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Programs Should I go against my PhD supervisor and do what I want?

  1. Nov 2, 2012 #1
    I am just starting my phd. I am self funded so I chose my supervisor. He's working on a related area to what I want but not quite the same. I am trying to decide my phd direction right now. I want to work on something very new, very fundamental, probably unrealistic for a phd. But I want to try. He has a good project planned that I could take on straight away. It would probably yield good results and papers. he's very pragmatic.

    But. It is not what I want to do. Its not bad but I am not passionate about it.
    He says the better you publish etc the more freedom you will get.
    Yes, my aim is freedom. But I could have freedom right now. why wait. sure, I might jeopardise my future chance of freedom, but who knows what will happen in the future. I am thinking about now.

    So Should I go my way and take a risk and possibly piss my supervisor off? or do I go with him and compromise my feelings.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 2, 2012 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    So clearly you did not choose this supervisor for things like experience and guidance then? Either you trust their judgement or you do not: bite the bullet!

    Whatever you do, your supervisor has to be prepared to supervise it so the decision needs to be made in discussion with that person and not on an online forum. remember - there is always post-doc ... how about suggesting to your super that your project may make a good post-doc thesis?

    Another option that sometimes happens is that you plan your research so that you get to do the one you want to start with and then revisit the decision later; after 6mo or a year or after some benchmark like a lit review or a proof-of-concept test has been done. If it does not work out or looks to be unsuitable then you can fall back on some related study - maybe something that appeared during the research to date or right back to what the super said you should do in the first place... only you will be doing it with the experience of having already attempted a project.

    Be aware that it is very common that whatever a student starts out researching does not turn out to be what you write your thesis on.
  4. Nov 2, 2012 #3
    I remember from an older thread that you chose your supervisor mainly because you were in love with him?? Well yeah, you can't say we haven't warned you.
  5. Nov 3, 2012 #4
  6. Nov 3, 2012 #5
    this is a different guy!! I chose him because he seemed to know what he is doing. I do think his project would be very productive and fulfill all the criteria for a PhD and I do trust his judgement. but... I just want the feeling of doing something that is all me - that I decided that I will take responsibility for, that I am excited about. but I do not know much about this area yet and I might fail. and if I don't go with his idea, when I do fail he might not want to support me.
  7. Nov 3, 2012 #6

    I like Serena

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    Doing the project requires work of both the supervisor and you.
    Any project you do will need to be okay with the both of you.
    I recommend you discuss with him what you would like to do and what he would like to supervise.
    If you are not both okay with it, you'll be in for a difficult and unsatisfactory ride.
  8. Nov 3, 2012 #7
    You could do both. Some people really do two projects during the PhD... one they are funded by, and one they are interested in. That's not exactly your situation, because you don't *need* funding, but it is a possible solution. It requires a lot of extra work, but if you are really passionate about your project, it might be ok.

    But WHY does your supervisor think your project is a bad idea? Does he know something that you don't want to consider? You're going to have a bad time if you realize 4 years from now that your idea is crap. If you 'just want the feeling of doing something that is all me', the PhD is not necessarily the time for that, because you may not be knowledgeable and experienced enough to judge what's a good project, and grad school is a good time to learn from those who can.
  9. Nov 3, 2012 #8


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    Also, remember that your supervisor has a lot more experience than you. There could a any number of reasons for why he think your idea for a project is not realistic: too complicated, not enough time etc.

    You need to keep in mind that the main goal of a PhD is to actually finish. A failed PhD where you run out of time etc would be very bad news not only for you, but for him as well; having a "failed" PhD student looks really bad (I have a collegue who still has a bad reputation due to a messy failure where someone left without a PhD, nearly ten years ago).

    Hence, supervisors tend to want to play it "safe" by giving students a project that is "easy" enough that you can be reasonbly sure that the student will able to write a passable thesis. However, at the same time the ideal outcome is the student does something really interesting and novel.

    The compromise is often that you divide the project into two: a "safe" part which is enough to write a thesis about, and then a more speculative bit which if it works will be great. Ideally you want to plan it so that the student learns all the "tools" during the safe bit.
    This is the approach I've used with my current student, he has just submitted a paper (his second) which contains the result of his "safe" project. During his final year he will now be working something I am not sure will give us any good results, but if it works...

    Finally, being a supervisor is a LOT of work; so this is not only about what you want. He will have to spend a lot of time on whatever you end up working on. At this stage you are NOT an independent researcher, you simply do not know enough yet.
  10. Nov 3, 2012 #9


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    Still, this is all moot. If the supervisor refuses to approve the research work, no matter how interesting, how important, or how useful it is, both the department and the school will NOT go along, no matter who is funding the work. Your supervisor is ultimately the one who signs off on your work. Unless you get an explicit OK from him to do what you wish to do, all the talk about "freedom" and doing what interest you, etc. is of no use.

  11. Nov 3, 2012 #10


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    I was in a similar situation during my PhD. My approach was... to do both projects, my own just for myself (without it actually being any part of my PhD whatsoever; so I also needed neither supervision nor approval for it). This actually worked out quite well, so I'd recommend you to have a try, too (for a while at least to see if it works).
    In the end, the project which was more much successful was the one I was doing together with my supervisor (i.e., the project I was actually hired for). But I did get lots of experience from both.

    If you attempt something like this, I would, however, strongly recommend to get some serious project management skills first. Doing that would have improved my results significantly.
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