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I am halfway through the 4th year of my PhD and I have grown to find that I dislike the direction of my dissertation and the project that I am working on. My supervisor is extremely absent as he is running another research group overseas (bigger budget there so he puts his time there). On our side, we have little to no post-docs, and those that are around are trying to use the students to publish more papers for themselves to get faculty positions.

I have found a distaste in my current project and research subject and hope to move to another one that I have found more interest in. I find it mentally taxing to work in this group, as there is no help from seniority and there is a complete lack of focus (for myself and for many other group members in my situation). I am thinking about leaving with an MSc and pursuing a PhD elsewhere, but I'm worried about two things:

1) Will the fact that I took 4 years and quit my PhD for a Masters look bad when applying to a different school? I think I have legitimate reasons but I'm not sure if that is enough.

2) I imagine my supervisor will not write me a good letter for wanting to leave to pursue other interests.

Unfortunately I think this is a bit of a dilemma as I don't think I can graduate in 1.5 years (members in our group typically take 6 - 7 years), so stretching it would be hard. The lack of supervision, direction, and interest all make it hard for me to want to stay, despite my deep interest in research.

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    Have you considered moving to the industry? Depending on your skills and capacity to adjust to a new work environment this could be the wisest move. The official degree is too often irrelevant. – Scientist Nov 22 '18 at 14:46
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    @Scientist The title of this question is rampant in industry too. – corsiKa Nov 23 '18 at 1:09
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It almost goes without saying but still: it's really hard for internet strangers to correctly judge exactly how difficult this situation is for you. I'm answering just based on what you wrote and it's entirely possible I am missing the mark here. In that case, feel free to disregard my answer.

I'd be a bit wary to apply to a different school for a PhD now. It will indeed look bad on your application, you will need to get letters of recommendation from other people than your current supervisor, and you will essentially lose all the time you put into your PhD until now.

Your supervisor's absence and lack of local leadership is really demotivating. And it is easy to lose interest in your own research in such circumstances. Then again, research can at times be very demotivating and future research employers will want to see a certain tenacity in you dealing with demotivation. Giving up three years of research to go somewhere else does not show that tenacity.

Are there other options to explore? Can you move overseas with your supervisor? Can you start collaborating with a local professor, or find local trustworthy people to help you regain direction and interest? Is there any way you can involve your current supervisor more in your project?

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Actually, I don't believe that moving to a better doctoral program needs to be detrimental to your application or your future. There are a lot of reasons to move from one program to another, including simple relocation. You needn't spell out all of the difficulties with your current situation in any application.

Presumably you don't need any additional coursework to complete the doctorate, but just passing qualifiers and writing a dissertation. Not being happy with your current research or the support available at your current institution is, to me, a perfectly valid reason to go. Taking an MS as you leave is also perfectly reasonable if you have completed the requirements.

However, you need to assure any future potential advisor that you are a good candidate for success and a diligent worker with the ideas needed to carry you through. That is no different, actually, than if you were a fresh baccalaureate.

I think this is doubly true if you want to change fields, though that might represent a longer path.

Burn out in doctoral programs is pretty common. Moving to a new place with a new advisor is often just what it takes to get you reinvested and reinvigorated.

If you were more confident of finishing your current program quickly, I'd advise toughing it out, but it would be worth the effort to explore situations that leave you with a clean break. You may need to visit some other institutions in person, however, as email isn't the greatest medium for such discussions.

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You should be clear with yourself whether it is your field you are fed up with or lack of "supervision, direction, and interest" in your particular situation is the problem.

Your situation sounds awful, but such things can and do happen in all fields. Conversely, not all supervisors and labs in your field will be like your current one.

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