Ask TSW: Can I do a project that’s outside the scope of my home department?

Dear TSW,

I have finished up my first year in my PhD program in public health. I like my classmates a lot, the classes are fun, and I am making the big leap of doing more research, but there are days when I question my decision to attend this program. My problem is that the people in my department seem very anti-health. In recent faculty and chair searches, I’ve discovered that global health isn’t a priority here. I think I can deal with this if I take the initiative. Sometimes I think I should have gone to a school with a bigger curriculum in what I want, but that school didn’t fund me nearly as well as this one.

What advice would you offer to someone who is pursuing a curriculum outside her home department and wants part of her dissertation, say 50%, to be done on a topic that’s outside of her department?  And let’s say the professor in global health can’t fund me, but I still very much want to pursue this?  What advice would you offer in terms of applying for a funding, or looking into grants on campus?

Also, the professor in global health wants me to help him develop a course for undergraduates. However, he knows it’s unreasonable to ask me to help him if he can’t fund me.  I would think developing a course isn’t exactly research, but if a student is considering joining faculty one day, I’d suspect this is something to put on a CV because it’s part of the PhD learning process.  So if I apply for some type of grant, is this something you’d put on an application or would it not be relevant?


MCH Student


Wow, this sounds complicated.  I don’t feel like I have enough information to fully comment, so I’ll ask some further questions and give you what I think about as an advisor.

Do you have a primary advisor in your home department?  If so, presumably that person accepted you into his/her lab because they liked your research goals.  Is this person still supportive of your goals?  If you don’t have an advisor yet, is there anyone in your home department that would be supportive of outside collaborations?  As an advisor, I want my students to take appropriate classes that will prepare them for their research (whether within or outside of the department), and I want them to do research they are excited about and that is publishable.  So I don’t see that it’s an issue to work with the global health advisor (you would presumably have to form a committee anyways, and it’s reasonable to work with members of your committee), and perhaps there is a way you can bring your main advisor into the conversations so they would both be co-authors on your papers.  But, I come from a PhD program that was already fairly decentralized with minimal requirements and where collaborations were valued, and I recognize that different programs have different traditions.

Perhaps the larger question is whether you should stay in your current program!  It seems problematic to be doing research on public health in a department that is anti-health.  Are you going to find advisors who will be advocates for you down the line?  Do the faculty in the department have the networks and collaborations formed that will help you find jobs when you finish?  I think this is perhaps the bigger issue to think about carefully.
As for teaching a class, developing a new class is a lot to take on as a PhD student.  Whether you do so depends on your post-PhD goals.  If you want to end up at a teaching-focused institution, this could be a good opportunity.  If not, then it’s not a good opportunity.  Regardless, I wouldn’t take it on right now.  I would wait to see if you can get your research situation settled, then pursue the teaching.  And I would also be wary of doing anything like that (it’s a huge amount of work) without at least some funding- can they pay you as a lecturer?
(and FYI, my perspective is that of an assistant professor at a research-focused institution, where teaching was mentioned in the job ad, but in reality not part of the assessment of me as a candidate for a faculty job.  I had 0 previous teaching experience, just a little bit of TA experience).


I think pursuing dissertation research outside of one advisor’s focus in the sciences can be very difficult. Academics are unfortunately often not that great at advising students who want to work in a subspecialty separate from the advisor’s expertise. Applying for a doctoral fellowship can help but your advisor will likely become very hands off if the dissertation is majority outside his/her interest. I would say the key to the pursuing your interest is finding another advisor/mentor/advocate who is a really willing to go to bat for you, and meeting often with the committee members to keep them apprised of what is happening in your research, and to ask for their advice. Don’t let them off the hook just because most of the projects are outside your home department! But, I also suggest that you look for an exit strategy from this program and look into programs where your research interests would be more supported by faculty.
About teaching the course, my viewpoint is that you should not. You should only entertain it if you’re getting paid like an adjunct would. It’s true that teaching experience can be very helpful and some job searches, but it won’t matter when looking for most postdocs or for jobs at R1s, where the assumption is that a good researcher is a good teacher (although we all know that’s not necessarily true).


First and foremost, you need to make sure that you’re doing a project where you have the support of your advisor. Trying to shoe-horn something at this stage will make the entire process of your dissertation harder, and it could jeopardize your relationship with your professors (which can jeopardize your funding!). You’ll want to do something where you have the support you need to succeed. I’d either a) try to scale back and do something that’s tractable but has applications later to global health, and then apply for global health internships or postdoc experiences, or b) move to more of a 25/75 global/national project, where perhaps one of your chapters is global. To do this, consider if you can have an outside member of your search committee from another university (this is pretty common in many universities). Or, think of a way to integrate your interests, like perhaps health issues related to migrant workers or immigrants. If you really, really can’t make it work with the support of your advisor/program, do consider transferring. It’s not unheard of for folks to go to different programs. Funding is great, but your mentors provide so much more than just advice about your project. You’re really at a disadvantage if you don’t have a strong relationship with them.

If you DO have the support of your advisor, then do what you can to build a committee of supportive folks that can give you the expertise you need. Consider taking classes at another institution and being a visiting student for a semester. Make sure you’re taking courses across departments that are relevant to your research. Think about internship opportunities and be proactive about attending conferences in your chosen field (and applying for funding from the relevant societies). Good luck!


5 thoughts on “Ask TSW: Can I do a project that’s outside the scope of my home department?

  1. Agree with Acclimatrix. If I were you, I’d read her post twice.

    Everyone I know gets the “mid PhD blues” for a year or so when the project just seems impossible and all your initial ideas have either been done or are not working, and you don’t yet “own” your own part of the research – at least not in your own head. This phase is made much, much harder without supportive advisers. So, if you can do part of your work outside with your own adviser’s support and encouragement and enthusiasm, it will be a great opportunity and may help keep up your enthusiasm when other things go awry. If, however, you are pushing against the tide of your own Dept, then probably this outside work will make life harder for you at some vulnerable time in the future.

    Regards the teaching program. Yes, very exciting. But NO, probably not a good idea at this time unless you are paid for it, in which case you should expect your PhD will take a little longer than you expected (even consider taking a semester leave from your program to do it properly, if this is possible in your institution). As mentioned above, it takes an inordinate amount of time to prepare a new teaching program. Unfortunately, as also mentioned above, teaching is so very important BUT does not often “count” when committees assess your “worth” further down the track.

    All the best with your decisions.

  2. I have a joint doctorate in Public Health and a second, clinical area, completed 10 years ago.
    I did my thesis mostly with the PH folks (who were pretty clueless about health as few of them had any clinical experience) but who were great on methods and publishing and had lots of data that I could develop in my direction. I was able to attract outside funding in the form of small grants to study a specific clinical problem, and also have clinical experience in that area.

    Getting the joint major set up was sometimes a bit awkward but once I got it done, I became an expert in two fields and had much better funding and collaboration opportunities than most of my colleagues at PH. Not sure what your institution is like but our department of PH was a bit amoeba like and they encouraged collaboration as long as it brought in publications or money. Now I am a tenure-track assistant professor in both fields and the PH people are acting like this was their idea all along,,,

    Teaching: no. It will sidetrack you and you should be paid to do it. Even if they paid you, it is a slippery slope as developing a course is an enormous effort and will set you back. At least in my institution, only research really counts towards promotions. The other things that count at our institution are papers or posters in conferences and quest talks in other institutions.

    Ironically I have a student in a slightly similar situation. She is at a PH department where most of the research isn’t in the areas that attract her. She is considering a summer practicum with some International Health people, perhaps in London or in an developing country. We are not yet sure how to pull this off, but getting some more independent grants might do it or if she can work for someone we know from international health.

    Acclimatrix gave you a really good answer, reread it, and good luck!

  3. Good luck to you, and I hope you find a decision that works for you in this situation. I am not really far enough along to give good perspective on which avenue to choose, but I have what might be an alternative idea for you on funding. You may want to check with your institutional outreach office. When I was in graduate school I was funded for a while through a GK-12 fellowship in which I participated in some curriculum development at the high school level. I understand this is different than working on undergraduate curriculum development, but since public health is clearly applicable to the general public, and NSF and other such agencies have program dedicated to public outreach, there may be something in there that you could identify and help you create a win:win opportunity. Good luck!

  4. These things are all very department/field specific, and you’ve got to gauge the politics really well. DrB sounds to me like the only one with any relevant experience. My advice would be to try to locate sympathetic (faculty) ears within your dept., if possible, to ask them what they think of your plans. And in general, no on the teaching/course prep — this is not what you should be focusing on right now and that prof who’s proposing it to you should know better.

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