I am a fourth year graduate student at a tier 1 research university in the US. I had lot of hiccups in getting started with my research. Our program is rotation bases where you rotate with your potential PIs for a semester (or more). I decided to rotate with Prof. A and continued it for another semester. However, in the summer of the year I was transitioning into my second year, I went to Prof. B to do my last rotation. Prof. B had a more concrete project that I worked on and I was super productive under him so I decided to join Prof. B's lab permanently. However, Prof. A was not happy about this since I had done two rotations with him.

In my third semester Prof. B decided to leave academia and moved to industry. I was given an option of quitting with a Masters or joining another PI. I chose to find a new PI. My research focus was in a particular area that only Prof. A and Prof. B studied. Our department is anyway too small with only 6 faculty who work on completely different areas. So, after being without a PI for almost a semester I decided to approach Prof. A to see if I could join his lab. He was not convinced initially. I had to provide detailed account of things I had worked on with Prof. B. In one of such early meetings, he told me "I don't have to do this. sufficient number of students have graduated from my lab and I have a tenure now.". But eventually, he decided to let me in his lab. Since we both didn't have a concrete project in mind, he suggested I write a review article on the project I had previously been working on. That did not go well. I wasted a semester studying that area in depth, but went in a tangential direction and couldn't finish the review. However, a new project came up through a collaborator and I was assigned to finish it. However, there were very limited questions that could be answered and my progress left him dissatisfied. I was told I could do 'cool things' with the data, without ever being told what these 'cool' things could be given the limited nature of data. In this process, I got another project to work on which I saw as being my main contribution to my field. However my PI has always found my methods to be 'too complicated'.

In this entire process, my realtions with my PI has always been deteriorating. I have been told "I am smarter than you", "I am not interested in your sloppy work", "Don't waste my time with your bullshit". My requests to talk about our method have lately been ignored.

I wanted to work in academia and I want to finish my PhD. However when I think about the relation I share with my PI has forced me to wonder if I even finish my PhD, his letter of recommendation will be a negative one, probably killing my career anyway. My post sounds toxic, but so has been my relation to my PI. I had to seek professional counselling a year back. With the relation we share currently, I don't let it affect my work. However, I am also not at peace with it in my mind.

Hence, I am considering quitting and applying elsewhere. However, I will need letters of recommendation from him to do that. How do I present my case? I have a decent GPA in undergrad/grad schools. In these four years, I was also able to enrol for a Masters in a related field in the same school.

  • 1
    With the equation we share currently -- How is "equation" defined here?
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 20:01
  • 4
    Sorry, but from how it sounds, I'd suggest to pull the plug. Quit with Master's, and then evaluate your further chances. Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 23:15
  • 10
    "I am smarter than you", "I am not interested in your sloppy work", "Don't waste my time with your bullshit"Walk away.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 14:29
  • 1
    Don't give up. I am an Assistant Professor now and my PhD supervisor straight out refused to give a recommendation for me in fear I would embarrass them. Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 20:24
  • 7
    "I am smarter than you", "I am not interested in your sloppy work"--Perhaps similar situation I dealt with during PhD studies. What I did, I started sharing my work with some leading professors whom I met in conferences and workshops. I published my work in journals where my PI have ever imagined. Irony is after publishing 2 article his attitude totally changed rather he start telling everyone as it were his supervisory skills that I published in good venue. I just kept silent completed PhD, got postdoc and within 5 months I got aP position. You can do the same..
    – Mohaqiq
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 18:58

4 Answers 4


Consult Professor B; he thinks highly of you, and can suggest someone for you to work with, who is not professor A. This may entail moving elsewhere.


Since you have shown to be able to do productive work already and, second, you are willing to move, i would say not all is lost. I would recommend to get informally in contact with possible advisors from other universities and have an informal talk first before you officially apply for a PhD there. If possible try to go abroad and apply in a different country.

A professor who is working with your former advisor will most likely reject you to avoid bad blood, but there might be many others looking for a good student. A situation like yours is not that uncommon and professors will understand and decide based on their need for students :-)


Have you read this? A note on Ph.D. You have to be honest with yourself, first. Do you really like what you are doing?

If you go to another school, they should not know about your history! so, no worries to be labeled as quitter! getting two masters and a PhD is better than 2 PhDs, so, ...

And course work also are transferable, maybe not all of them, but some will do for sure. This is not hard to figure out. Just read/ask the target university you want to go to!

Where are you? if you are in the US, are you American? Because if you are not American, getting PhD with current advisor, and not having good skills and papers and recommendation, makes your post graduate life like hell. Time would not be your friend!

You are in bad situation, I am afraid you are the only one who has to decide and each decision has its consequences.

I will just ask some questions, then maybe that would help.

1- Do you like what you are doing?

2- Are you able to get a job if you stay with current advisor and your history? (number of publications, skills, etc.)

3- Do you think you can do another 3-4 years in another school?(just like this one you cannot predict who you are gonna work with, what project you are gonna work on, etc.) What if that one does not go well?

I think if you are American, just get the PhD. start with a low paying, low profile job, and build your way up. Experience is better than a degree!

Whatever you choose to do, has a cost. The cost you did not pay since the beginning of your journey.

P.S. yeah, Advisor A pushed his students hard, make their lives like hell, now he has tenure, he does not care, making lives of new students hell again, but in another way!


Get the PhD as quickly as possible, do whatever they say, and get out. Be nice and get your degree before they decide they are gatekeepers and you should be outside the gate. You will have a worse time with the regrets and a terminal masters. They will give bad recommendations and even the professors that like you will side against you to be team players. Reapplying is a joke and you will be viewed as a quitter with a complicated story. You would retake a bunch of classes at another school. Coursework will not transfer, trust me, and you will pay again. You will be marked as uncooperative. Be nice and do research they can publish in their area. Your dreams and interests can come later. Professors are not well respected outside their bubble because they lord it over young impressionable minds. They are not the world. They live in la la land. Do you ever want to get a real job and have a paycheck or just keep paying a school for classes you probably don't need? They hate you because you are smart and they can see you still think they are the center of the universe. They are mean and nasty because society doesn't really respect them. Once you get older, you will start to see professors as losers who lord it over children. Universties sell classes; it is a business. Minimize the damage and expenses but get that degree. Stop sharing anything personal about yourself, they will use it against you. Don't be a quitter and don't be naive. You should see how these guys are with their female students...what losers. Top tier losers.

  • 3
    The second half of this answer seems entirely counterproductive, while the first half seems to indicate an ignorance of how PhD programs work.
    – Zach H
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 0:16
  • Uh, yes and no. Unlike JD and MD, admissions PhD are easier to get. Historically, this has been a non-issue, because attrition is so high (50%). However, there is now an oversupply of PhD's in most fields (English, History, Philosophy, etc). So...now there are 'gatekeepers' inside PhD programs.
    – Mox
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 18:02

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .