Switching PhD. Should I stay or should I go?


I March 2020, I started my PhD in Law in Australia.
I am one of the few students who was able to enter Australia before they locked up the country and threw the key into the sea. That measure have caused a great impact on Australian universities. The lack of revenues for international students have created deep disruption, many academic staff have been fired or some have decided to early retire in order to help in the financial recovery of their institutions. One of those unselfish souls is my main supervisor.
Despite corona, virtual life, and all of that, I was doing really well in my first year with the support of my fantastic supervisors. Suddenly, my main supervisor has decided to take a voluntary redundancy and there is not another suitable mentor for my project in the same Faculty. In view of that, my University has decided that, to continue with my research project, I must change from my PhD in Law to the PhD programme in Arts, Design and Architecture where my second supervisor (soon to be main) is affiliated.
Despite having an interdisciplinary project between law and arts, that change makes no sense for me, not only from an epistemological perspective but also in terms of my future academic career. It seems like a very odd match given my background and plans.
I have a Bachelor in Philosophy, a Master in Human Rights and many years of experience working in the field of human rights and transitional justice. If I were looking for posdoctoral positions in the general field of human rights, or even job offers in think tanks or international organisations in the area, candidates are expected to hold a PhD in Law, Political Science, International Relations or other related fields. It is hard to see Art, Design and Architecture as a related field there. Even more, scholar profiles commonly start with the phrase "she holds a PhD in 'something' ", that 'something' describes not the title of a PhD dissertation but a particular academic field and a set of distinctive methodological tools that scholar is supposed to master.
Please, do not misinterpret me, a PhD in Art, Design and Architecture is exactly as valuable as a PhD in Law, but they reflect very different fields of expertise and that is precisely my main point.
Moving to a PhD in Art, Design and Architecture will not improve my chances of getting the kind of job I want, neither it would provide me with a different theoretical or methodological background so, what is the point of investing so much time an effort (from me and my family--I have not seen my daughter in a year--) in doing something that will not help me as much in my future plans?
Maybe my fears are baseless, or I am being naive. As a person in my university said, the important thing is to have a PhD degree no matter what the PhD is "in", is it? I am still not convinced. I am seriously considering applying for a PhD in a more fitting area somewhere else.
Should I stay or should I go?
What do you think?

Avatar for rewt

Hi Fridamore,

I can understand your frustration somewhat. I did my undergrad and masters in Chemical Engineering, my PhD topic is effectively Chemical engineering but I am in the Mechanical Engineering department. My main supervisor has a PhD in product design despite researching bioenergy and my second supervisor did a PhD in Chemical Engineering but is a now a reader in healthcare science. So your PhD department doesn't affect your academic career if you are good enough.

I don't want to be rude but do you want to define yourself on your department or your own research? Because if your research is good you can always say that "you have a PhD on topic X", and avoid having to say what department you are from, that is my plan at least. I have also changed my title so that it is both vague and sounds like a chemical engineering project. Also despite not being in a Chemical Engineering department it hasn't stopped me using a lot of the transferrable skills and doing a near pure Chemical Engineering project. So even if you are in the Arts department you can still do a Law PhD in all but name, gain the same skills as a Law PhD student and carry on as normal. The only question then is; is your department more important to you than your PhD topic.

Although saying all that, if you don't feel comfortable, don't force yourself to continue. A PhD is hard, there is no lying about that and trying to do a PhD with minimal motivation will be even more difficult. You can potentially still apply for a new PhD and saying your main supervisor left is a very valid reason for dropping out.

PS: Have you asked your new supervisor if you can do teaching support in the Law department? Some unis let you do that for cross-disciplinary students.


Thank you very much for your comments, your certainly have given me some points to consider. In any case I think that changing programmes within similar areas, like from one engineering department to another, could be more smooth that changing between less related areas because of the shared epistemological foundations. I am changing from law to arts, I mean creative arts, not liberal arts or any other humanities.
But leaving aside my epistemological concerns, I just learnt that I cannot do any of the three internships offered in the human rights (my area) in my university because they are only available to law students, the same happen for teaching opportunities, very restricted between cross faculties... This is not going well.

Avatar for rewt

If you are already losing internships because you aren't doing a law PhD, it is probably an indication of what is to come. I would talk with your supervisor and start looking for other PhDs. I would assume that other universities/academics would understand that you want/need a law degree.