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TL; DR: PhD with a supervisor who states things that turn out not to be true in order to manage people; funding lost and replaced with smaller financial contribution; serious doubt whether to continue the PhD due to change of mind in future career and difficulty in recognising the title in another country.

I hope this question is not too long nor inappropriate (sorry if this is the case, I have just joined Academia SE) but I want to provide as much information as possible. I am currently doing a PhD in Computer Science in the UK, but I am a European national. As the title has already disclosed, I am having some problems and I really need as many “valid” opinions as possible.

Yes, I read Phd advisor funding problem, PhD advisor lost funding, need advice, PhD Advisor to Stop Funding Me and others, yet I still think my problem is different.

Why I decided to do a PhD in the first place

Since I was a child I had always wanted to become a researcher, someone who does cool stuff and has a real impact in the world (now I know that the truth is a bit different…). This means that I had never thought about looking for a job after university, nor I wanted to work in a company. I could only see myself as a Professor in a university.

Why I decided to do a PhD in another country (i.e. the UK)

When I finished my Batchelor (with the maximum grade possible and in the smallest period of time possible), as I was unsatisfied by the quality of teaching of my university (and also by the public “college” in which I was, supposed to provide “gifted” students with very high level of teaching), I started to look for another university where to do a Master.

In addition to this, I also wanted to live far from my family because unfortunately the situation with them had become unbearable for some problems of “incomprehension” that cannot be solved as of now. Since I did not want to spend my family’s money (we are not exactly rich) I applied for several scholarships and public “colleges” for talented students (like the one I was in), where I got admitted to one (currently considered one of the best youngest academic institutions in the world). At the same time, by chance, I found out that in countries such as the UK you can do a PhD without a Master, and talking to who is now my current supervisor I decided to apply. I got admitted in this course as well, and since the other one did not include any funding (unlike this one) I decided to go for the PhD.

Finally, changing university and moving out would force me to prove myself and to see if I was the person that I had always thought I was. Indeed during my last year of university, following the stress at home and university plus some terrible experiences that had happened in the college I had started to question my abilities and decided to book some counselling sessions to solve the “psychological” problems that I had piled up. To be more specific I had basically started to sleep less than four hours a day, except for the weekend when I used to sleep at home and not in the college, and I had also become unable to focus as much as I used to be able to. My fears with the counsellor were that I would not be able to carry out the studies for a Master, that I had lost my brightness, that I had wasted my life. They suggested that I was “anticipating”, that I had to lower my expectations, that it is normal to get distracted every once in a while (which clearly was not my point), that with my grades that would be fundamentally impossible. They also said they were confident I would be successful in a Master and I should not worry that much. Basically, it looks to me now that they were treating me as if I “had” the impostor syndrome. Due to these reasons and to the fact that I wanted to see whether I would be able to carry out high level studies in autonomy I decided to apply to these “advanced” courses.

Problems encountered

The supervisor lies

Following my acceptance the supervisor suggested I could come more than one month before the starting date of the PhD, so as to settle in and potentially start before the defined date. I trusted them and paid the rent and the food for the month without seeing any money from the scholarship. This is fine, what is not fine is the fact that I was told a lie, a constant for this person, plus a number of other unsaid characteristics of the PhD such as the stated official duration of it which was supposed to be three years and turned out to be four.

The scholarship for the PhD was provided by a European fund, while the tuition fees were supposed to be paid by a company (with which I would be collaborating during the project). When I came, I was given some papers to start off with, that later on I realised to be totally unrelated to the work I was supposed to do with the company (but clearly strictly related to my supervisor’s research interests). I was also given a “side project” (as my supervisor defined it) to begin so as not to get bored working on a single project. This was basically after just a couple of weeks since my starting date. During these 15 months of PhD indeed, I have basically worked on my supervisor’s ideas (still this “side project”), instead of doing something for the company. I asked them twice whether this was proper behaviour/strategy, but they said both of the times that “The PhD is funded by the university so you should not worry about that”, only to say a couple of months later that “The PhD is funded by the company, you should do something for them to make them happy”.

Moreover, as soon as I started I found out that in the office we did not have the necessary equipment to conduct the kind of research I was supposed to conduct (I had not asked during the interview because I thought it would be superfluous). As of now, after one year and three months of PhD, I still do not have the highly performing computational machinery required. Clearly I have repeatedly asked for it, I also tried to use the computers in the postgraduate lab (just to be told to refrain from attempting to install the software that I needed on them). Also, the supervisor told me many times that I would be able to use the computers in the new centre the university was building, but after waiting for its completion when I asked the people in charge of those computers I was told that that would conflict with the use for which those computers were destined. Then the supervisor told me some computers would be bought, and after weeks of problems (please read excuses) they said the computers were on campus and would be assembled the following week. This was two weeks ago.

Another thing that I consider to be extremely ridiculous is the fact that he uses me blatantly as a means to start new collaborations whose only purpose is to get the data that we actually need but do not have. Everything seems to revolve around the data (fundamental to conduct our analyses) that we cannot procure. I even went to America to allegedly start a collaboration with an expert in the field and when I arrived there they did not even know when I was supposed to come nor what I was supposed to do. Basically as far as I understood my supervisor had told them I was an expert in the field of my PhD (which is obviously false given that I had just started the PhD) and that I could help them. At the end we did not even get the data that I was supposed to be given.

Problems with the company

The company is constituted by just a single person, but when I questioned my supervisor about the soundness of the situation they said that the government was in charge of the fund so the company was trusted by the government. This person has a project in mind which according to my understanding is either impossible to realise or trivial. Furthermore the equipment they said they had does not exist (they finally admitted it, after 9 months of my questioning) and also the data they were supposed to provide us with must be invisible because I have not received anything yet (at the beginning they did not know where the data were, then they found them but it would take too long to process, then they said they would send us the results…). The only thing I received from this person is a report of their previous company which contains grammatical mistakes, is terribly printed and contains whole sentences from Wikipedia. Finally, the knowledge contribution provided by them, which was expected to be in regard to some new equations, turned out to be absolutely old knowledge, with no novelty at all (except for the general idea of how to use these equations; yet they still lied).

General problems

I knew that the university I was moving to was not as good as mine, but I thought that “If things get more difficult I will be more challenged and this will further contribute to my personal growth”, strengthening the hypothesis that I could actually do these things. I know that it sounds a stupid reason (it really is) but back then it seemed to be a way to escape from that situation and I wanted to give it a try. My current supervisor did not look as “strong” as the other professors I had met, but again that was not a matter of primary concern for me.

Besides, a totally absurd thing in my group, maybe common to other research groups is the fact that the code that I write is not checked by anyone. I came across the code of someone else previously in the group and I even had to fix it because it was full of silent errors which would produce distorted results, maybe then published. This is also a thing I definitely do not like about research in this field (and in general), since no one checks the results in the papers and it becomes impossible to replicate them.

Also in the group as far as I have understood the only thing we do is to follow a certain methodological approach to solve some problems in the area, and this makes me question the real innovation between what a colleague of mine makes and my projects.

Finally, I have to say that luckily there is a postdoc in the group who has helped me a lot during the first months and every time I have some doubts, since my supervisor sometimes gives me the impression they have no idea what I have been doing for weeks. Unfortunately this postdoc will leave quite soon, so I will probably be done for.

The last straw

The straw that broke the camel’s back is the fact that the company does not want to pay my tuition fees anymore (I suspect why but I am not sure) and probably they want to withdraw from the partnership with the university. As a result, I will lose all the funding. I found this out when the person in charge of the senior management in my department came into the office asking after my supervisor, explaining that a company with my kind of European fund did not want to pay the fees anymore. Clearly my supervisor did not say anything to me until they “managed” to find a solution. Indeed one week later my supervisor asked me whether I wanted to continue the collaboration with the company or I would prefer to be employed by the university in order to be able to pay the rent and the other things. I obviously said I would prefer the latter, since the company was a totally mad person and I would not have pressure about the project from that side anymore. They made clear that one of the requirements for the job at university was that I would be paid the same amount of money as stated in my original PhD contract, which should plainly be the least. Now that I have received the contract, I can say that this is not the case, since there lack about nine months (comparing the monthly salary) because I cannot be on a full-time job since I am doing a PhD and part of the money (very few) goes into the pension scheme. I think I could survive with what I have left in my bank account, but I just think this is the nth affront. It almost looks like they are doing me a favour while it is their duty to honour the contract the made me sign.

What I think will happen if I leave now

If I leave now it is very likely that I will go home. I will probably try to find a part-time job (it is very difficult in my country and especially in my area since the levels of unemployment are extremely high) in order to do a Master to “strengthen” my cv for a full-time permanent job in the future. My fear is that I will not be able to keep the job because of my slowness in performing tasks and my lack of certain skills that I do not think I can gain by myself. Also the two “wasted” years will not probably help (nor affect negatively though).

What I think will happen if I stay

Assuming that I will not have any financial problems my main concerns are related to the stress due to all of these aspects of my current situation (my supervisor lying, the absence hopefully-about-to-end of the equipment, lack of necessary data, lack of technical supervision, …) and to the fact that once I finish the PhD, presuming I will be able to gain it, I will not be able to do anything but what I am doing now already, which is not what I want to do. If after the end of the PhD I went back to my country the PhD would not be useful to get a job, because in my country it is considered only for a career in academia (when I started that was what I wanted to do, so it was not a problem at all).It will not be even recognised since in my country you need a Master to get a PhD so I would need to get a Master first anyway.

Finally, my supervisor looks very kind and they are certainly a good person, but this gets me into more trouble when I have to question their whole management. I have already talked to them about some of these things (trying not to be rude, especially because I would find it difficult with them) but the situation looks still the same (we talked about eight months ago).

Sorry again for the length, but I felt I had to explain in detail. My question is: do you think I should leave, or should I grit my teeth and hold on (regardless of a new contract that I could be offered, since I have already complained about that)?

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    This is extremely long. It needs at least a TL;DR summary. – Roland Mar 10 at 15:09
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    The length makes this incredibly unclear. There is a lot of extraneous detail in here. I would aim for around 10% of this length, give or take. Try to summarize your problem in one paragraph, and move straight to questions. Also might help if you review a some other successful questions on Academia to get a feel for them. – Jeff Mar 10 at 15:32
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    A UK PhD is recognized everywhere in the European Union. I cannot imagine a country that would not recognize a UK PhD. – Roland Mar 11 at 10:21
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    @map2gap I don't think that's the case, at least it isn't in Germany. A UK PhD will be recognized without a Master degree. Everyone can try to go to the UK to do their PhD but not everyone will get accepted. I simply don't believe that in your country a PhD from Oxford or Cambridge wouldn't be accepted. – Roland Mar 11 at 11:15
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    @MatiasValdenegro Regulations can be adapted. Until the end of the year, a PhD from the UK will be fully recognized. We don't know yet what will happen afterwards but I wouldn't worry. Also, in Germany there is a crucial difference between being allowed to call oneself a Dr. and the recognition as a qualification. – Roland Mar 11 at 13:07
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  1. You talk about a lot of work related nonsense, which I agree are difficult situations, but they are by no means unheard of (or even uncommon...) in academia. It seems that your main issue is really a lack of a mental health support structure (be it friends, therapy, etc.), because it sounds like you have had to suffer through a lot of issues both in your Bachelor's degree as well as during graduate school without adequate support. Whatever step you take next, I think making sure that step includes access to mental health support should be a top priority.

  2. Taking your work/advisor issues, I have a bit of a different take. Your advisor has not been upfront with you, that much is clear. However, from the advisor's perspective, their "side project" they were having you work on could have been - from the very beginning - them trying to make sure you had something that was totally within the lab's control to work on for your dissertation. This is them looking out for your interests! It's very possible that they knew from the beginning that the company wasn't going to amount to anything, and they were just trying to string the funding along as long as possible. Perhaps not exactly ethical, but it doesn't point to obvious maliciousness on their part towards you, either.

  3. As to whether to stay or go, despite the length of your question, I don't think you've given us the key details that those here would need to make an informed answer. Certainly if you think your work so far has a chance to be taken to completion, then gritting it out seems like a reasonable strategy. However, the false binary you've set for yourself (stay at X university or return home) doesn't reflect the diversity of your options. What about switching to a new advisor? Applying to new programs while still working with your current advisor? Applying for jobs while keeping your fellowship rather than quitting and applying for jobs while unemployed?

  4. Finally, in the future you would probably find it more useful on SE to ask more targeted questions that those here could answer with confidence (i.e. What jobs could I get in X country with Y degree?), since a "stay or go" question requires so much situational knowledge (as well as knowledge about you as a person) that you can't adequately convey, no matter how long your question is.

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  • thanks for all the suggestions. Regarding the supervisor, I have just happened to know that the company was not paying the fees there were supposed to pay. This is the reason why the university stopped the collaboration. The problem is that my advisor has kept telling me the problem was intellectual-property related, and due to "this" the university wanted to stop the collaboration. Why would you lie in such a situation? – user120366 Mar 12 at 16:36
  • again, without knowing the specific situation, anything i could say is pure speculation. But it could be that there was an intellectual property dispute and therefore the company was withholding money to keep an upper hand in negotiations? It could be that both things are true: the company wasn't paying the fees, and the problem was intellectual-property related. – roger-reject Mar 13 at 10:36
  • Thank you again for your opinion. However, my supervisor asked my whether I would like to continue the collaboration with the company or I would prefer to have my PhD funded by the university. They did not mention any fee-related problems, which is something that I had found out by myself totally by chance. It looks to me they wanted me to "believe" I had the choice between the two, and that I was not forced to do so. I would like to know what is your opinion about the fact that they "gave me" the opportunity to choose when there was actually no choice at all (they could simply say the truth). – user120366 Mar 14 at 16:09