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I spent more than half a year with a PhD supervisor, and am not happy with both aspects: relationship and academically. With time, it becomes obvious that our field of research doesn't match. He reassured me that he had sufficient knowledge on my topic, but it turns out that he doesn't. I'd say it's the fault on both sides (I should've checked his publications more).

The biggest problem is that he doesn't want to admit it, and either only gives me a very general advice, or blames my draft as not academic enough and tell me to revise the structure before he agrees to read it, and then he'd again give a general advice. He also prefers to meet only once every two or three months. I see no career prospect here, as he'll retire in three years, and then his department will close (I couldn't have known that before).

I consulted another professor that I met in a conference, who also specializes in my topic, and he said that my research is solid (plus, he gave me valuable inputs that I have never received from my own supervisor). Finally, learning about my problems, the second professor offered to supervise me, and said all I need to do is to apply at his university (in another state). By the way, I have neither working nor funding contract with my current university.

I know it sounds not very ethical, but I said nothing to my supervisor until I'm officially accepted by the new university. He's old, proud, and quirky, often taking the slightest mistake (by anyone) as a conspiracy against him. He never admits he doesn't master my topic, so he'll blow a fuse if I tell him that when I announce about my leaving him. I simply don't know what to answer if he asks me why (and he will certainly do). Any suggestion how to handle this well? Thank you.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Wrzlprmft Apr 6 '18 at 7:00
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    Sure you can. I wonder what the question really is here? Are you afraid of any impact on your career? Do you search for polite ways to convey the message? "Any suggestion how to handle this well?" What exactly do you want to achieve? The goals seem a bit unclear. – Trilarion Apr 6 '18 at 8:03
  • It's your career, not your supervisor's. – galois Apr 6 '18 at 14:30
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    It is very okay and not unethical to not say anything until you have been accepted. In fact that is the standard way to approach any job change. The fact that this is university and not industry does not change that. – Make42 Apr 6 '18 at 17:40
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    It's perfectly ethical not to explain to someone how you feel. You advisor isn't god and you're not required to make a confession. – einpoklum Apr 6 '18 at 18:39
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My suggestion is that you talk about all of the reasons you are moving to the other university, as opposed to leaving the current one. These reasons could be to do with relationships (e.g., family) or future opportunities (e.g., a postdoc) or being paid whilst you are currently unpaid. If you have to give a reason why you are leaving your current position, the least-harmful choice seems to be to mention that his lab will close and that you chose to study with him in the hope of staying within his wonderful group.

The choice comes down to the problems of being honest (which does not imply you should be dishonest). If you are honest, then because he will retire even if you magically changed his world-view, then the impact would still be negligible. However, you may burn bridges and although a small probability, the professor may take retributive action.

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    Not if you've already accepted. – Dr. Thomas C. King Apr 4 '18 at 9:27
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    The thing to be gained from being honest: you get to keep your integrity. You are advocating lying. In my opinion that is terrible advice. Integrity is the one thing you have control over in your life - give it up so easily and you won't get it back. – Floris Apr 4 '18 at 14:19
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    There are levels of honesty, for example redirecting attention is not lying, and honesty should be used with wisdom. Given some of the things that have, can, and will happen in academia when people are slighted or overly competitive, judicious use of honesty and openness is advised. – Dr. Thomas C. King Apr 4 '18 at 15:06
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    I don't think this suggestion has to be dishonest. If there are many advantages to switching, you don't have to mention them all, just enough to be a justification. Finances, or better future prospects, or more desirable location, or whatever, could all be perfectly honest and sufficient reasons (if true). – Richard Rast Apr 4 '18 at 18:00
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    Thomas, I agree with your conclusion -- although I'm not sure what you contributed that was new, in relation to Solar Mike's pre-existing answer. But the main reason I'm leaving a comment is that your topic sentence is what is getting you in trouble with some commenters concerned about what might appear to be "lying." You started out with, "I am not sure what there is to gain from being honest with him." A simple edit (which might not satisfy the critics) would be to add the word "completely": "...gain from being completely honest with him." // I'm not sure I understood your last sentence. – aparente001 Apr 4 '18 at 20:33
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I know it sounds not very ethical, but I said nothing to my supervisor until I'm officially accepted by the new university.

That is almost certainly the best move. Don't say anything to anyone until you've officially been accepted by the other university. Keep working as normal until your acceptance letter comes.

Once you've been accepted to the 2nd university, tell him in person. Stick to a few sentences, and don't mention that your relationship has soured.

Some neutral reasons are

1) If you don't have a stipend here, and school B offers you one, then just cite that reason.

2) You're concerned he will retire before you graduate, meaning you'll have to find another advisor.

He will likely react badly, in general supervisors have limited slots for PhD students dictated by university acceptance. He'll have to wait for the next round of admissions to fill your slot. This is his problem, not yours.

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    "in general supervisors have limited slots for PhD students dictated by university acceptance" never heard of that in Germany, and in particular not for unpaid PhD students. – cbeleites Apr 4 '18 at 15:15
  • "in general supervisors have limited slots for PhD" - this is almost certainly true. Funded or not, the number of PhD students available to professors is determined by admissions. When Maya leaves, the university won't just randomly call students they did not accept until the slot is filled. The university will just accept 1 extra PhD student for the next school year. Maya needs to tell the professor he/she will have one fewer PhD student once her acceptance is confirmed, and that will likely mean the end of Maya's relationship with the professor. – sevensevens Apr 5 '18 at 15:29
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    to which German university/faculty do you refer exactly? The German faculties I know a) don't have anything like school years for PhD students, and b) no slots for PhD students. Calls/announcements for employment contracts on particular research projects are the closest thing we have, and they'd be given to some other student immediately. In general, it is sufficient that student and professor talk to each other, and prof accepts student as their PhD student. Even the necessary paperwork can be done just right before handing in the thesis. – cbeleites Apr 5 '18 at 15:56
  • I'm familiar with the U.S. system. If the university can just put out a call for another PhD student and hire one, then yeah, the professor isn't losing a worker. – sevensevens Apr 5 '18 at 16:16
  • @sevensevens yes of course PhD students are easily replaceable with no specialized knowledge or aptitude to take into account. – mathreadler Apr 6 '18 at 19:59
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The other answers give the most 'sensible' choice, but being nice and making false excuses for your departure is not the only option.

Consider politely but firmly telling the supervisor your genuine reasons for leaving. There is a risk of backlash (although your supervisor is retiring soon and you are leaving the department) but the upside is the self-respect you will gain from being honest. And if the supervisor is as proud as you say, then they will be just as angry if you say you are leaving to be 'nearer your family' or another excuse.

Too many PhD students are afraid to stand up for themselves because they fear reprisals, but often the opposite is true. If you let more senior academics walk all over you then they will never respect you. If you challenge them then they may be angry in the short-term, but eventually, you will reshape the dynamic and they will treat you more as a peer than an underling. This is essential if you want a long-term career in academia. Always trying to please your superiors may get you through a PhD, but it will not prepare you for leadership.

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    Very sound advice. Be honest, stand up for yourself, don't be hurtful. You are likely to get more respect this way. Integrity has to be the cornerstone of your scientific career. – Floris Apr 4 '18 at 14:21
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    I like this answer. Be very honest, but of course not overly mean. You don't need to say directly that you think your advisor doesn't know this field or that his supervisory style is bad. You can just say "I do not think our research interests and collaborative styles align as well as I originally thought they would and I have an offer from a lab that is a better fit. I wish you the best." – WetlabStudent Apr 8 '18 at 2:31
  • I disagree with the implication that it is somehow dishonest or dishonourable to bite your tongue and carefully choose not what to say. As long as everything you actually say is true (like the answers that recommend to say the minimum necessary), then you are being honest. There is absolutely no moral obligation to give someone details that you sincerely expect that they are not interested in hearing. To maintain the self-control to not say everything you might want tou out of respect for others is a very high form of self-respect. I think that the less you say, the better. – Tripartio Jan 22 at 9:12
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I'll add some points from a German perspective and the perspective of someone who defended her thesis in another university than where most of the research was actually done.

I suspect that a large part of the conflict about the supervision may be due to OP and professor working with quite different concepts of PhD thesis work which may be arising from a recent paradigm shift about what exactly PhD research should be.


Long version:

Background: when I started my PhD also in my field (chemistry) the typical set up (A) was that PhD research is "your own private fun" (as in: you're not paid for this - but you may use university infrastructure and project consumables for your research). My professor made sure, though, that all PhD students were hired as TAs or had some scholarship. Nevertheless it was made very clear that wages were paid for teaching, not for research.
This has changed considerably in my field, where the norm is now (B) that PhD students are employed to do research for a particular project.
(BTW: my old professor retired, I went working abroad and years later handed in and defended my thesis at another university. Old professor was one of the reviewers of my thesis, though.)

There are important differences/trade-offs: B of course gets you money for work that isn't paid in A. On the other hand, A gave far more freedom to choose the subject and arrange time and place youself (e.g. PhDs that were collected research of a decade alongside full time industrial work and external PhD students). Employed PhD students B are often quite tightly bound by that employment contract (project and job description have to be adhered to, there are restrictions on canceling these contracts also for the employee side).
The whole paradigm has also changed in that under A PhD students were seen and treated as fully responsible professionals (from the very beginning of the PhD - which they legally are in Germany) organizing their own life on their own behalf, whereas B students are often treated as not yet quite fully qualified professionals, and the PhD studies take more the shape of a university program.
The professor giving only general advise at infrequent meetings may very well be an expression that they expect you work independently under paradigm A. To reiterate it: paradigm A thinks of the PhD "student"* as a fully trained top professional (only top professionals should do a PhD) from the very beginning. The PhD "student" does the thesis to proove these [already existing] skills of doing research without supervision (a research work done under supervision would qualify only as Diplom/Master thesis).
Whereas paradigm B thinks of the PhD as a training program where the student learns doing research.

Wrt. expected time line of the PhD, A theses took as long as they took (professor decides whether research content is sufficient for promotion = PhD), whereas B PhDs are supposed to be done within not too much more than the 3 years of the research project employment contract (this is also meant to guard students against exploitation).

* PhD "student": aren't actually called students in German (student = Student, PhD student = Doktorand) and are typically not required to sign up with the university as student.


In your situation, not having such a research employment contract is a huge advantage as there is nothing that binds you to your old institute/professor legally.
(Side note: B students have the right to demand cancellation of their employment contract if they do have a better offer.)

Nevertheless, I'd suggest treating your situation in analogy.

I know it sounds not very ethical, I said nothing to my supervisor until I'm officially accepted by the new university

This is not unethical, but expected and correct behaviour.

You can safely rely on the academic community in Germany accepting reasons that would be considered suffient under employment law for temporal contract to demand cancellation.

  • obvious that our field of research doesn't match

    A better match of field is a good reason. How much that counts would depend on how much better the match is (but then the default assumption is that noone moves if there isn't anything gained by that move), and how long it took you to decide that the match wasn't good.

  • If my guess is right that there is a considerable gap between his and your concepts of good supervision of a PhD thesis and the expected level of independenc in your work, then: he may be considering any closer level of supervision bad in the sense that the need for closer supervision implies bad mark (possibly to the point where he may consider the work not up to the independence standard of a PhD thesis) when judging your research. So close supervision means depriving you of your chance to demonstrate the ability of unsupervised independent work.

    A better match also in these expectations is needed for a successful PhD. This doesn't imply any direction: if you are already up to do your research practically without supervision it will be good for you if you can show that in your PhD. If not, then your only chance to surviving a PhD is one with (intially) closer supervision.

    He reassured me that he had sufficient knowledge on my topic, but it turns out that he doesn't. [...long snip...] He never admits he doesn't master my topic

    Of course, it would be better if he were able to tell you that he isn't really into the particular field, but it's really you not he who's expected to be the expert on the topic of your thesis. He is actually only required to be able to judge and testify that you did do good research, and it would be totally legitimate (A) if he expects/hopes to learn from you about this topic.
    My old professor once expressed this roughly as "You are a fully qualified professional. You are able and are expected to be able to decide and judge on your own what to do." and another told me "I'm not able to have in-depth scientific discussions with you on your [particular specialization]. It is exactly because I perceived a lack of this expertise in my group that I hired you."

    The important conclusion is: openly discuss these paradigms with your new professor to make sure you understand each other.

  • 6 months into the PhD would translate in paradigm B to "at the end of probation period" and that's a totally acceptable time frame to realize that the match wasn't that good.

  • any financial advantage is a very good reason.
    For the employees that could be more total pay, better hourly wage, more total hours, longer duration of fixed term contract, maybe a scholarship. As you are not an employee, lower cost of living in the new university town or better opportunities for part-time jobs would be acceptable as well. Extra bonus if you find a part time job there that is related to your profession.


Keep in mind: all you really need to get your PhD is:

  1. your research (which doesn't need to be done in formal association with any university) and
  2. a professor/institute that is willing to read your thesis and who then considers that it fulfils the criteria for promotion/successful thesis so they accept you as PhD candidate. (Of course, in practice this is easier if you are all the time inside the academic system and supervised, but few professors will reject you if you arrive with a good thesis or research proposal that matches their field)

This closely matches A, but is equally valid for B. Check the regulations of your new university early, though: I know of some faculties that demand a certain number of TA hours.

Your PhD research is your own work (and in your case there are no difficulties due to the old university owning work done as an employee), you can take your already existing work with you wherever you go.


Some more points:

  • academia is a small world, and even smaller within Germany.

  • A professor retiring doesn't mean they vanish from academia. Just university cannot demand that they do any particular work for them any more. But in most Länder, the professor retains the rights to teach and also to lecture and to take exams, so they can still act as supervisor and/or reviewer for a thesis.

  • The other consequence is that your academic community probably will know also their side of what happend about you leaving (you may not be that important now academically speaking, but the next occasion is when your new faculty is looking for an external reviewer for your thesis).

  • But if you treat this change of university honestly and professionally it doesn't matter that much how your old professor reacts. He may be temporarily annoyed when you tell him, but if he reacts unprofessionally, your academic community will realize it. Just as they will realize if you are dishonest and/or unprofessional.

  • I hope I did guess correctly and Old Professor is not particularly but but just acts according to PhD paradigm A.
    If so, acknowledging and sincerely thanking him (don't if you cannot sincerely) may smooth the situation considerably. If you can express that you weighted and appreciate the chance of showing you're able to do the research entirely on your own (in his group) vs. joining the other group where having colleagues working on much closer topics will hopefully give your specialization a boost due to more in-depth scientific discussion with your peers, more closely related seminars, etc..

  • After all, the immediately important point for you is how much bad feelings you carry around about these 6 months.

  • I see no career prospect here, as he'll retire in three years, and then his department will close

    If you want to go for an academic carreer, the perspective shouldn't be a postdoc at the same institute where you did your PhD. The expectation is a postdoc somewhere else, possibly abroad. (Although there's less stress on this if you have longer research stays abroad and/or changed groups/universities before).

  • very good reply, can you also mention this new way, something as the combination of A+B in which you find a potential advisor before applying to phd and discuss project in great details. – SSimon Apr 5 '18 at 3:51
  • Thanks for the thorough answer. I'll add that what I meant with "general" advice is like "use APA instead of MLA" and such (hence, nothing about the content). I understand that a Doktorand should do an independent work (which I'm doing right now), but a minimum supervision would be necessary (otherwise, they should abolish the supervision system altogether). My point in asking is because, in my country, a white lie is imperative so that the other party can 'save face'. I don't know the norms here (or in the West), but the popular advice here have given me some ideas. – Maya Apr 5 '18 at 8:22
  • @SSimon: finding a potential advisor and discussing project in detail is the typical way in bot A and B - due to OPs situation I just wanted to point out that this is not strictly necessary. What would be a difference between A and B is that A would PhD student and prof primarily agree on the supervision relationship and then the topic is found (this discussion is part of the PhD work), whereas under B the supervisor "announces" a topic and the student applies for that job. The discussion is then part of the job application/job interview process. – cbeleites Apr 5 '18 at 9:24
  • And a prof may still give lots of research freedom to a PhD student hired (B) while other profs neither gave this freedom, nor did they pay... It a continuum between all the respective advantages and disadvantages, really. – cbeleites Apr 5 '18 at 9:26
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    matches my needs." => description of the problem: mismatch between what prof offers and what student needs. No accusation. It is possible that prof would be a good supervisor to someone else who has different needs. But your needs and what prof offered are a radical mismatch. – cbeleites Apr 5 '18 at 12:37
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Well, are they offering you something tangible? Pay etc? Different or more extensive equipment..

Or do you have external reasons : family, partner (spouse, other...)

It could be simpler to stick to something like that...

Students have moved before and will again.

You MUST do what is best for you and Soon.

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Agree with most people here - you need to do what is in YOUR interest right now. I saw similar situations myself at close quarters when I was a graduate student and if people didn't act, it usually ended badly/unsatisfactorily. Life is too short and you're putting too much of your own time/career etc on the line by staying with him cause you are afraid to offend him. Academics are not infallible and if they're too egotistical to admit a deficit of knowledge, to hell with them. Sure, wait until you have a definite alternative but I'd just say you found a research group and supervisor that you believe will be better for you, given your research interests.

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Just say that the new situation is a better fit, which is true. No need to go into details.

  • This is best, unless there is a white lie available that jives closely with reality, such as funding, family in that area, etc. A white lie that doesn't ring true can feel quite hurtful. – aparente001 Apr 4 '18 at 20:36
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Run. Definitely. The less reasons you give, the less cause he will be angry. Don't step on his pride.

  • The fewer reasons you give, the more cause he will tar your reputation and risk telling others of your cowardly or unprofessional behaviour. – Mari-Lou A Apr 5 '18 at 21:40
  • @Mari-LouA, Less or more reasons may or may not lead to worse retaliation. I think this would greatly depend on the person. Its hard to know whether he'd react better to reasons or no reasons – WetlabStudent Apr 8 '18 at 2:37
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You did everything right in not telling him. If he is often loud and verbally abusive, consider the following:

You don't have a contract with your current institution. You got nothing from your supervisor. You do work and he gives no input. You owe him nothing. He is in the ethically problematic side, not you (since he probably wants to be on your publications).

In the day before leaving, clear your desk, return keys etc. To the administration, send an email to your current "supervisor" that he should not expect you to be in the group any more, stating that he was not happy with your research direction so you will stop working with him. Ask him to summarize briefly which specific parts of your research he considers to have given input to. BCC this to your new supervisor and CC it to the faculty Dean.

Be polite and formal in this email. Never talk to him again. Such people are all over the place in German academia in some subjects.

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