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Changing your research topic?

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I guess the title is more or less self-explanatory. How do you tell your advisor that you don't like the research project that you're working on and that you'd like to move onto a different topic?

I am a first-year PhD student in psychology and students are expected to start working on a research project in their first year in my program, in addition to doing coursework. During my initial meetings with my advisor in the fall semester, we were generally brainstorming and going over ideas for my project, but she dismissed many ideas I proposed, giving various reasons for why she thought they wouldn't be fruitful. Her intuitions are likely to be right, I think. But I felt insecure because of this, and having run out of novel ideas, I proposed working on a topic that was very similar to what I had worked on as an undergrad (it was familiar territory, after all)  - and my advisor approved of this. So the work I am doing right now is an extension of what I did before. I am not very satisfied with this, but my dissatisfaction with the topic is not the only problem.

First of all, the project is not working. My pilot experiments have failed to provide any interpretable results. Secondly, I was hoping to learn some new experimental techniques during my first few years in this PhD program (eye-tracking and/or brain-imaging) and I thought devising an experiment that uses these techniques would be helpful. But as things stand, I am stuck with a simple behavioral paradigm. I know you might tell me that I am being unfair and making a fuss unnecessarily, and that there is no "ranking" among experimental methods, that a behavioral paradigm may be just as valuable. But the neoliberal world of academia does not work that way, and I fear that I won't be a competitive candidate in the job market unless I diversify my skills during my PhD.

For these reasons, I'd like to switch to a more fertile research topic that is interesting for me, marketable for academia, and allows me to learn new skills. But as I said, I have wasted my first year on a hopeless project. Worse yet, we are expected to continue working on our projects during the summer term and we will have undergraduate research assistants to work with us. I believe we have already been matched with our assistants, though I haven't met mine yet. This means I am going to be stuck with the same project for at least another 3 months. But I certainly don't want to continue working on this next year.

How can I tactfully tell my advisor that I'd rather pursue a different topic? Have you ever faced a similar problem, and how did you handle it?

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I haven't been in your exact situation, but I do understand being stuck on a project you've lost interest in.  Whether or not you'll be allowed to change projects will likely depend on a lot of factors.....your advisor's support, your programs milestones, available resources, etc.  Have you talked with your advisor about the difficulties you're having with this project?  They may be able to guide you in the right direction to get it finished so you're that much closer to being done with it.  Or they may agree that its hopeless and help you find a more suitable project.  If they prefer you to not completely abandon this project you could ask about beginning a side project that you're more interested in.  Perhaps even the little bit of time devoted to that side project will boost your motivation to help you get through the primary project.

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I am in a different, but related field. I think it makes perfect sense to want to learn marketable research skills, and although neuropsychology is still young, interest in this area will only grow over the next decade. I wouldn't stress that you haven't learned these skills in your first year though, but they should be on your radar in coming years as you progress in your program. Right now your advisor may just be concerned with you having a strength in traditional methods before developing more complex skills. 

If your pilot experiments aren't working, can you identify reasons why? If the reasons are not clear and you don't have a plan for what to do next, then I would discuss this concern with your advisor. If you have an idea why they aren't working and your next step is already planned, that would require a different approach to the conversation with your advisor, since you'd be abandoning something that there is hope for. 

I think if you are going to speak with your advisor about a different project, you should first know if that is permitted or discouraged in your program or by your advisor. I suggest you speak with students further along in the program who may have been in this situation before and have insights into these norms. If you find that this is not discouraged, you should be prepared to offer your advisor a new, well-thought-out idea (or two) and reasons why this new venture would be fruitful. Hopefully by now you have a better idea of where your advisor's interests and priorities lie, so you can develop ideas she'd be most likely to support. You should also have reasons why your current project is worth abandoning, without suggesting that it's not complex enough. Behavioral studies still publish, and depending on your advisor's expertise, you don't want to imply their work isn't valuable if that's what they've made a name for themself doing. I would therefore recommend focusing more on selling the value of the project than the methods you'd like to learn. 

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  • 3 months later...

Hi, this conversation is such a pertinent one especially in a climate where both the thesis writer and the guide are attempting to regularly contextualize the work in the larger political and academic milieu. I had the very terrible experience of having to request my committee to change my guide. I was interested in the ethical approaches to information systems and the way it could or could not be mapped on to the networks in social system. I was especially interested in the works of George Reynolds (look at Fundamentals of Information Systems last two chapters to get the dude's drift) but my guide was very adamant about it. 

Initially, I thought it was because of her concern for me but gradually i realized that she was pushing me in a direction that was more conducive and easier for her. Had I continued with the work that I was proposing, she'd have had to do a lot more of reading and learning and updating herself. So my big point here is that remember that this is your work for your academic life and you should be able to have a say in it. Having said that, do engage with your guide and see why they seem so reluctant to pay heed to your position. 

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