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I am starting to find my thesis problem not meaningful nor interesting and too technical. As I learn more mathematics I am finding myself attracted to other topics and only started on my intital problem with my advisor because I could understand it at first.

My problem is a very "good" one, fulfuling many criteria mentioned by mathematicians:

  • It is pitched at exactly the right difficult.
  • It involves learning a big machine
  • It solution leads to further work and questions.

Should I:

  1. Find a new problem? (I'm sure I can't think of such a "good" problem as the one given to me by my advisor.)
  2. Stick with the same problem and only do new problems after graduation?
  3. Anything else?
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3  
Of course, it's never late to change. Working on a problem which is of no interest to you is waste of time. –  Wadim Zudilin May 15 '10 at 15:06
13  
Do you have a history of losing interest in things when you come to an understanding of them? That would be my first concern with your question as it would indicate a larger problem. I switched dissertation topics $n$ times for $n\geq 4$. I seem to keep on coming back to those problems -- I didn't lose interest in them, either other people solved them or I didn't know what to do. Switching topics isn't a horrible thing since you get to learn a variety of topics in the process, provided you have the time and suitable topics to work on. –  Ryan Budney May 15 '10 at 15:11
35  
As a rule, I don't see any harm in changing a problem if it doesn't "fit", but you really need to have this discussion with your advisor. –  Donu Arapura May 15 '10 at 15:11
4  
Something else to ask yourself, since you said the solution "leads to further work and questions", do you think any of these are more interesting? –  Karl Schwede May 15 '10 at 16:20
4  
How far along are you? The answer to your question may depend a lot on this information. –  Felipe Voloch May 16 '10 at 3:45

5 Answers 5

I would suggest to talk to your advisor. Just tell him exactly what your are telling us:

you think that your thesis problem is not meaningful nor interesting and too technical.

If he displays as an answer some kind of rude behavior, then I think that it's better to change from subject (and from advisor). But my feeling is that you can have a constructive discussion with him. He must first understand what you don't like in your subject. Then he may propose a less technical question or a different angle of attack on the problem. He may explain the relevance of some technics that may appear boring at first sight, but that you will find both enjoyable and powerful as soon as you master it. Just as many mathematical courses don't reveal all their depth in the first sessions, there may be many wonders that await you in the next years of your phd. But some tedious work may be in order before reaching that point.

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Yes, I agree with that answer. –  André Henriques May 18 '10 at 19:03

Sure, work on something else. In fact, work on something else as well even if you love your thesis problem.

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My piece of advice is not only for mathematics: it's valid for everything in life. If you ever dream of doing something else than what you're currently doing, go try it out! It will enrich you.

And if it doesn't work out, then you can always go back to what you were doing previously (the latter is not always true, but most of the time it is).

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I say stick with the problem and learn to love it. Since mathematics is so interconnected I'm sure you'll find your way.

It would help to learn about the history and context of the problem. Why did people invent this big machine? How does it relate to cool things in math that you do like?

Suppose you would change topic, how would this be different? You can always say something is too technical and not of interest. It's far better to take your topic and find a piece that does seem interesting and is not too technical (when looked from the right angle).

[EDIT: Douglas S. Stones]: Doing a Ph.D. requires hard work over a long period of time. The typical candidate needs to meet fairly high expectations, without understanding what these expectations are (e.g. what makes a thesis well-written?). It's very easy to become demoralised (as I became at some points during my candidature). It's not going to be possible to complete a Ph.D. without determination. So I also recommend the stick-with-it approach (although I do not know the particulars of your situation).

Furthermore, there's nothing stopping a Ph.D. candidate from studying other topics alongside their thesis topic (in fact, I think this should be encouraged to some degree).

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My advice: find someone who knows you in person, and knows more about your situation to talk to about this. The best would be if you felt comfortable discussing it with your advisor, but another professor you know, or some sort of graduate subchair, or even an older graduate student would also be good. You just aren't going to get anything but the most vague advice that's not very well-suited to your situation from strangers on the internet.

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