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Deciding PHD projects.

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People say follow your interests, but sometimes, there are many things to think about.


I have 2 projects I'm considering. One is a very high risk project that I would be taking nearly full ownership over, where I would be building a new measurement instrument for characterization of a very hard to measure property in semiconductors. It will probably be heavily managed by professor. Professor is new. I don't fully understand the theory behind the project and it is alot of theory to take in. I don't know if I'm actually good enough at programming and electronics to handle it. Even if I work hard, results are not guaranteed. Materials used are not used in industry, characterization techniques used not in industry, making it risky for employment as well. Only employment value is selling transferrable skills.

Second project is a low risk project. The professor just received tenure and has a track record of placing students in industry. The equipment is commercially available except for some modifications, and most of the work will be in data analysis and sample fabrication. All the equipment is used in industry and has specific jobs lined up. Results are guaranteed if I work hard. I understand and like the theory behind his work. It is relatively routine work, mostly data analysis of results using known instrumentation. There is little real device fabrication or instrumentation involved.


In my MS I've always been an independent worker and did things at my own pace. I don't know if I can handle being micromanaged, especially on such a high risk, high stress project. Another con to the project is that it is extremely risky since the semiconductors measured are not directly used in industry. However, it seems like a very interesting project.

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I'd go with the second project. Perhaps there will be room for a more experimental & risky/high reward side project once you start getting results. That's something you can chat to your advisor about. 


Thank you for the advice. However, I have a feeling in the back of my head that I'd always think "what if". I already have a MS and already have done electronics and programming work in the past. I've always wanted to contribute somehow to building chemical/physical instrumentation, to not just be a user, but part of the people developing foundational technologies. But I'm not young now either, and have practical things to consider. It is really annoying. I also only have a few months to decide.

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Grad school is filled with a lot of What Ifs, risks and difficulties. And I think the strong guarantee of a decent job placement & desirable skills at the end of a PhD shouldn't be viewed lightly. 


The other things to consider are: do you get along with the PIs? Do you get along with the other group members? Is there long-term funding available in the group to guarantee that you won't be asked to leave halfway through? What is your stress capacity like - some people develop health problems under stress, or get too wound up and burn themselves out. Are you good at dealing with "difficult" people and conflict resolutions (in a high stress environment and-or in a smaller research group you'll probably need to be good at both)? 

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To me, it sounds like the first project could be more advantageous for you if you want to work in academia and if you succeed at the high risk project. The second project sounds like an almost-certain path to industry work! I'd go with the second project for sure if I wanted to work in industry later on. But I'm not sure what I would do if I was not certain about industry and/or wanted to work in academia. I've learned by experience that high risk projects can be really demoralizing and frustrating when they don't work out after putting a ton of effort in! In my first year, I took on two projects, one safer one and another high risk (and potentially high reward) project. I am now mainly working on the safer one as my main PhD work and although the high risk project didn't work out, I'm still glad I did it. However, I am also really glad that I had another project to go to once the high risk one did not work out. So normally, I would say that a high risk project might be a good side project in case it turns out (or to have a side project to fall back onto) but it sounds like this high risk project will be really time consuming! 

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Thank you for the help. I originally wanted to go into industry with a job that has me building and thinking, rather than just do characterization of materials using known equipment; I've done that for my MS and in internships. Its not exactly the most interesting work. If I go on the first project, several papers will be published on the instrumentation design itself before we measure any semiconductors at all.


In terms of funding, the new professor has money, but it is being spent on buying parts (some parts are extremely expensive, such as fiber lasers, optics, detectors, computers, etc) and an electrical engineering postdoc. No students will have RAs until a grant is received. The second professor just lost his DOE funding (as in 2 months ago) and while he's trying to get more money, students have to TA.


I have no idea if I get along with the PIs since I've only been here 3 weeks. The new professor has no information. The old professor is known to be nice, but hands on. He says he doesn't micromanage, but I don't know that works out. The new professor seems to have an easy going personality, but the requirements of the project means that she'd be putting the pressure on me. The theory behind semiconductor optics is hard for most students and other more senior students actually have less research experience than I do because I have a MS. It'll be me, the professor and the postdoc. The older professor is a hands-on guy who comes in on the weekends. Group members: haven't met the full groups yet, will be going to group meetings.


In terms of time to graduate: the first professor is an unknown, but he took 6 years to graduate. The second professor graduated his PHD in 4 years, and most of his students stay for 5-6 (closer to 6).


I haven't really been in a high stress research environment before. My MS advisor just let me do my thing, and as long as I had results by deadlines, it was OK. That meant that whether I decided "I'm tired and I'm gonna watch TV all day" or "Oh damn its deadline time gotta stay till midnight" was up to me. No micromanagement necessary. I can deal with difficult ppl, but I don't prefer to. I'd like to be friends with the ppl in my group. I had a really good relationship with my MS advisor and the ppl in my group, and I hope in my PHD, I can keep it the same.

Edited by SymmetryOfImperfection
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