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Completely changing PhD focus - dilemma


User: jdt1831 - 28 February 2021 14:07

I'm looking for some advice on how to broach this with my university, or even if it is worth doing so.

I did my MA dissertation on an area of research that is very personal to me involving a specific school admissions process. I did really well on the dissertation and I've been consulting with other parents to try to help them navigate the same area. In doing so, I've been looking back at my own writings and experiences of what my older child (who did not get the provisions that I've now managed to secure for my younger child) went through and my own feelings on what happened. I'm feeling really strongly that I should attempt an autoethnography for my thesis exploring the ins and outs of our experiences.

However, I started my PhD 5 months ago today and it's on a different topic, still involving education but a totally different focus. I enjoy the topic but I don't feel as passionately about it, and so far I've done very little on it due to extra research training modules. My current supervisors are fantastic but I can't see them being able to supervise what I have in mind - one may be able to, but the other is a specialist in their field and definitely would have no interest in what I'm thinking of.

I don't know how or even if I should approach this. Part of me thinks I should just carry on with the project I've started and pursue this later on in my career, but the other part feels like this could be something really interesting and I need to be really passionate about what I'm doing. I'm afraid that if I mention it to my supervisors and nothing comes of it, they'll treat me less seriously because they'll think my heart isn't in it. On the other hand, a scan of the faculty tells me there are a couple of other members of staff who could potentially supervise me.

Does anybody have any advice? Thank you.

User: fakename - 01 March 2021 15:27

I think it's fortunate to have a passion for your project, and if you feel like someone else might be a better supervisor, it's likely is a good idea. Because you don't want to keep questioning your passion for your project 2 years down the road, that might already be too late to turn back. What I learn the hardest way during a PhD is to be brave, make a decision and stick to it for better or worse; it can only make you respect yourself more if it turns out well, and you only have yourself to blame if it doesn't, but you won't be hateful towards your PhD experience. So definitely really look into the project you're passionate about, don't ignore it and go with the safe way instead. You definitely have more choices in your PhD topic, especially if you're self-driven to get things done even without the support of anyone in your committee. Hope that helps.

User: rewt - 02 March 2021 21:52

Hi jdt1831,

Are you in the UK or USA? As the situation could vary significantly between countries.

To be honest, my concern would be have you planned out the focus? It is easy to find a new passion project but the real question is the project significant enough for a PhD or achievable? The worst thing that could happen is that you could explore this new project focus, love it but find there isn't for a full thesis. Before you make any major decisions, write a detailed plan with a sound understanding of the current literature, your research gap, set reasonable goals and be honest with yourself and highlight any potential issues you might see. Not only will it reassure you about whatever you choose but it will make it easier talking with your supervisor or approaching a new one.

User: glimmerbat - 06 March 2021 09:13

One of my PhD supervisors was the kind of person that everyone goes to with their ideas. She tends to encourage everyone to see their PhDs as loose collections of 2-3 projects that are vaguely united under a common theme (which can be very diffuse indeed). Her approach is very different to most other people in my department: everyone else had a traditional, big-continuous-topic approach to supervising a thesis. Yet almost all of her students have stayed in academia, mostly because they have learned the resilience to pick an idea, write a paper about it, and move on. She also encourages them to do things that are genuinely interesting or useful, e.g. her students' projects tend to be in hot topics or applied areas that won't be relevant in 3 years' time. I mean she's very connected to industry and very aware of policy changes, funding priorities, that sort of thing. So she has a tendency to encourage people to do things that are immediate and useful.

The downside is that people don't get invested in their work, don't develop the identity that says, "I am x, world expert on this one subject." Their theses can get pretty random and I've seen some creative introductions aimed at tying together projects that are clearly unrelated.

I guess what I'm suggesting is whether you could treat your autoethnography as a separate project within your main thesis, aim to do it quite quickly and perhaps publish a paper on it, and then sell it to your supervisors as an idea that is beneficial to others (because you're supporting parents) and / or time-critical (because some reason why it needs to be done right now), and / or that you know the idea will work (because it's a continuation of your MA work). Think about how it might help your main project (new methods? Industry contacts?) and be prepared to raise this with your supervisors. If they're weird about it, you could ask if you could focus on it for 1-2 days a week (if you're full time) alongside your other research. I did this with a stalled project and whilst my offered time commitment was a total lie (I said I'd work 1 day a week on Passion Project, when I probably ended up doing maybe 1 day a week on Main Project), the truth is that I was only doing about two hours a week on Main Project beforehand because I was struggling so much. Getting confidence, finding direction: these things are important.

Agree with others about perhaps not changing the entire focus of your thesis if you aren't sure there's enough thesis-level material there for a whole new direction.





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