I am a PhD student sponsored by a company and considering leaving after three months.

This is an opportunity offered by my supervisor because he has a good relationship with the company and the company started a meaningful project. Right after I graduated my master degree, my supervisor suggested the company to offer my a three month pre-PhD summer job that I could start the project earlier while waiting the start date of my PhD.

To be honest, I found myself under pressure during the three months summer job because I was assigned heavy workload and something I’m not familiar with. This is a tiny size company (less than 10 people), I would say it is very not organised too. The development team has only one full time employee but he’s also working like a part time on this project. Even the project manager is a part time employee. Thus, everything relied on me. I did consider not starting the PhD and just let go the “golden” opportunity.

I thought that I would be protected by the uni once I officially started my PhD. But I am afraid this is not correct. After I started, things even got worse, the company lost 2 managers in a very short period. As I am a full time PhD student working on the research part of the company’s project, I don’t think I’m supposed to be assigned operational work. I was happy to accept this kind of workload as I think the company is paying real money for sponsoring my PhD. They requested 40% of my work time, which means 2 work days to focus on the company work. They kept adding workload, sudden meetings and very tight deadlines, I was under great pressure and that ruined my schedule.

I have been keeping weekly reports and have reported issues to my academic supervisors. I am very surprised that I have raised the same issue three times within the first three months of my PhD. We have a big meeting every after I “complain”. The CEO (my industrial supervisor) of the company agreed he would change the situation, and promised that I have the right to say no to the non research related work. From my experience, he forgets what’s been agreed after two weeks and just keeps asking for 40% of my work time.

I had the third meeting regarding the same issue with them this afternoon. From my point of view, what the CEO said today was pretty much the same as the last 2 times. What I remember the most from the chat today is the CEO mentioned even the tight deadline could be changed when needed, we have to keep both internal and external communication running. However, this is a little bit different comparing to his actions. Last month, he didn’t even consider pushing back the deadline but requested me to finish the limited demo in 2 days, which put me under great pressure and ruined my schedule, I had no time to prepare the conference presentation. He told my supervisor things are flexible and not seeing me as a developer. But what I’m feeling is he treats me like a full time product developer, leave me no time for research, and nothing can be changed after he decided.

For my academic supervisor, he is 50% helpful in this case to be fair. He guides me how to exploit the company’s project to finish my PhD. He also listens to me carefully when I need help. However, it seems that he doesn’t want to touch the internal issues of the company, I feel like he has no such power to change the situation I’m facing.

Let me know what you guys think.


  • 5
    This isn't a general advice site. It is for specific questions. Your situation is too personal for good answers, I think. And, BTW, not everyone here is a "guy".
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 13:14
  • Thanks and sorry at the same time. Sorry for the word I chose. I understand this is not a general advice site but my uni office is still in stealth mode before the new semester starts, I just wanna share what I am feeling... thanks very much Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 14:07
  • 1
    It seems like they assign you (too much) work, you accept it and do it satisfactorily, and then you complain to your advisor and a meeting is scheduled. Is this accurate? Have you tried regulating your own workflow by refusing new tasks or not meeting deadlines?
    – cag51
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 14:59
  • 2
    It is possible that you would get better answers on the "workplace" stack exchange rather than here, only because this seems more of an issue of a company attempting to exploit a student, rather than a typical academia issue. (It is on topic here though, in my rather insignificant opinion.) It doesn't sound like a great situation to me though - it sounds like the company is in financial trouble and can't hire enough people for the work they need to do.
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 15:20
  • What is the problem? That the company is asking you to do too much operational work? If so, please clarify Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:04

3 Answers 3


I can't figure out what the formal relationship between you and this company is. Do you still have some contract with them, as well as with the University?

It seems to me that asking your advisor about the situation regarding say IPR or liability insurance may give you a lever you can use to get out of doing the company's work. E.g. "... requested me to finish the limited demo ..." so if that was done as part of a full-time PhD then is it you or the University that owns the code, and not the company at all?

  • thanks for you reply, the summer job contract expired and I only signed an agreement with the uni before I started the PhD. For now, the company funds the uni, and then the uni transfers part of it as stipend to my account every month. From what I know is the company will own the research result and all the code when I graduate. Before I graduate the PhD, the company is kind of borrowing the code and resources from the uni. The reality is if I quit the company's project, they won't fund the uni anymore and my PhD ends. Cheers Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:46
  • Which country you are in? That will give us some idea of what the various agreements typically involve.
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 21:14
  • "Before I graduate the PhD, the company is kind of borrowing the code and resources from the uni." but only if your agreement with the uni explicitly transfers the IP from you to the the uni... does it? (Frankly, to me this all looks like a nasty mess that you are caught in the middle of.) What does the uni. contract say about the stipend? I would expect a generic one to require that you do actually study full-time to receive it, yet the uni are trying to exploit you as an unpaid consultant for 50% of the time. Or is the 40% written into there?
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 21:29
  • I am in the UK at the moment. I only signed the uni phd agreement before started, and that is a very simple agreement telling me that what the stipend amount is and how long the funding last. I am not sure what the agreement between the company and the uni is. What I only know is the company own the IP once I successfully graduate. I didn't sign any document related the work time ratio. The CEO wants 40% of my time, and he doesn't consider anything less than 40%, this makes me like doing a part-time PhD. One of my supervisors suggested 20% but he disagreed. In fact, he uses like 60% of my time Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 22:06
  • I don't know how things are with Covid, but I would have expected you to have signed an agreement with the uni during matriculation where you formally became their (full-/part-time)student, got a swipe card, etc. That agreement references a thick document probably on their intranet that contains the legalistic terms and conditions; there should also be a Postgraduate Student Handbook. UK PhDs are 3 years (if full-time) with an increasing number of formal hoops to jump through especially in the first year: if you're not getting enough time to meet those requirements things will go really sour.
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 22:47

This is a little hard to follow, but I would break it into two pieces:

Working more than 40%

You need to turn the tables. Right now, the company is "playing by its own rules," and you are stuck impotently chasing after them with the useless contract. You seem to think this is deliberate on the company's part, while I suspect that it might be unintentional -- but either way, it will be fixed when you become the one who "plays by your own rules." For example, perhaps you are willing to work one hour per day M/T/W and all day Thursday and Friday. Anything that cannot get done during that time simply does not get done. You don't check e-mail outside of that time window, and you are unconcerned about missing deadlines.

This will have two possible outcomes.

  • One is that they try to complain, but your advisor supports you, and after all, you are working 40% as agreed. So, this complaint goes nowhere, and they eventually do a better job of managing your tasking (or they just learn to accept that work assigned to you will move slowly). They might even respect you more.
  • The other is that they complain very angrily, your advisor does not (or cannot) successfully support you, and you are eventually forced to return to your current workflow. In this case, you will probably end up leaving both the company and the PhD (which seems to be what you are considering now in any case).

Doing operational work rather than R&D

So far you are only 3 months in, so getting familiarity with the company's operational work may not be a bad thing. Especially if you want to stay in industry, this sort of knowledge may be quite valuable to you. So I am less concerned about this, especially since you are working 60% time at the university.

Sure, this is still a problem and it will need to be addressed -- but I would focus on the 40% issue for now and then after that converges, you can start to slowly shift your responsibilities.

  • Thanks for your reply. I did try to "play by my own rules" after the second meeting. They are good at assigning "urgent" work to me or asking "quick" questions outside the 40%. It's because they thought it's really "urgent" and "quick", so even I had to right to say NO, they did not accept it. I do hope my supervisors could fully support me, but who knows. I am just a bit disappointed where I have to raise the same issue 3 times. I am not sure if I should give them the one last chance. I lost appetite and suffered from insomnia because of the great pressure. Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 22:16
  • There is no "outside the 40%" in what I suggested. There is also no "raising the issue". There is only your 16-19 hrs per week, and your schedule -- if they want to give you an urgent task, fine, you can move it to the front of the queue, but it comes out of your allocated time budget.
    – cag51
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 22:32
  • Thanks for your suggestion again, and I will give it a try. Many thanks. Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 23:07

Your meetings haven't served their purpose, follow-up with an email clarifying some specifics, e.g.,

Dear CEO,

Thank you for listening to my concerns during our meetings X XXX XXXX, Y YYY YYYY, and Z ZZZ ZZZZ. I appreciate the company's needs for ABC and, as discussed, I can commit 17% of my time to this. I suggest that my contributions be conducted on Fridays, between the hours of X and Y. My university employment makes further commitment infeasible.

One day a week (20%) may be too high, 17% too low, adapt accordingly. My personal preference would be to commit Friday, your preference may vary.

You could offer the CEO a solution:

Nonetheless, I foresee a scaling opportunity: I am willing to supervise one or more interns/researchers/developers to help us achieve ABC.

Other details can of course be added.

Conclude with something along the lines of:

I trust we are in agreement, please do not hesitate to offer clarification if we are not.

Yours sincerely,


Such a conclusion forces the CEO to stick to their word, or break a written agreement.

  • 1
    Thanks for your reply, I did send a follow-up email and my academic supervisor thinks the problem has been solved after the meeting. The CEO doesn't accept less than 40% of my time I am afraid. And I have already suggested him to employ a proper developer to reduce the pressure on my shoulder like 2 months ago, it seems like COVID is his good excuse for not hiring a new employee. Cheers Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 14:08
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    @researchxyz You can revise to forty percent, I'd suggest conducting such work on Thursday and Friday. Doing so earlier will allow for discussion during your research time. (The weekend follows Friday, you needn't work.) You need to be disciplined: Don't work for the company outside of your commitments. You're essentially working part-time on your PhD, you'll surely need additional time to complete on time. Having written documented evidence will be useful. I've forgotten one aspect, let me edit to add now.
    – user2768
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 14:57
  • 1
    +1 I think it's important to do the 40% in two full days. If you allow company related interruptions any work day you will be unable to limit the total to that percentage, and the context switches will be expensive. Of course two full days rather than "on call" won't suit the company, but hold to it if you possibly can. Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 15:34
  • @EthanBolker The OP should do whatever they originally negotiated / contractually agreed to. That's a little unclear from the question: The OP remarks, after starting, they requested 40% of my work time and notes [the CEO] forgets what’s been agreed...and just keeps asking for 40% of my work time. Ultimately, the OP should do the hours contractually agreed to.
    – user2768
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:23

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