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I am currently enrolled in a PhD program which involves a coursework component followed by a dissertation phase.

I applied to the program under the suggestion of former research advisors who were personally familiar with the local faculty. I had identified a handful researchers I may want to work with and the structure and content of the program looked great on paper. I also took care of contacting as many students from the program as I could before accepting the offer and all those who answered expressed great satisfaction, except maybe for minor concerns. Besides, the institution offering the training was a reputable one (though the general reputation matters less than that of your department when it comes to research, it seemed fair to expect a reputable institution to deliver a quality course).

Fast forward 10 months later, I went from disappointment to disappointment. The courses taught, which were advertised as advanced material in the program's field of expertise, mostly happened to be a (sometimes very partial) repetition of what I had already learnt in my former Master's program. Most importantly, I spent a lot of time reading and understanding research papers in depth, including from top authors in my field, and it became clear that the courses we had got nowhere close to the level of current research, neither in terms of content nor in terms of skill set. Anyway, after doing my reading homework, I ended up figuring out precisely which researcher I wanted to work with on my dissertation, on which kind of topic, and things seemed set to move forward in a positive direction at last. Unfortunately, the supervisor had a last minute impediment that constrained him to drop the project and after some wandering around, I settled to work with a different advisor on something quite distinct from what I had prepared to. The positive thing is the work really satisfies me intellectually speaking. However, I have trouble assessing which opportunities (postdocs, industrial placements) the project would open up after the PhD, the problem really being the lack of historical data at my disposal.

The thing is, I am currently considering whether it would be a wise decision to quit the program altogether. Besides the hassle described above -which is gone anyway- I keep getting the thought that I could definitely have aimed for a better program, with more faculty willing to supervise, larger groups, more funding, etc. hence more control over what you do (in other words, not having to upset your plans last minute because of a single person's desistance) and, at the end, better career prospects. The evidence for this idea is that the vast majority of people recruited into the program have less extensive research experience than I do (concretely, almost none of them have publications). Now, please do not get me wrong on this point: I am not claiming they are anyway less deserving than I am in terms of raw potential. In fact, I have been slightly longer than most of them in higher education, hence my more extensive research experience, including publications; should they have stayed longer too, it is likely that they would have achieved the same! Yet, I believe that to the extent graduate admissions are evidence-based, demonstrated prior research experience should give you an advantage and by the way it looks, it does not seem I made use of that asset. Another way I got to believe I could have achieved better is by comparing myself, the other way round, to people with similar academic and extra-academic achievements as well as research experience; unfortunately, since there is no magic way to gather this kind of data, that was basically a process that went over time, but in the end, the conclusion was these people had secured (much) more desirable positions than I did or figured out opportunities I was not aware of. Besides that, there also are a couple red lights I got aware of by getting to frequent the department: faculties leaving (sometimes in unacceptable circumstances), others seeming to plan to, difficulties to hire replacements, tiny academic groups compared to all that I was used to, etc. Having gone through all these doubts and self-questioning, I now want to be (pretty) sure where I am heading. This is why I want to ascertain whether the new project I have come to work on really could open up nice future opportunities for me or whether it is likely to be a dead end. I have already accumulated enough frustration now and I believe I will never forgive myself if I continue down this path and I discover it led me nowhere at the very end.

Sorry for this long introductory part, but I hope it helps shed light on my motivations and you are welcome to comment on these.

As I am considering the leave scenario as a serious possibility, I wish to anticipate on my alternative plan. Right now, the most plausible option I consider is to take a position in industry, which, based on my background and skills, could be in software engineering or some aspects of data science among others. From there, I would aim to make a decent amount of money (starvation for funding may have been a facilitating factor in my hasty decision to get into the program; had I had more funds at my disposal, I would certainly have taken the time to visit the institution for an extended period of time on my own funds and I would probably have seen what was wrong with my own eyes this way). Then, I would consider reapplying for PhDs, possibly in a different area. In fact, the self-teaching I did this year aroused my interest for several other connected fields I had never considered before and changed a lot my perspective on how to pick a topic best suited to your tastes and skills. I would have practical questions on how to handle this situation:

  • When applying to industrial positions, would you advise me to hide that I was in the PhD program for one year?
  • Concerning the choice of industrial position: what could be potential pitfalls if you wanted to keep the academic door open afterwards? A simple example: a number of "data scientist" positions are in fact consulting positions where you end up doing really basic stuff scientifically and technically speaking, such as linear regressions. I guess such a position would not bring you out in the realm of science, though it may demonstrate a valuable set of soft skills.
  • When applying to new PhDs, how to handle the recommendation letters? Are letters from (academically well-connected) people in industry a common thing for atypical applicants? Is it also common to reach out to a former supervisor you have not worked with for years to ask him for this favor?
  • Once my decision of applying again is taken, would you advise me to do academic internships in my target groups so as to increase my chances? How long should these internships typically be, if anyone has (heard of) any such experience? Just asking to anticipate on the accountancy, given an academic placement is likely to be unpaid.
  • Is there any specific advice a person applying to a PhD from industry should be aware of?
  • Does my plan sound plausible generally speaking?
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    TL;DR, it seems one of the disappointment stem from your expectation that the course work should be closely related to your research. If this is one of STEM field, then it cannot be. It cannot even be close. The course work is just to lay the foundation. If the course work is very close to your research project, you picked the wrong project. – ssquidd Jun 24 at 3:04
  • Thanks for the feedback; we are talking of a STEM field indeed and I perfectly agree with your view. However, here, the course work was pretty weak even in terms of foundations. To put it differently, the courses did not feel like typical PhD level courses. The course work was only part of the problem though, and arguably not the biggest one. – hwlneh Jun 24 at 6:07
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    Well, a 'typical PhD level course' is, well, a Masters level course, so of course they were similar. The PhD work comes after the courses, which would be now, right? – Jon Custer Jun 24 at 15:49

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