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I'm a 4th year PhD student at a top school in Canada studying chemical physics. For the past few years, I have been floating around the idea of leaving with a Masters and pursuing a PhD at a different institute due to many factors, such as:

  • Poor supervision. My supervisor is primarily overseas, and provides little to no direction or motivation in work. When discussing with him, his focus is on himself and offers little advice in regards to research.
  • The city I live in is not enjoyable and I find it hard to enjoy being here.
  • The group, while great, is not very cohesive; no group meetings, no reports, no discussion of progress at all.

For the past 2 years, I have been working on a very complicated instrument. I've spent a lot of time fixing it, as many aspects of it have needed to be repaired or upgraded, but unfortunately, finding a sample to study is highly non-trivial and has been proven to be very difficult. As a result, I find that I'm quite burned out. I have also been diagnosed with depression and anxiety (but have been treating it with medication and therapy). I've been unable to publish (but I have one first author in review after revisions, one co-author in preparation) Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that, due to the lack of direction of care from my supervisor's end in regards to helping myself (and other students) focus on to a project that has a clear set of steps or even overall direction, that I should probably leave with a Masters, and apply for a PhD at a different school with a project that I find myself passionate about.

The dilemma I have is that my supervisor has quite the ego. I'm certain he won't be happy with me proposing to leave with a Masters to go pursue work elsewhere. I'm not sure how to handle that; I can ask other faculty of whom I'm well-acquainted with for a reference, but I feel that the new school I apply to may question why that is the case. Maybe it's the burn out speaking on my behalf, but I am no longer passionate about what I do, and the day to day grind of improving things, trying to find a sample, and repeating is getting to me. I see other students with somewhat cohesive research goals and I look back on my own and realize there is no direction and that, I think, scares me more than anything. I don't want to run the risk of not being able to graduate. Of course, the onus is on me to be able to procure my own project or motivation, but alas, I think due to poor supervision and general lack of interest, it is in my best interest to move on to something more along my skillset and passion.

My question is, has anybody dealt with a similar dilemma? Were you able to be accepted at a different school, even if your supervisor responded poorly? Is 4 years for a Masters a waste of time or a bad idea, and should I just tough it out and finish, even if I hate it all?

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    This might depend on how much time you need to complete your current program. Don't treat the four years as wasted, but just sunk cost. You did learn something, I hope. But switching will cost you time. It may be worth it (to you) or not. Burn out is pretty common. Don't make decisions based on that alone.
    – Buffy
    Feb 26 '19 at 14:19
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    Career goals will be relevant here I imagine.
    – Dawn
    Feb 26 '19 at 14:49
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    Have you already perused the posts under the “quitting” tag?
    – Dawn
    Feb 26 '19 at 14:49
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    First I'd suggest that you take a break, a real break from your work, like a few weeks as far away from your work environment as possible. Focus on your health and wellbeing for a while, and only then try to weigh your options with a clear mind.
    – Erwan
    Feb 26 '19 at 15:34
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My dilemma was broadly similar: I was doing a PhD in a top-tier university I hated; my advisor was awful; and I was considering leaving for a different program. What stopped me from actually doing the latter was that even with explicit invitations and introductions from helpful professors who liked me, I didn't get anything more useful than a desultory suggestion to find the department's webpage and send an application there to start again as a first-year grad student. I was three rather than four years in at that point, but I thought that was enough time that I didn't want to restart from scratch.

In retrospect, that was a bad decision. In my case, I finished the PhD program but didn't get the contacts or publications that I needed to get an actual academic career out of it, so the five years I wound up spending at the university were a waste of time. Grad school can be miserable, advisors can be worse than worthless, and the academic market is terrible. It's just about the only way of getting the opportunity to do certain things, though, most notably serious research. If you're trying to just tough it out and finish, that may not actually get you what you want.

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    Sorry that happened. There should be clear advice for entering grad students: What is a "good adviser" and how to have a good chance of ending up with a good adviser
    – user74089
    Feb 27 '19 at 3:56
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    Thanks. This particular advisor was a complete monster, but finding a good advisor is unfortunately ultimately a matter of chance. You can take precautions to increase the probability of success, but you still have to roll the dice and hope you get lucky. And, grad school being what it is, a large part of your success--- and future career opportunities--- depends on that die roll.
    – anomaly
    Feb 27 '19 at 4:19
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    A good advisor is one who cares whether you get a job or not. Those who publish where their PhDs end up is normally a good sign!
    – user22485
    Feb 27 '19 at 9:09
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    Thanks for sharing your experience. I ultimately don’t want to go in to academia (rather industry), and I’m not against starting over. I’m more worried that I won’t be able to.
    – Kalle
    Feb 27 '19 at 16:07
  • @Kalle: No problem. It is difficult to start over--- probably about as difficult as getting into a good PhD program in the first place. Doing so without burning bridges at your current program may be tricky as well. Whatever you wind up choosing, good luck!
    – anomaly
    Feb 27 '19 at 16:08
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I know that it is probably too late to share my experience with you, but I was in the same place as you and I did it. I quit my PhD after 4 years and 2 months, and my reasons for doing that was 1) I wasn't happy about the place which was initially meant to be a temporary stay and 2) I was not receiving proper scientific supervision. As a last year PhD I was successful enough (4 research papers as the first author, 1 as the second) to get a degree, but I decided to change just because I was thinking that the quality of my experience and what I would gain afterwards could be better. So I interviewed with one of the leading guys in my field, who by the way knew my supervisor at the time, and he also asked me why I want to make this change. I could be convincing enough to get the offer by the end of the interview and I moved to the new place after 6 months and started the new career. Also to mention that my supervisor at the time wasn't happy about this at all, and we even had two VERY rough arguments about this decision. However, I did it and now the question is did it worth it?

No one can answer this question for you, as the motivations behind making such decisions are too much personal. There are some obvious facts like the lack of supervision etc. but still as long as you don't analyze your situation properly, you might regret it later. I regret making that decision, because I was too emotional at the moment that I accepted the offer. What I lost in this transition was 3 good years of my life and also being exploited as an experienced PhD in the field, and being paid far less than I deserve. A part of my regret at the moment is also due to the fact that I realized that what I pictured to be a different class of research and opportunities was simply not true, and in most of the times the quality and quantity of research in the leading groups are similar, and just the governing politics in academia push one or another on display.

If you haven't made this decision yet (which is unlikely) I suggest you to try to finish your PhD in the current place. I had an experienced colleague back then who was always telling me to not to do it after spending 4 years, but I didn't listen to him. I was seeing it as an adventure, but if i have the opportunity to go back in time and make that decision again, I would stay and finish my PhD and then look for other research opportunities to satisfy myself.

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