mind to tell me how to make it worked, especially with your previous professor? I really don't want to hurt him. How did you tell the previous professor? How is your relationship later with him? – user168 Jul 26 '17 at 6:06
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    Well, other than connecting with LinkedIn decades later, I wouldn't say we have a relationship. But this is because I came into grad school with some experience in area A, went for the RAship in A, then switched to B. So we never attend the same conferences or anything. As for telling him, if I recall, I simply said I was sorry to have to drop it but a really good opportunity arose. He was fine. – Fred Douglis Jul 26 '17 at 13:55
  • Awesome! Your explanation gives me a positive vibe regarding the issue of switching PhD advisor. I hope, I get along in a good way with both professor. Thanks @FredDouglis for sharing your experience :) – user168 Jul 26 '17 at 14:04
  • @user168 you are quite welcome – Fred Douglis Jul 26 '17 at 14:28

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