tl;dr: I am considering leaving my current PhD program ABD, after four years, several publications and a strained relationship with my bully advisor. How, when and do I explain why I'm leaving if I apply to other PhD programs (in different European countries) and would it be considered a red flag and mean an outright rejection?

Wider context: I am a PhD student in an STEM field at a European university, currently in my fourth year. Over time, I have become increasingly disappointed and disillusioned, and I have been pushed around, bullied and slaved away for minimum pay. My relationship with my advisor is becoming worse all the time. They are a very self-absorbed person and a bully, but very well connected in the University. I have worked very hard for them not only on my PhD but on numerous other tasks that are not even related to my job. I completed all the formal requirements for graduation but my advisor keeps stalling because they need someone to work for them cheaply and the PhD dissertation is strong leverage.

Now I decided I am ready to leave my job and my PhD without graduation as it has become apparent that they will not let me finish no matter how much more I do.

I was thinking of applying to other programs, but it will be obvious that I was already a PhD student, as I can't just leave it off my CV and the publication track record will also be there. My question is, will quitting my program ABD and applying to another be a red flag? Do I mention anything about why I'm leaving and when? I have no intention of bad-mouthing my advisor to anyone (except obviously you strangers on the internet), so how do I explain my leaving without coming across as a whiner and a quitter? Or should I just give up and get a regular job?

P.S. I read this question which might be a duplicate, but there the student quit while having a relationship and contact with a specific advisor at the new university, while I am just thinking of applying to several calls where I do not have any personal connection with the people hiring. If people here think it's still a duplicate, I will agree.

  • 3
    your post is far too long Jun 28, 2020 at 18:09
  • 3
    @AzorAhai--hehim I edited, hope it's better now.
    – user125817
    Jun 28, 2020 at 20:30

2 Answers 2


The first order of business is making sure that you cannot graduate. If you have more than 10 papers published in non-predatory journals, you are objectively ready to wrap it up. I would suggest contacting former PhD students of your advisor to know how they "escaped".

Assuming you will not be able to graduate, look at your exit options. Your division of the job market between academia and "regular 9-5 job[s]" is to black-and-white.

Most large companies and some midsize companies have R&D laboratoires where research jobs is at least as intellectually stimulating as in academia; compared to academia, you trade some freedom, both intellectual (the cool topic you worked on is not funded this year because of company priorities) and physical (you need to be on premises at fixed hours, and you might even need to follow a dress code) in exchange for better working conditions (on average a better salary, better work/life balance; in experimental sciences you have a better-equipped lab with dedicated workers). That might or might not suit your taste.

For whichever position you end up pursuing, I strongly advise you rehearse what you will say at an interview. You will have to "badmouth" your current advisor; hop over to the Workplace stackexchange and read a few questions on that topic; the quick summary is to keep it as factual as possible. For PhD positions any reasonable interviewer would think that you should have defended with that number of publications, so I would point at that and say you disagree with your advisor's decision not to let you defend; avoir bringing other concerns if not asked. For industry positions the interviewer might not be familiar with PhD programs, so I would rather say something vague about an unsound work environment.

For PhD positions, your CV will probably be tossed out without an interview a few times because it is atypical, but if you get to the interview your chances look better than average since you demonstrated an ability to do research, write papers/grants etc.


The advice of UJM is good, especially the first paragraph. But, there might be an option to help you move.

I left one program for another, but for different reasons. But I was successful in moving primarily because there was another faculty member who supported me in ways that my advisor did not. He expressed confidence in my ability and it was his recommendations that made my move possible and my future a success.

So, my advice, if it applies to you, is to see who you might have for allies at your current place who could strongly promote your candidacy elsewhere. If such people exist, they might have both recommendations and some influence about other universities. Allies elsewhere would be another possibility.

But just leaving and trying to start over would be difficult, as you suggest. It isn't impossible, and others have done it, but look for a springboard to help make the jump.

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