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Let me begin by saying my Ph.D. program has been a disaster. I'm 26 and I'm finishing up year 4 in a physics Ph.D. program. I have no publications and I'm completely burnt out. I have no idea what to do.

I went into a physics Ph.D. straight out of undergrad. My advisor told me to focus on coursework to get a master's first so I did. Right around year 2 I got my masters and was ready to start research, but my advisor's wife suddenly died and he was gone for almost a year and a half. Money ran out and I had to get a teaching position to make ends meet. I tried my best to do what I could, but it's very hard to be an experimental physicist with no money. I actually got a small grant on my own that helped, but it wasn't enough. Additionally, our university grad student union went on strike for a month or two that slowed everything down.

About a year ago another professor joined the department and hired me on. It was ok for a while, he had money and I was finally getting paid to do research. Since he was building up a new lab I was helping put together all the equipment.

Now there are a few more students, all at least 2-3 years behind me, who are in the lab. I'm still expected to put the machinery together while they are getting data from experiments and actually contributing to research. They aren't collecting data, they've been given older unpublished data to analyze. Every time I bring this up I'm just told to be patient.

As of right now, I'm going into year 5 with my name on absolutely nothing. I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel anymore. My department claims 5-7 years is average but there are a lot of 7,8,9 year students here. If this would only take 2 or 3 more years I'd consider staying, but it feels like I basically had to start over halfway through.

I have one patent application in progress, one fifth or sixth author paper in progress, and a completely written review paper that I was told to not publish. My advisors won't even let me propose a thesis, saying it's "too early". I guess I just want to hear what other people would do in this situation. I was recently offered a job in industry by an old friend that pays pretty well (~$85K) which seems so tempting right now. I feel like such a failure and I think I've wasted the past four years of my life. Does anyone have any thoughts on my situation? I'm very lost in life right now.

Update: thanks for all the responses. It helps to hear other perspectives. I talked to my advisor and he keeps telling me I can graduate in two more years if I focus. I don't think I believe him. I have until Monday evening to take this job offer and I think I need to.

Update 2: I think I just quit. I spent 80 hours in the lab this week (again) only to be told I'm still not doing enough. Every day I got more and more projects piled on my plate and they all involved putting equipment together for other people. I was told by my advisor that he doesn't believe my project will even work anymore. It's just not worth it

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    I know someone that left a Physics PhD after 4 years for similar reasons (unhelpful advisor and troubles with their experiment). The most helpful thing they did when thinking about quitting was talking to the Graduate Student Advisor in the department, who helped them get an MSc out of it before leaving. Does your department have an advisor you can talk to? – Superbee Jul 24 at 17:17
  • Yeah, I made sure to get my masters because the original advisor wanted me to focus on that first. I've talked to the academic advisor but he's less than helpful most of the time. – Acmwx3 Jul 24 at 17:28
  • If you don't mind me asking, does your friend regret it? – Acmwx3 Jul 24 at 17:32
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    They only left within the last 6 months, and I'm afraid I haven't spoken to them since, so I don't know. But I do know that they were planning on applying to fixed-length PhD programs in Europe after taking some time off, so it sounds like for them it might have been a case of getting out of a "toxic" environment rather than leaving academia for good. – Superbee Jul 24 at 19:06
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    And FWIW, I am also a physics PhD student (theory) about to start 4th year, and I have some of the same feelings as you (no publications etc). I don't have any advice, except to say that your feelings might be more common than you think – Superbee Jul 24 at 19:23
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I have found this graphic really helpful for staying motivated in the PhD and reminding me that many, many people go through this. Sounds like you have hit the trough :)

The most concrete advice I've gotten is that the PhD is an endurance sport rather than a sprint. So if you want to finish it sounds like you might need to just persist and stick it out. But I know how you're feeling and it is awful.

Concretely, I can see a few things that might help:

  1. Ask your advisors to help you work out a timeline for graduating in 6 years (or whatever number of years -- just make it fixed). That way you will have clear milestones and deadlines to work towards. It can change later, but write something down now.

  2. Try to take concrete action towards developing a proposal. I find it strange that they don't let you propose by the end of the fourth year; we actually can't advance past it without proposing. It does take some time to pick a topic and build related experience, but in theory, a proposal is what you will do. Is there something intermediate -- like a 1 page outline of the proposal, or a list of three proposal pitches, or a plan for preliminary experiments -- that you can work with them on? (the equipment you're building ostensibly has a purpose). Particularly now, that you can't fully run your experiments, it seems like a good time to take stock and figure out a direction of what will happen, so that you can run with it as soon as things normalize.

  3. Why can't you publish your review paper? Try to understand if this is just a recommendation or a firm no. Is there something you can improve? Is there something you can salvage from it (e.g. an intro chapter of the thesis?) If you're not working on anything else, you might as well be trying to get this out. It's possible that they think it's not good enough for a top publication, but it might help motivate you to have one publication through the pipeline, even if not the most competitive.

  4. Try to find a support community. I have found that meeting other students through summer schools or conferences has helped me a lot. You might be able to undertake some related collaborations to help motivate you, and as a bonus publish that way. For experimental work, maybe you could try to find a lab that you could visit or intern with (CERN? DOE? I am not a physicist) -- joining existing experiments might enable you to publish without setting up from scratch.

  5. Take some time off. If you are burnt out and experiments aren't running, maybe just block off a week or two for complete rest and no physics.

It sounds like your advisor might be thinking longer-term than you are -- for him the priority is probably setting up the lab, rather than graduating you. Hopefully, once the equipment is set up, you'll be first in the queue (and get credited on the publications of the other younger students), but I can see that it would be hard to guarantee this in advance and you risk being taken advantage of. For now, I'd try to be clear that you're having a hard time and need some sort of framework or plan for moving forward. Hopefully that will take the focus back to what you want -- an end goal.

I haven't commented on your outside offer because I think that's really a personal choice. But it sounds like you want to take it because you are having trouble with the PhD, so I tried to think of ideas to solve that. The fact that you're asking this question suggests that you're not quite ready to give up on PhD...?

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  • Thanks for your thoughts. Truthfully I think I might be ready to just leave. I don't want to stay in academia anymore and I'm just miserable here. I love actually doing research when I'm allowed to, but those times are few and far between. I'd probably be better suited for an engineering type role somewhere. Not as fun, but I wouldn't be on the brink of a mental breakdown all the time. – Acmwx3 Jul 24 at 22:08
  • At the end of the day, you should do what's best for you and your mental health, and it seems like this conversation has clarified what that is, so that's great. As I said, I don't think there's a clear right or a wrong answer...Looking back, I just try to think: if I was convinced that I made the best choice I could given the information/situation/etc at the time, then there is no point in having regrets! – atkat12 Jul 24 at 22:41
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Both your advisors seems to be doing an unacceptably poor job of advising (though, of course, I'm basing this solely on your description). In addition, your program doesn't seem to be doing a good job for its students, in terms of advice or supporting timely completion. From what you've written, there doesn't seem to be a driving passion for the research topic that would be strong enough to outweigh the first two issues. And finally, you have an excellent job offer -- something plenty of people with a Ph.D. struggle to get. To me the choice would be obvious. The main thing I suggest is to definitely not think of the past four years as wasted, or even to regret them. Life is full of meandering paths, and you've undoubtedly learned or practiced various skills, had interesting experiences, or simply grown in your outlook. Do what is best for yourself; don't worry about the past, or about sunken costs.

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  • Thanks for your thoughts. I finally talked to one of my advisors today(been trying to get a one on one since March) and he said I could propose a thesis next year. Truthfully I don't think I believe him anymore though. It's just very difficult to leave because research is really the only thing I've ever wanted to do with my life. – Acmwx3 Jul 25 at 5:17
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I think you are overlooking another option: take the job offer from your friend, and re-evaluate whether or not you want to pursue a PhD in a year or two. It is entirely possible to leave academia and come back, although you may encounter additional questions/scrutiny from people who have taken a more linear career path. And with a bit of distance, some savings, and a [hopefully] better work-life balance, you may even find that you prefer life outside academia.

Anecdote from someone who has lived through this:

I was in a very similar situation during my physics PhD, although by the end of my fourth year I was also severely depressed and my largely absent advisor was always pretty neutral about my ability to graduate. I decided to continue in the program for two primary reasons: I was somehow convinced that I could salvage the situation and graduate in 2-3 years if I put in enough effort, and I had no idea what else to do with my life (a research career in my sub-field was still my dream job, even though I was miserable in that department). A year and a half later, my advisor decided that I would never graduate and dropped my funding. No other professor was willing to take me as a student -- I heard from a trusted third party that someone had started a smear campaign against me so I had a terrible reputation on top of my low research output -- and I left the university with 'just' my masters.

While I was (and still am) angry about the way I was let go, I do agree with the decision. It was a relief to openly acknowledge that my situation at that university was untenable and not going to improve, plus it was the kick in the pants I needed to find another job. I ended up teaching as an adjunct professor for some time and did a lot of soul searching to figure out what I wanted out of life. Ultimately, I decided to apply to other graduate programs, was accepted, obtained my PhD, and am now working as a postdoc in the same sub-field I started in (and am loving it). It remains to be seen if I will be able to find a permanent position, but my current collaborators have been nothing but supportive and encouraging about my future prospects.

If I have any regrets about the situation, they would be that a) I did not leave my first PhD program sooner and that b) I allowed my advisor to ultimately make the decision to leave for me by cutting my funding. Very few people have since asked me about my first PhD program (even during interviews), so I rarely need to explain my 'missing years'.

The decision to stay or leave is yours, and unfortunately no one can tell you what is best for you. However, I would leave you with just a few thoughts:

  • You mention that you don't really trust your advisor anymore. What would it take for you to trust their word again? Are you likely to get it? Can you honestly see yourself finishing your PhD without that trust?
  • Has your advisor given superficial/generic comments about your graduation, or concrete details? Based on my own experience, I would be skeptical of the situation if your advisor only gives hand-wavy
    assurances.
  • Look up the 'sunk cost fallacy' and see if this applies to your situation.

Best of luck!

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First step is to figure out why you are studying. What are you hoping to accomplish anyway? You want a PhD, obvious enough, but why do you want one?

Ultimately the purpose of education for most people is to be the foundation of a career. The degree helps you get a job you enjoy, which also earns you $$$, which makes you rich, which lets you have children + send them to college, and retire in comfort. Does this describe you? If not, what does? Think carefully about what you are trying to achieve.

Do you have some idea what kind of job you enjoy? This is a difficult question because you usually won't have an idea until you try it out or see it firsthand. Still, you could get some indication from the things you like doing. For example do you like putting machinery together, gathering data from experiments, analyzing data, and writing patent applications? If you stay in academia, you'll be doing more of that. If you find you don't like doing these things, it's a sign to switch.

Assuming you're talking about USD, $85k a year is a tremendous amount of money. That's more than what some professors earn. Does money matter to you? It might sound shallow, but if you have a spouse to accommodate and/or intend to have children, buy your own house, etc, you'll need money.

Based on your description it's a choice between:

  • Stay on in your program for an uncertain number of years. Keep doing things like putting machinery together, gathering data from experiments, etc. Probably not be paid very well. Maybe get a PhD in the future (and then what? You need to fill in the blanks of what you are going to do with the PhD).
  • Leave, start earning a lot more money. You'll probably never get a PhD and feel like a failure as a result (note however that you can stop feeling like a failure when you stop treating "fail to get a PhD" as a bad thing). You'll do something else which you might enjoy more, or might not.

It's a choice only you can make since you're the only one who knows what you want to do with your life. Just remember that the second option is a legit one. You don't have to stay in your program if you're miserable and burnt out. It might be the preferable option if you think the burnout is temporary, that things will get better, that getting a PhD is what you really want to do - but if that's not the case, there's nothing wrong with quitting.

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    There are other options. E.g., they could move to a different department or university. There are a couple of potential red flags in OP's description of their current academic environment. – Roland Jul 24 at 6:36
  • Thanks for your thoughts. I certainly don't really want to leave, but I've seen some grad students here for 9,10, and one at 15 years. I don't want that life. I was told the average here was 5-7 and that's what I committed to. As it is I'm basically a very cheap technician for them. I had an old friend asking why I'm not graduating yet (granted he thought I'd been here for 7 years) and it just felt terrible because he got out in 6. I've been considering leaving for a while now. – Acmwx3 Jul 24 at 14:46
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It certainly sounds like your advisor has not done you any service, even given their personal life taking their time (justifiably but perhaps overlong). I believe the answer by Allure is exactly the right framework to think through, because getting a PhD really comes down to remembering why you are doing it when it gets difficult.

As far as proposing a thesis, I think it is a good call not to propose yet, because part of the proposal should be grounded in previous research done, and it also sets you up for timely expectations. Many departments intentionally slow this down because it is more important for you to have a solid background before graduating, i.e. having papers and research to set you up well, than it is for you to just fly through it and finish it. The exact amount of research depends a lot on your focus and department, but I would be hesitant to propose without already having knocked out a few papers that lead into that direction.

Another choice you have is to switch advisors, which can be beneficial if yours is not working out. Switching advisors within your school should not delay your progress, but switching schools could add some time, although it may also be shorter than the unknown amount of time it sounds like is going on.

For the job, consider the location as well. $85k sounds great until you realize that $85k in SF is equivalent to $40k in Cleveland OH. Cost of living is important and can vary dramatically in the US.

If you are looking for stability, then a job may be a good choice, especially if you are not sure why you want a PhD anymore. If you are looking to move into a role you can't get without it, then you probably want to consider how to stimulate your progress. I would recommend talking to the other professor and explaining your thoughts and what you are deciding between as well; they tend to be able to understand your perspective if you explain what you are going through.

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  • Thanks. I really don't know why I'm doing this anymore to be honest. Basically a year was wasted on a project that went nowhere and got no publications out of it. I've gotten really good at putting together scientific equipment, but I wanted to be a scientist not a technician. The job is in the same city I'm in now so cost of living is the same. – Acmwx3 Jul 24 at 14:53
  • And I completely agree it would be premature to propose a thesis right now. I'd planned on just taking data earlier this year and proposing this summer after I could get a paper out for review. COVID kind of messed that up. Labs were shut down from March-June. I'm going back now but it'll probably be shut down again very soon. – Acmwx3 Jul 24 at 15:06

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