I am currently a PhD student in a program that I do not find challenging. A part of that may be due to the fact that my advisor has an EXTREMELY hands off approach. He will not return my emails for weeks on end and rarely gives me things to do, despite the fact that I am being paid as an RA.I worked with him for two years as an RA during my masters and I am currently in my first year of a PhD agree.

I also don't know if the program I am in is good for my career. I am generally unhappy with the required coursework I am taking and just weary of my future career options. Given the previous internships I have done at renowned institutions, I think I can do better. I have been toying with the possibility of switching schools for quite some time now. Here is my problem: How do I apply to a new school without burning bridges with my current advisor? The problem is my advisor is NICE and so amiable. The hands off approach just doesn't work with me. Sometimes I get the feeling that I am not important or the least of my advisor's priorities.

I know that any program I apply to would want a recommendation from my advisor. I just don't know how to proceed! I want to apply to top tier programs in my field -- but want to retain a good relationship with my current advisor just in case I don't get accepted.

1)What is the best way to proceed without burning bridges?

2) Is it possible to apply to a new program without my previous advisor's recommendation?

  • 13
    “It's not you, it's me” ;-)
    – F'x
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 15:48
  • Could you elaborate on that? I am familiar with this quote but what is a specific example that would work in this situation? Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 16:17
  • What F'x is saying is that your approach should be: you explaining that it is your "fault" things are not working and you don't want to stand in a way.
    – qoobit
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 14:18

2 Answers 2


Since you received your Master's degree from the same institution, it is understandable that you would want to pursue other options even if you were not having difficulties with your advisor. This might be a good way to approach your advisor without causing unnecessary tension. Ask for a meeting, express your concerns tactfully, and ask for opinions on what your options are (both including going elsewhere, but also discuss what measures you can take to get more out of your program). Hopefully is your advisor is as amiable as he/she seems, this won't be a problem. I do not know how not having your advisor's recommendation would be received for applications, but it could lead to questions.


This is the answer to everything, but talk to your advisor. If he is, as you say, very nice but hands off, you should talk to him. Express your concerns, that you really feel you need a more hands-on approach and that right now you feel like you are floundering. If you're honest and direct without blaming him, asking for help, he may change his behavior or work with you to find a better fit. Either is good for you, but you need to talk to him. He knows he's being hands-off, he just may not know that it is not working for you. You need to communicate that.

  • I'm not so concerned with my advisor's behavior as a I am with how to approach applying somewhere else. I don't imagine that he will change. I just don't like the program I am in right now and want to apply elsewhere. How do I communicate that to him without seeming insensitive? Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 16:15
  • 2
    I suggest "I don't like the program and I want to apply elsewhere."
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 4, 2013 at 4:22

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