I'm half-way through the second year of my PhD in computer engineering in a top tier university in the US and I recently moved to a big city away from the main campus of the institution to the research center because I switched advisors over the summer. I've been thinking about quitting my PhD for over 6 months now. Here is the story: during my first year, I was a full teaching assistant but I was spending over 50 hours on research per week for the faculty who initially sponsored me when I was getting into the PhD programme. During this time I came close to a conference and a letter submission but in the end they never went through because my advisor didn't feel like they were completey ready yet(I'd like to point out here that based on my observation of submissions to the same venues I felt like my work was more than on par with what was being offered. Then at the end of my first year(after summer), he said that he would not be able to support me full research funding so I went on looking for someone else. In the meantime he told me that I could try getting an MSc instead.

I'd like to pause here to note that I already have an MSc from top institution in Europe in Electrical engineering with a focus on telecommunications.

Moving on, I was a little peeved off naturally. He waited all summer, leaving me no room to think before the start of the next semester. In that sunken place, filled with desperation, I contemplated just quitting right away but at the same time half-heartedly looked into other potential advisors out of a mixture of vanity, determination and pride. The problem was, most faculty wanted to recruit PhD students and make a long-term committment so the option of converting to an MSc for a second degree of the same type seemed bleak. Concurrently, I was realizing that after living in northern europe during my initial MSc that the American style of living was something that took over you instead of accenting your personality. Additionally, I had frequent talks with my parents who have been ever supportive. Naturally though, jumping over some of the tedious details, I will say that they wanted me to stick it out with positive intentions for my future. So, as I was sending some faculty requests, one responded. He was a professor in the research center of the university located in a big city rather than the campus-city of the main campus. Anyways, at that point, it seemed like I had somehow managed to tether myself to a line of proceeding down this path with a second chance. At that point with no regard to my previous thoughts about my lack of synergy with the American lifestyle, I just went along and agreed to an interview without making my intentions clear in the first place. During the interview, he went on about "how this was a long 5-6 year committment", "that I would be making sacrifices", etc... I just kept nodding emptily, more concerned with maintaining a cool and composed appearance, rather than properly analyzing what he was really saying. He looked at my MSc record and told me that the graduate-level coursework I went through made me qualified for the position. He said he would give me 2 days to contemplate and made me an offer for a research assistant. I'd like to emphasize that there was 4 days until the semester began because until a week ago I was still doing research for my previous advisor who had declined to fund me. Anyway, thinking that it would be all good, and that it was a second chance I accepted in a blur of two days, taking advice from potentially everyone in my inner circle (friends who are doing PhDs of their own, those who finished their MSs and went onto find jobs, both in US and europe and of course my parents). After accepting, he told me that he would give 1-semester before making me move to the research center, so I stayed in the smaller campus-city and familiarized myself with my new research topic and tried to complete my coursework. It was as if I was starting a PhD from scratch (at least the research part), but "ok" I said, a second chance.

Now, coming to you live, 2 weeks after my move to the general DC area. I'm completely drained of motivation. I come into the office area, sit down try to read papers and standards, still trying to pin a concrete idea for a research topic after a full semester of familiarizing with the area. After 20 minutes half-hearted sloppy skimming I start having small panic attacks with the following ideas rushing through my mind: - I'm 1.5 years into a PhD and have absolutely nothing CONCRETE to show for it (no publication, no industiral project work). - I'm living in a hole in a hole in an expensive city, not able to afford proper nutrition, while some of friends who completed their MSc without a thesis are starting to pull in 90000$ a year. - I think about the life I left back in Europe (northern europe) and how the lifestlye here is crushing me into oblivion. In order to appease myself, I start looking various potential jobs in northern europe that I find myself suitable for. When I discuss with my parents, they get flustered (still with good intentions) and they say that I'm not giving this a fair chance and that it was my choice to come to US after MSc in Europe in the first place( this is true but the reason was, due to the heavy influence of american pop culture, I wanted to experience it for myself and see it, unaware that it would spiral this much out of control. I initially applied to internships, but of course getting an internship in US without a standing VISA is already impossible since the company won't really bother to sponsor unless you're like exceptional, which I'm not.) Anyways, I look at job postings in europe, the cost of living in some cities, the average salary reports and try to fantasize about what kind of a life I could have. But at the same time, I come lab everyday at 9am and leave at 6pm with the hope that establishing at least some routine of sorts in the work environment will help with my adjust period. Lately, however, I've been thinking that the research life, the lack of direction\certainty and a sense of result-orientedness is draining me. I still try to cook up some superficial update for my professor, making myself look knowledgable beyond my standing, for the weekly meetings (to be quite honest, since the topic is a very new topic in the community he himself isn't very familiar with it). This has naturally mislead him and he is thinking of giving me more responsibility. He said, he would need my help with writing some proposals and he is including me in the tour of a very important 'something' (no details). All this happening while I'm spending my "working hours" having over ten mini-breakdowns about my future in research. I keep thinking that with an MSc I could've landed a decent enough position in Europe and risen on a career path with more practical technical certifications such as those of CISCO and AWS, instead of pursuing a path where there is no gaurantee it will end good. In fact, based on my current track record and some light stalking of some other PhD students in the same field, I'm way below average with no publications whatsoever to show for the past year. Deep down, deeeeeeeep deep down, I know I want to quit, go back to Europe and find a job. But I feel like its too late. I'm afraid that my professor will be mad, he will somehow try to block me, since I wasted a full semester of his. On top of that, my parents invested some seed money of their own to set up my new house here (with a full year's lease signed), they keep telling me to stick it out a little more. I feel like, however, the more I wait, the more time I lose, the more difficult it will be to leave after.

After hearing this short story, any advice on what to do? How can I approach my advisor after having led him on for a full semester and also having signed a contract for the next two semesters?

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    Can you make this readable and get rid of most of it? – Buffy Feb 6 at 21:28
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    Agree with Buffy, but moreover, I think you need to address what your long term career goals are. If you want to stay in research, then getting a PhD is probably a good idea, and you should focus on strategies on gaining motivation and choosing a topic. If you want to work with Cisco and AWS, then you should move forward with that and stop worrying about making people angry. – cag51 Feb 6 at 23:47
  • That being said, having to switch advisors and move across to the other side of a state is a major life event, so waiting to see how you feel in a little while might help. – user2699 Feb 7 at 0:09
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    Based on the American culture comments, I think you should try to make use of the DC area and join a university club or intramural team, try to make some connections. I think your isolation from local contacts isn't helping your outlook on life.. – mkennedy Feb 7 at 20:26
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    Meanwhile, don't compromise on sleep, exercise and nutrition. The lack of it can cause permanent health issues. – Anon Feb 8 at 14:27

There is a lot of irrelevant stuff here to digest, but what leaps out of the page is a) you said you are mediocre and b) you yearn for the money you could be making. You don't sound like PHD material at all, so by all means get yourself into a well paying job and create fulfilment in your life with the money you earn, just like the vast majority of mediocre people like myself included, hell I have a degree in physics and computer science and have been a commercial dev all my life

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