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I discontinued my PhD two years ago due to the reasons that I was not getting along with my supervisor. I had completed all my course works and comprehensive exam plus the committee had approved my proposal. The committee then assigned me an advisor who I felt was not so interested in me (the professor had given me a really bad mark in one of his classes which I took as a coursework). I too was not really interested in him. He did not have a strong publication, in fact he did not have any. I honestly could not find any except one paper dated 10 years ago. I am still curious of how the system works and I wondered how he became a a full professor in the department with such a poor publication. A friend of mine informed me that it is because of the length of time a professor serves within the university that he may receive full professorship. However this is another topic. So, going back to my situation, after the committee assigned him as my advisor, I tried to work with him. However, after a couple of meetings with him, I realized that this was not going to work.

One day, after a long – little heated - discussion between the two of us, feeling my frustration, he advised me to request the to Head of Department and the committee that I be appointed a new advisor. I sensed that his advice was not sincere, however, that was what I exactly did. I met the Head of Department in his office with my advisor. We had a lengthy discussion. To make a long story short, the Head of Department turned down my request, saying repeatedly that (quote): “you can only change an advisor if you have a 'cause’”. I thought to myself that don’t I have the right to at least choose or request an advisor.

During the holidays, when I return to my country, at the end of the holidays, I did not go back to the university. I emailed them that I will have to discontinue my studies. I eventually resigned from the program as I saw the Department could not accommodate my needs.

As I look back, of course I feel a sense of misery that I wasted two years of my life in this PhD program. Just to add, I was living in a foreign country far away form my family (wife and kid) which I could only visit once a year during the summer holidays. The program was a fully funded scholarship program with a very basic monthly subsistence stipend.

So my questions are:

  1. How much right does the PhD student have to choose his own advisor? I understand that there are universities in certain countries that assign the advisors to the students which was the case for my situation. Since I was on scholarship from the university, does this mean that the university has the full right to assign the advisor and that I would have to fully comply to their requests?

  2. How much would this ruin my reputation and credibility to be granted another PhD scholarship from a different institution?

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    You have every right to choose your own PHD advisor and that is what you should do. However, usually, potential advisors also have the right to choose their advisees and universities have the right to choose who receives funding. Thus, a mutual agreement has to be reached. I think you should have left much earlier. Two years is way too long as a trial period. – Roland Jan 9 at 7:30
  • Thank you for your response. I agree that 2 years was too long, however, the reason being 2 years (four semesters) is because I had 3 semesters for coursework and it was only by the end of the third semester that the Committee, having approved my proposal, appointed me the advisor which is where the problem arose. So in essence the trial period with my advisor was only 1 semester (my 4th semester). I guess that is the advantage of universities matching the student-advisor upfront, that they do not have these kind of problems. – Musab Jan 9 at 8:29
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I wouldn't necessarily say that the funding is what gives your department the right to assign you a supervisor, but more so the rules within the department. In my department, we don't follow a strict mentorship philosophy. This means that graduate students often have more than one mentor that they work with throughout the course of their graduate career. There are times when a student loses their advisor (for various reasons) and they are assigned one, and there isn't much a student can do to prevent losing their advisor. However, the norms of our department is that the student may attempt to change their advisor. In other words, students in my department also have little wiggle-room to prevent getting assigned an advisor, but may attempt to change their advisor because that's the rules of the department. From what you explained, it seems like your ex-department gives little right to the student. This is, in my opinion, probably more reflective of the rules and culture of that specific department than the university providing you funding.

The extent to which the situation will negatively affect your future chances of getting into another program will probably depend on how you frame the situation. Obviously, you have taken courses and have transcripts from your previous university that you will have to submit to any new program that you are applying to, and shouldn't try to hide the fact that you ever attended the university. You can probably frame the situation in a way to not place so much attention on the interpersonal clashes between you and the advisor. For instance, you mentioned that you were away from your wife and child for 2 years, seeing them only once per year. This is obviously tough for anyone, and you can discuss how you wanted to spend more time with your family and that also played a large role in your decision as well. You might still want to talk about the department issues you had, but frame the situation to your advantage by not outright focusing on demonizing the former advisor, department head, or department rules. Make that portion a byproduct of personal issues or discuss how it was the one piece that fell down that started the domino effect of other issues you already had, depending on which is true for your case (i.e., also don't make stuff up! Key is to be truthful but focus on matters that won't make you look like a bad investment in the eyes of admission reviewers).

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@ssjjaca answer is sound. I would add that it may help you to consider that there are two sides. You have a right to get a good adivisor, but there are only so many people working in the department. If all students end up at the same advisor, then that is suboptimal for the students and the department. So an absolute right of the students to choose an advisor is not feasible. It is up to the department to set rules that guide how much freedom the student has, and how to reconcile that with needs of the department to balance the load across the faculty.

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