I started a PhD less than two months ago and I absolutely hate my topic. I want to turn it into something I like but, quite honestly, I am not sure what I would like to focus on for the next couple of years. I keep reading in the hope that something will come to my head but every time I look at my bibliography I feel pure discomfort. Is this normal to feel so lost already? Is/did anyone else experience this?
Hi Hydra, I can sort of relate to this, but I also feel like the experience also strongly depends on the subject. It may be helpful for you to specify your general area of research.
I was in a STEM area where in most cases a very narrow topic is given by the supervisor. Even though technically we choose what topic we will focus on at our application, it is understood that the majority of us don't (and frankly don't have the true capability to) understand what we would like to focus on, but will pretty much stick to what we are given anyway.
Due to some administrative issue I never found out, I was assigned a supervisor and a topic that was different from what I applied for. The new topic also requires a skillset I did not have. For the first year or so, I was trying to learn the skillset and understand the topic, so I didn't feel either way about it. After my knowledge improved, I started to see the many flaws of how my topic was set up. It was also an awkward topic for presentation and never sparked much interest from the audience. Meanwhile, my original supervisor was no longer in the picture, and wasn't that helpful anyway. I decided to stay with the topic and stretch it to a different direction that is worth a PhD. It wasn't easy at all, and I was feeling lost pretty much throughout.
I would say some self-exploration is important:
- What exactly do you hate about the topic?
- What is this "pure discomfort" towards bibliography about?
- What is the dynamic between you, your project and your supervisor?
- How does the topics develop over the years for other PhDs in your area? For example look at the annual review report of PhDs in your school.
Two month is a very short time to develop such strong feeling. I think it is important to identify how much of it is about the topic, and how much is about the anxiety of adjusting to a PhD. In general, it would take a lot more than two months to develop enough understanding about the topic. However, it is also possible you already have some accurate concerns about the topic. Asking appropriate questions to your supervisor and older PhDs in your area usually helps speed up your understanding to the topic and clarify/confirm your concerns.
AMartian gave a very good answer and I agree with it.
My PhD proposal had a huge experimental flaw that became apparent very early in my PhD. It took a few months to convince my supervisor that a certain set of experiments wasn't possible and that we needed to significantly change the project. I started doing my own thing after that and my supervisor supported me, such that my PhD project is very different from my original proposal. Though I would say that the majority of PhD students change their proposal in some way due to issues. So don't feel obligated to follow your proposal to the letter because as you progress you have more information to make better decisions.
It's absolutely, completely normal in the first year (never mind few months) of a PhD to find the literature completely overwhelming; have no idea where to look; and be terrified you'll never get anywhere or that you actually care about the topic.
What in my experience separates successful from withdrawn (because true fails are rare) PhDs, is not that you breeze through this, but that you work on it in the face of what initially seems impossible. Importantly, don't just read the findings of papers, but read their method, and consider that, in many cases, that experiment would be a PhD.
The real goal, is that you hit year 2 with a good research question and method. Year 1 might have some reporting requirements, but these can basically be thrown in the bin later on; it's that you take a year to understand the what, how, and why of your proposed PhD. Think of it as an elongated, detailed proposal stage. If you nail that proposal you will sail through the rest of the PhD because you know exactly what you'll be doing.
The risk, really, is that you hit that brick wall and instead of banging your academic head against it, reading papers and taking notes, you give up. If you put the effort in, it will come; if you admit defeat and coast, the worst case scenario of a dragged-out PhD where you're still not sure what you're doing in year 3, take 6 years, and end up with a PhD that might pass but offers little job prospects, starts to rear it's ugly head.
It's super easy to say this with hindsight, but thinking back to myself back then I know the impossibility you feel of what's ahead. But it's not, and it's not a case of being smart, serendipitous inspiration, or anything other than the hard work of reading papers, taking notes, and reflecting.
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