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Changing Thesis Projects: Death Sentence or New Life?
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Changing Thesis Projects: Death Sentence or New Life?

Dear Dora: Changing thesis projectsDear Dora,

When is it too late to consider changing thesis projects?

– Casey, Graduate student

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Dear Casey,

This is one of the most common questions in graduate school, and the answer depends on how changing thesis projects will affect your projected graduation date. The first step is to assess what you have accomplished so far, and what the outlook for your current project is. In general, students rarely change projects mid-way unless they discover it is a dead-end, or they have a very strong reason to switch groups. I will describe the true stories of two students to answer your question better (the names are fictional).

Ann and Mary were both in their fourths years when they wanted to switch projects. Ann was working with a specific compound and investigated how her cells reacted to it. She got reproducible data, but one day she opened a new batch of the chemical, and her cells had exactly the opposite reaction as previously. She had invested two years into this project, and now it seemed like a dead-end.

Mary’s thesis involved imaging cells with a new technology. She did not get along well with her supervisor, but worked diligently nonetheless. She went through a rough time in her fourth year and could not work as hard. Her supervisor began putting her down and calling her lazy and their relationship was suddenly unbearable.

As fourth year students, they both had to assess carefully whether it was worth starting a new project from scratch. Ann and her PI worked out a new project so she could salvage part of her previous work, and graduate in 2-3 years. But Ann was still bothered by her results. After careful investigation, she discovered that her undergraduate assistant had mixed up her bottles while dissolving the new batch of chemical. She tried the experiment again, and this time, her results were consistent with the previous 2 years of data. While this situation caused some embarrassment with her PI, she was able to put her previous project back together and graduate on time.

Mary realized that her project was truly dead-end, and her PI was so unsupportive that it would have been impossible to build up another project with her. She considered dropping out, but she also approached a well- respected professor, and asked whether she could join his group. Fortunately he agreed, and she had a very productive and fun research project for the next 4 years. Although it took her a total of 8 years to graduate, she thought that switching groups was the best decision she ever made.

In summary, if you have invested a lot of time into a project, it is worth examining very carefully what you will gain by switching, and whether you can use any of your previous data. Of course, your funding situation will also influence how many more years you can afford in graduate school, so be sure to take that into consideration as well.

Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to DearDora@benchfly.com and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!

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Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks!  In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:

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Submit your questions to Dora at DearDora@benchfly.com, or use the comment box below!

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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. whizkid

    wrote on June 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    i knew a guy in grad school who started an entirely new project in his fifth year. it took him another three to get out and he ended up getting a paper that was no better than what he could have gotten from his first project. i'd call that a waste of three (maybe eight) years.

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