I apologize if this is too long a post, but I could really do with a few pointers about my current situation.

I am 25 years old and I will complete 4 years of my PhD in a computational applied mathematics program in the US in August 2013.

My bachelors was in pure mathematics. I had gotten interested in numerical analysis in that time and so I had applied to my current PhD program. I have been under my adviser for 3 years now (the first year at my university is spent in coursework). A PhD at my university is usually 5 years long.

Right now, I have almost nothing to report in the way of research, and consequently no publications , no conference submissions. I am getting increasingly nervous and frustrated about whether or not I will make it, even if I give myself an extra year by funding myself.

My adviser has consistently been making me work on uninteresting stuff, where most of the work involved is purely technical like writing brain-dead code, with almost zero chance for innovation.


After monkeying around reading research papers, in the first year under my adviser, he got very confident about getting an industrial project and got me working on that, in anticipation that the contract would go through. At the end of the year we found out that we did not get the project.

In the second year, he said he wanted to get into GPU parallel computing and to implement a few fluid dynamics algorithms. I slogged over many manuals, spent months and months writing and debugging code, all the time thinking that this would be used to do some simulations he was interested in and get them published. But at the end of the second year my professor completely lost interest in these numerical techniques he was making my implement.

Seeing his capricious attitude, I almost wanted to quit then and there itself. But I decided to just stick it out, thinking it might be 'just a phase'. Due to funding issues, he once more got me working in the third year on another project which essentially involved writing a lot of stupid code, and running endless benchmark tests.

I have basically ended up trying to do a PhD in mathematics without any mathematics in this PhD.

Finally, a couple of weeks back, I told him that I had had enough, and to give me some actual problems/material to work with. After about an hour of discussion, and informing him that I was ready to fund my self if required, he finally gave me a couple of possible starting points for what I hope would actually turn out to be worthwhile research.


  • I do realize it was extremely foolish waiting for so long before putting my foot down, and not having the courage to speak up before. My adviser is well-regarded by colleagues in his field, and maybe I was subconsciously scared of contradicting his handling of my PhD for pissing him off.

    But even though he has now suggested problems which do seem interesting, after having had so many negative experiences I am very skeptical about the future. How should I proceed, and what are the factors I should consider ?

    Frankly, I am feeling very burned out. In the way of future plans, I have been toying with the idea of dropping out, getting a break for a few months and then sitting for some entrance exams for a Masters in Economics in some good universities back in my home country. I always found economics very interesting through my undergrad and more so these past few-months while studying it has a hobby.

  • Continuing would require me to stay on for an extra year till August 2015, which leaves me about 17 months tops from now, before I start hunting in academic job market. This includes about 2-3 months I will have to spend doing literature review on the proposed topics and learning the requisite mathematical tools.

    So if I decide to stay on, how should I re-structure my study/research time and the relationship with my adviser in these 17 months so that I can make some head-way.

Maybe 17 months is too short a time? Any suggestions would be really helpful !!

  • 13
    What did your advisor say when you asked this question? (If you can't ask your advisor this question, you're doomed. Walk away now.)
    – JeffE
    Jun 22, 2013 at 11:35
  • 3
    @JeffE What left me somewhat aghast during my discussion with him was that he confessed that he too did not find my current assigned project(which is industrial)interesting.Also,he knows pretty little in that particular area.With regards to question 1,I am currently not sure how to breach the topic of leaving and being skeptical about the future.For question 2,whether 17 months is too short,he said he was hopeful(like he always does with other projects)but all would basically depend on how much progress I make(Duh!).Maybe I should ask again.Are there any other pertinent questions I shouldraise Jun 22, 2013 at 12:21
  • 1
    I am seeing myself in a similar situation in two years. My question is: do you think you could push your code as the contributions to the packages that solve similar problems that you were trying to solve? (become a contributor or even co-author) If yes, do you think it may help your situation? Jun 22, 2013 at 20:07
  • You are young ... I am sure you will make it. But if you are not happy with your field, professor, or university .. then run away now ! ... I am sure you have more experience in research now .. so if you switch to another topic, it will be easier for you to tackle it. My advice .. don't leave your PhD (take a break .. that's fine, but don't give up your PhD). You need to know (learn) how things work in Academic Research. They re really nothing but few tricks you need to learn .. if you get that, then everything will be fine.
    – AJed
    Jun 22, 2013 at 21:32
  • 3
    @RoboKaren: Good edit. Poor advising is not the same thing as mental illness. Jul 9, 2014 at 5:41

5 Answers 5


Firstly, no apology needed, your question is thorough and easy to read and understand. It sounds like you are in quite an unpleasant situation.

Don't take any advice I may give as gospel, but in answer to your questions:

You are most certainly not foolish to wait until now to stand up to your advisor, you have had several leads and have given many chances for the project to kick into gear. You have every right and reason to feel skeptical about the current promises and project direction.

Ultimately, how you proceed is up to you (you're probably understandably sick of hearing that), but look at the following considerations (no doubt many other members will add to this):

  • The new direction could well be a winner, leading to papers, conferences and most of all, fulfillment. It could also be a good one as now, you have made your feelings clear to your supervisor.
  • Could this be just another academic 'false positive'?

Perhaps outline a couple of potential papers and present them to your advisor (this is something I do). This could be an ongoing thing, alongside your research - outline potential papers.

As for the timeframe, 17 months - I would not be too worried about that - I have been able to get three papers published in less than ten months, with a 4th on the way and the 5th planned (I finish my Ph.D. at the end of the year).

I hope this helps, and I hope it all gets sorted out for you.

  • 3
    Thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I really like the idea of outlining potential papers after reviewing the literature. I do hope the newly suggested line of work won't be a false positive. I think I might need to see where all this takes me for a couple of months, and probably get out if I still feel miserable. Jun 22, 2013 at 13:57
  • 4
    You're welcome, and remember your well-being is more important than the PhD.
    – user7130
    Jun 22, 2013 at 14:11
  • 1
    I left after 4 years, after my comprehensive was completed (granted, I did leave with a MSc so the situation was a bit different). It took me about 3 years to figure a few things out so you shouldn't blame yourself. It happens and you are not alone. Jun 25, 2013 at 19:56

One thing that you need to consider is the way quitting is going to look in your CV. If I was a prospective employer and I saw that you spent 4 years in a PhD program without getting a PhD (or even publications, for the matter), that would be a huge red flag. I'd wonder if you spent those years doodling on facebook and hanging out in cafes. I could even reason that perhaps you are just not as bright as you claim to be. Either way, that's not the kind of person I would want in my company. If you quit now, you should really find a way to preempt this kind of concerns.

With respect to time, I can tell you from experience that 17 months is more than enough provided that (i) you have a clearly defined dissertation topic; (ii) you work hard (and here we are talking about 60-to-70 hours/week; one of the guys in my cohort wrote his entire dissertation in 12 months and his girlfriend complained that, during those 12 months it was almost like she didn't have a boyfriend at all); and (iii) you have a good supporting network of peers and mentors to keep you going in the right direction. I'd say that, at this stage, (i) and (iii) are the most important points. If you can produce a proof-of-concept paper within the next couple of months and a couple of more experienced people agree that it is a worthy project, then you've overcome the largest obstacle.


I just wanted to share my experience with you as I am going through almost the exact same situation.

After a promising two year start and killing my physics classwork and getting my Masters in physics, I picked an adviser and took over a project that a graduate student, who was graduating as I was joining the group, had been working on. Like you, I spent almost all my time coding (a good deal of it CUDA programming) or dealing with certain mathematical problems. I've spent approximately 5-10% of my time on physics and feel that I've done more reproduction of others research, albeit in a more innovative and optimized way, than answering new questions.

I chose to use my time guiding these different projects to learn job-market relevant skills. I use my status as a student to take advantage of school-specific career fairs and professional development. What I've found is that there is quite a demand for physicists (and even more so computational applied mathematicians) out there. It also opened my mind to the types of skills the job market is looking for.

As a result, I've found my anxiety concerning lack of research results has dropped off dramatically! The burnt out feeling I had dissipated considerably as I started seeing that the skills I was learning directly contributed to my future success. I'd highly recommend you start the job search now and try and pick a project that you enjoy that would make you even more attractive to an employer you'd enjoy working for. Also, as for restructuring your relationship, I agree with you that you should indeed take more of a lead in your own research topics. Find projects that force you to learn modern, in-demand techniques and methods, especially those YOU find interesting. It'll help you from feeling burnt out.

Don't worry about quitting the Ph.D. Contrary to other answers, none of the employers I interviewed with cared about me quitting the Ph.D. In fact, they were specifically trying to hire Masters or below. I guess if you have your heart set on academia, then quitting the Ph.D. is an issue. In summary, I'd just say start your job search now and tailor your studies towards employment : it'll help your motivation stay high, produce solid results and allow you to seamlessly hit the job market when you finish!

Another possibility : get an internship. It'll help you get your foot in the door somewhere, give you some much needed professional experience on your resume and a much needed change of scenery. I find that when I take a break and come back to a project, I can hit it all the harder and get over some of the bad humps.

  • 2
    Your answer seems suitable for people wanting to go to industry. But, the OP specificly said "before I start hunting in academic job market" and "I wanted to get into academia to research in that area.".
    – Nobody
    Jan 24, 2015 at 6:16
  • I don't see why it can't be applied to academic "employers." You need to go somewhere after you get your Ph.D. and discovering your passions now well certainly help you get a good and appropriate post-doc. Jan 24, 2015 at 6:21
  • Then why did you say "Don't worry about quitting the Ph.D"?
    – Nobody
    Jan 24, 2015 at 6:23
  • Because worrying about quitting the Ph.D makes slogging through getting the Ph.D all the more stressful. Life isn't over if you bail on this piece of paper. I've never quit anything in my life. I hate my Ph.D research. When I was not even entertaining the thought of quitting the Ph.D, it made life miserable to the point of despair. When I allowed myself the fantasy of quitting the Ph.D, I realized that life would not end and that life was actually pretty decent. Research became a lot easier to focus on and the feeling of burntout-edness went away. Jan 24, 2015 at 6:27
  • 1
    That's an odd idea how to stay in Academia.
    – Nobody
    Jan 24, 2015 at 6:31

I had far more worse situations in my life than leaving a Ph.D, all were hard decisions. When something does not work, it is like trying to support a building severely hit by earthquake using temporary solutions. The problem is that you can never build a skyscraper and will always got stuck with a few floor tall building all over your life.

If you demolish your useless building, in the future you can build a strong skyscraper. Off course you will be homeless for some time, but you are still very young with many options. So if you can get a Master's degree instead of Ph.D definitely leave it. I think your advisor will also look this favoroubly. Even he can write good recommendation letters for you.


It really helps if you take some time off and get a job in your field if you can. That way it serves to rejuvenate your mind and gives you a breather. By doing so you can hit three birds with one stone: 1) you take a break and feel better 2) you have some money to use 3) you become more interested in other subjects you never thought you would have liked, such as technology, fashion, the business world, different languages and culture, etc. I didn't say to quit, I said to take some time off and "find yourself, to rediscover yourself". Will it help? Maybe or maybe not. Perhaps if you look at yourself in comparison to the rest of the world. You're doing a PhD which is one of the most prestigious and most sought after degree in the world. Not many people are able to do that let alone get a bachelor degree. Be grateful. Some people don't even have enough money to afford a days meal or a roof over their head. Hell be lucky you're not in combat or war. Sometimes it helps to appreciate with what you have. That may give you motivation to keep going. Maybe PhD isn't for you. Maybe it is for you. maybe you're meant to become the next Bill Gates or the next president. Who knows. My point is no matter what happens always keep your head up, stay confident, and don't ever give up. Take a break. But don't give up. No don't worry you are not alone. The fact that you made it this far shows you are a winner (Charlie Sheen haha just kidding). Don't give up doc.

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