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Feeling lost - can't work with desired advisor


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I began my PhD program this fall. Before accepting this offer, I corresponded with the only faculty member in my area of interest, who I'll refer to as Cool Prof. We met at the recruitment weekend and it seemed like we would work well together. When I asked, Cool Prof said they would be taking students and was very encouraging about my enrolling here, but there was no firm commitment to take me as a student. I was not the only incoming student interested in this area, and when I talked with Cool Prof this week, they informed me that they can only take one student, which will almost definitely not be me. There are other areas that intrigue me but that I am much less familiar with (so I am not positive I would actually enjoy working in those areas), but I do not yet know the professors who work in those areas or if they are taking students. I will meet with them, but in the mean time I am feeling very lost and disappointed, which is really affecting my motivation. I can't really expect academic advice from you all while being so vague, but I want to remain as anonymous as possible. So instead, I will ask for your help in dealing with the following things I'm struggling with: 

  1. Despite not wanting to be competitive with my cohort (and we have been getting along very well), I find I am resenting the student who will be working with Cool Prof. I like her personally and also really enjoy discussing this area with her, but I can't help but feel like her coming here "stole" my future in this area. She is aware that I wanted to work with Cool Prof but they are only taking on one student, and our interactions have been awkward since we found this out. I want to fix this.
  2. I know that there was no commitment, but I feel misled by Cool Prof. I had an offer from a school with more faculty in this area, but chose this one because it it is both a (significantly) more prestigious school and seemed to be a better personal fit. I am now regretting accepting this offer over the other school.
  3. I feel like I can't have any future in this area, because if I work with a faculty member in one of the other fields that intrigues me, I will not be able to also learn enough about this area to transition after grad school. There are no courses offered in this subject here.
  4. I don't know who to talk to for academic advice about the previous point. If I talk to Cool Prof, I'm worried it will come across as trying to make them feel guilty about not taking me - like "You were the only person who could have supervised this, and now my future is ruined because of you!!!". If I talk to the only other faculty member I really know so far, it will be awkward because they are interested in having me as a student, and it would be a conversation along the lines of "Well, your field is not really what I'm interested in - how can I learn as much as possible about this other area instead?". I feel that the student chosen to work with Cool Prof might have some advice, but as in point 1., things are awkward right now, and the same issue as talking with Cool Prof arises.
Edited by GlumGrad
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Sounds like CP played you a bit. This, well, it happens a lot in academia. It happens a lot everywhere. Take it as a lesson and learn to play the game.


1) This isn't going to be the last time your colleague gets a thing that you want. First, get over it. Then, confront the awkwardness head on, e.g. "Hey, things have felt a bit awkward ever since you got [job] that we were both trying for, and I just want to let you know that I'm really excited for you!" followed by grabbing a beer and talking about literally anything else. Seriously, don't bring it up ever again, even to a third party.

2) You were misled. You're still in a great program. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get on with it.

3 & 4) Look, people talk a lot about how a PhD really narrows your focus, but if we're perfectly honest, that only really applies to the three years you're writing your diss. Professors' interests grow and adapt, and they teach themselves new things all the time. You're at a good school; take a look at the CVs of the professors around you. You'll find that many of them have strayed over time. Cultivate your mental flexibility.

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This is the nature of academia. There will always be a scarcity of resources and thus competition for them. But there can be healthy competition and unhealthy ones. I don't think this in itself is a sign of a unhealthy environment unless the department is actively encouraging direct competition between students or if you feel that the students are competitive with each other. 

Responding to your points (and building on what telkanuru said):

1. I know it's easy to resent the other student, but it's very likely that the other student was told the exact same things by CoolProf. How would you feel if the roles were switched and this other student resented you for no reason? I second telkanuru's advice here, especially the never bring up the topic again.

2. I don't know all of the details (and you don't have to provide them) but I don't really think anything unethical or fishy happened. There was no commitment from either party to you joining the group/lab. But you don't know for sure that the other programs would have been as good for you. In fact, I would say that self-doubt and uncertainty that you picked the "right program" is a very common feeling in the first semester of grad school

You are now in a prestigious programs with a ton of other opportunities that a ton of other people would really want. You didn't get your first choice advisor? Oh well. There are so many other great things you can do there!

3. I feel that you are being too rigid and inflexible here. It sounds like you are still trying to plan a way to get back into your original area of interest after grad school? This would be treating your grad school time as a "detour" or "side project". But honestly, this is now your new career path. Graduate school is where your research career really begins. I know that a ton of new grad students often feel like they must continue whatever interests they had before grad school or whatever work they did before grad school. But in many cases, this is because they are familiar with that first (few) thing(s) they did and/or it's the only thing they know really well. Try new things within the field and be more open minded about what could interest you. It might help to think about what aspects about the work with Cool Prof that interested/excited you and then find new advisors/work that can meet those interests.

4. For now, move on from Cool Prof's area. Instead of thinking about what could have been or might have been, focus on the present and the future. Now that you are here, in this great school, with great faculty members, what else interests you? Maybe there are certain things happening here that can't happen elsewhere? Take advantage of this opportunity. In my field, after 2-3 years as a PhD student, it's a good idea to start taking on side projects and establish yourself in more than one area (well, you would be "established" in your dissertation's area of research but then near the end you should be trying to get your feet wet in other areas too). If this applies to your field too, then maybe you can do something with Cool Prof as a side project or a mini project in 2-3 years. Even if you can't do direct work with Cool Prof in the future, it would certainly be the right time to start talking to Cool Prof and Cool Prof's group about their work and get the advice you're seeking.


Overall, academic careers are not meant to be single-tracked. You don't just pick an area of specialization and then stick with it forever, unless you are supremely talented and supremely lucky. Academics must be flexible. Even if you were to work with Cool Prof, what happens if you can't win grants to pay for your work with Cool Prof? Or if you do have funding from Cool Prof (or elsewhere), what if you don't win postdoc fellowships that allow you to work on what you want? You might be working as a postdoc for a department or supervisor that wants you to be doing something different. If you are not able to diversify and develop flexibility in what you do, you are closing off opportunities for yourself later on, which means you are decreasing the already low chances of a career in academia. 

Beyond these considerations, there are others too---what if you really want to work in Area X but all the profs in Area X are jerks (or you might not just get along with their work styles)? At the grad school level, it's far more sensible and possible for you to change your research interests than it is to try to change your professors. As telkanuru pointed out, most academics do not have single-track careers, but instead, they/we evolve our work and interests based on the changing state of the field, the changing funding environment and the opportunities that are offered. 

This won't be the last time that you are not able to work on exactly what you want due to something outside of your control. There will be rejected grants, rejected job applications, rejected research proposals etc. in our futures. When one path does not work, we will try another.

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You've gotten lots of great advice, and it's a bad situation to be in. 

Sadly, this is quite common- it's why I tend to recommend that people not go to an institution that only has one PI interested in the research they want to do. So many factors (competition for spots, lack of funding, personality clashes, illness) can make relying on a single person for 6+ years a really tricky thing to do.

I also agree with TakeruK that you're probably being overly inflexible in thinking about your area of research interest. Research careers (in my field, but generally as well) are based around taking your entire research background, and using it to create your own niche. Going to work for someone who does exactly what you've always wanted to do can seem cool, until you start applying for faculty jobs and have to move away from that area so you can show that you're distancing yourself from your advisor as an independent researcher. 

It can be really difficult, but you need to think where you want to be (as a researcher) in, say, 10 years. Then think what combination of skills and background you will need to be successful in that area. Then, you pick graduate advisors (and projects) as well as post-doctoral work that support different skills or background to make your own unique approach to where you want to be.

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Okay, so I was not in your situation, OP, but I was one of the few that got to be the advisee of my department's version of Cool Prof. No one resented me for it or, if they did, they never brought it up around me. I'm friends with people who had CP on their committee and probably could/should have been their advisee given topical overlap. But, you know what? It doesn't matter now because all of us have careers in great places, got the funding we needed to do our dissertations, etc. Plus, as everyone else has said, it's not like you're trapped into your dissertation research for the rest of your academic career. Most of the research I'm doing now has nothing to do with my dissertation and I'm absolutely loving it. You'll be fine, provided you get out of your own way and don't offend the person who is getting CP as their advisor. Chin up! Now, start looking at other professors and move on.

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