I've recently started a PhD position in a university and I figured out that many aspects deject me. At the moment I'm employed in a test phase of a few months, and this has led me to think of leaving this position if it didn't fulfil me by then.

With that in mind,

  • Is it ethical/professional/acceptable to ask my references for additional recommendation letters, again, for the new positions I'm going to apply to?
  • Is a sign of lack of commitment and interest (and therefore, unprofessional)?

I appreciate your opinions.

PS: Even though I have accepted this position, it never was among my top choices. In fact, my decision was very much affected by the situation of COVID in my country and the market recession.


The main reasons unprofessionalism strikes my mind are the following. I hope it clarifies my situation more.

  1. I'm in the very early days of my PhD, the transient phase so to speak. So any extrapolation of my current situation to the future isn't reliable. I'm afraid that I'm making my mind during this transition time, before adjusting myself or tasting the research as much as I should.

  2. As far as I can feel, the non-academic aspects of my unhappiness outweigh the academic part; For instance, the cold environment of the campus and the city, the depressing atmosphere of the only accommodation I could find, as well as my flatmates (please look at PS2) who are desperately are looking for jobs in the wakes of the pandemic, all transfer a sense of stagnation to me. Although some of these issues can be solved, I believe they need an immense amount energy and time, probably comparable to the effort I need to put on my research.

  3. I accepted this position with one vital side goal in mind, which (to be honest) is as important for me as the PhD degree if not more: learning the local language (until B1 level). Learning a new language is though, especially alongside a PhD. I know it needs extra focus and perseverance. But with all I have to face (summarized in the previous number), and knowing my personal mental capacity, I'm seriously sceptical about being able to achieve this.

I believe these are decent arguments on a personal level, but maybe not academically. I'm afraid that Academic institutes may find this chain of reasoning unsatisfactory, a set of excuses, or a sign of unreliability. As I'm barely a researcher at this point, I'd be grateful if you can shed more light on these arguments and resolve their (lack of) pertinence to the academic world to me, as an experienced outer observer.

PS2: My flatmates are good people. However, I'd rather like to be surrounded by people who are trying to push forward a meaningful protect with passion. That kind of people whose perseverance inspires others. And I'm not talking about superman; For me, any other PhD candidate is a good example of such a group.)

  • 5
    Does this answer your question? Is transferring to another university an option for an unhappy PhD student? Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 6:43
  • 1
    The qualification exam is not really relevant. Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 6:44
  • 1
    @user111388 please refer to me update
    – user01
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 12:58
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist There is a significant overlap between my question and the question you linked to. Despite the invaluable insights I got from it, I believe that question concerns a rather developed PhD. Mine is an embryo still :)
    – user01
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 13:02
  • 1
    What is unprofessional is staying on a dead-end path. Life is short. It should be enjoyable.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 14:05

2 Answers 2


Identifying that you are not happy where you are, honestly attempting to address the reasons and then, if you are still not satisfied, making the decision to leave before you become depressed and wholly negative, is far from unprofessional. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There should be no negative associations from taking a purposeful step away from an unfulfilling working relationship. For that reason, there is no problem for asking for additional recommendation letters from your referees for a different PhD position. They might be curious why the previous position didn't last. Being honest and professional with your reasons is a good policy.

You mention that you are "employed in a test phase" for a few months. Does this mean that you are in some kind of provisional stage of your PhD programme? It is not uncommon for PhD programmes to have some kind of initial provisional period during which both the PhD candidate and their supervisors develop their working relationship. If by the end of the provisional period it emerges that the PhD candidate and the supervision team are a poor fit to each other and/or to the research programme, the PhD registration can be terminated and everyone goes their separate ways.

There is no downside to this, despite many candidates viewing this as "quitting" or feeling that they were at some kind of fault for not making it work. The PhD -- supervisor relationship is just that: a relationship. In addition, there are occasions where it becomes obvious that the research project and/or student and/or supervisor are a poor combination. Normally this would have been avoided during an initial registration period, but sometimes the disconnect(s) are only discovered later in the piece.


You say the current climate makes you unhappy, mainly for personal reasons. But personal reasons are not somehow worse than academic reasons. One of the main advices I give my students is "Never make your studies everything in life. To be a good researcher, you must have a fulfilling life outside of academia."

I wouldn't mention those precise reasons in interviews etc. I'd just say personal reasons (which is true). Reasonable people understand your life does not consist only of academia. And you should not treat your personal reasons as unimportant because of some unreasonable people (which there are unfortunately a lot).

So yes, I'd say it's completely ethical, acceptable, professional to not do a phd when you have personal reasons not to.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .