Changing focus halfway through PhD?


I have 16 months until my funding runs out. I am expected to submit my thesis at that point since my University does not allow for an unfunded "writing up" year. I have struggled in the last 18 months to keep motivated -- I like my department, research team and supervisors but I struggle to see the relevancy of my work.

In the past two months I have found a stream which interests me a lot more than my main one. It could be a side chapter to my thesis, but when I think about it, this "side topic" is what interests me the most. I have two options: one is to keep working the way I am now, keenly interested in a small part and frustrated with the main output. The second option is to change focus and make my interest the main subject, which means that my other two chapters will be about something very different to what they are now.

I've scheduled a meeting with my supervisor but I'm not sure what to say. He isn't going to like the second option. I know it would be better to present a well-thought-out idea but in a few days I will start my last field season. My PhD is part of a large grant but I am not funded directly by a research council.

Part of me thinks it's a little late for a major topic change. Does anyone have any experience with this? How did you approach it with your supervisors and / or research group? Did you find that, at this stage, it's best to just knuckle down with a less-than-interesting project, or change your work to something that interests you the most?


Hi Cornflower, I haven't got any experience with this directly but will try to say something useful...

When I first started my PhD just over a year ago my supervisors and I had to cut quite a lot out from my original proposal just because there was too much and I wouldn't have been able to get it all done in three years. My supervisors always said to me, and still do, that my research career won't end with my PhD; there will be work to do afterwards and a PhD should also lead on to future work. So you could present this new idea and reading to your supervisor with that in mind, try to make it as appealing to him as possible by giving him a good rationale as to why you're so interested in it and he should be interested as well. That way, you should be able to include it as a side-chapter, but with potential. You would probably speak well about it in the viva if you're really interested in it, so ensure that your examiners are aware of this direction that the thesis has gone in, if possible.

I think that if you were self-funded and really wanted to change the direction of your thesis then you would have a little more freedom to do so, but I believe that keeping your funding body happy is more important in the grand scheme of things; get your PhD out of the way (trying to enjoy it at the same time :-)), then you can pursue the research that you find more interesting.

I hope that makes sense and is helpful, in some way. Good luck with your supervision.



My supervisor said something very similar. He said that I was free to pursue any avenue of research I wanted, but that I should make sure I finished analysing the data I had already collected first. He said that my proposal sounded interesting but it was more like 2 or 3 PhDs, rather than something that could be achieved in 16 months. He thought that I could do some preliminary work for it once I've done what I needed to, but aim for it as a post-doc. The really nice thing that he said was that if I invested some time now into really looking at the possibility of that work, he thought that would be a good use of my time -- as long as I get my main experiments finished and written up. He does have a point, since I already have year-old data sitting on my hard drive.

I'm happy with that outcome. This morning I think I thought that if I didn't change focus entirely, I would lose the ability to follow the research stream that interests me. Now I think that perhaps doing the ground work and trying to get a post-doc is much better, and would give me more of a chance to focus a project specifically related to those interests. I feel like I can take the lead on my own research and ultimately follow my interests, without actually endangering my PhD qualification by abandoning a solid project for the sake of ideas which haven't had enough time to germinate yet.