Long story short, I realise that I do not like the field of study I have chosen and I Cannot see myself having the ability to successfully complete a PhD in it. I studied physics and went onto enrol on an applied mathematics PhD- whilst it doesn't sound that far removed from physics, I am a physicist at heart and I do not have any enthusiasm for the field I thought I'd love.

I guess the number 1 rule was to listen to my true feelings- I feel genuinely depressed at the thought of having to carry out the work.

Moreover, I feel that my supervision team have taken far too much on as my principle supervisor takes over a week to reply to things I send them, even after they request I do so. I feel that the best option for me is to resign and take some time to evaluate what I really want to study--I'm a physicist at heart and still want to pursue a PhD, just not in applied maths. My question is two-fold:

  1. How do I approach this with my supervisor?
  2. Is it okay to quit a PhD?
  • 2
    If you are going to quit, earlier is better. Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 22:21
  • Maybe location/local culture matters in this question. I don't think many students in USA even get to see what they will be doing just after 6 weeks. Also, local culture may be a (small) factor in whether or not quitting after just 6 weeks could be viewed negatively in the next application. This may be something to consider especially if you need to take some time to think about what to do anyway.
    – user39093
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 4:15

6 Answers 6


Yes, it's OK to quit if what you signed up for is really not what you want (professionally). Plenty of people who start PhD's don't finish.

That said, in your particular case perhaps consider finishing the year. Use the time to learn the kind of applied mathematics you could use when (if) you return to physics. It's too late for your department to use your slot for someone else. They might save a little money if they are supporting you - but if you are earning that support by teaching or grading then your leaving has no financial value to them.

I don't think you should decide this rashly. You should be able to talk about it with your advisor. Perhaps try to set up an appointment (virtual if necessary) rather than discussing in email.

  • It's not something that I'm considering lightly- if I do change PhDs I'll be taking something more experimental and physical. I don't want to continue studying applied maths. Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 22:06
  • 4
    You only have one life. Don't waste it. Getting stuck in something you hate is a terrible situation.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 22:46

Before you talk to your supervisor there must be people you can talk to in your department. At my university I had "annual reviewers" who I could go to when I had problems with my PhD. Discuss your feelings with someone like that before moving on to your supervisor.

The second thing to bear in mind is that PhDs are not fixed in stone and often go in all sorts of directions. If you as the researcher want to take your PhD in a more physics-y direction and you think your supervisor can advise you that is a possibility. People can also change supervisors: if you think there are academics in the maths department that do sufficiently physics-y things you could switch to being supervised by them. If all of these options fail then you could consider dropping out.

  • I should add that I had a quite similar crisis (see my profile) so I feel your pain Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 19:16

How do I approach this with my supervisor?

Honestly. This is a very good conversation to have with them. As an advisor, I would definitely want to know about my students' concerns.

Of course, you should try and suss out what kind of a person your advisor is, and what are the options you have if you quit.

Is it okay to quit a PhD?

That depends on where you are. No one can force you to stay in the program. However, some universities may ask you to repay scholarships or stipends you have received (which means a non-trivial amount of money you'll need to return). One option that you could discuss is whether you can leave after two or three semesters with an MSc degree. This transition is not uncommon (at least in US universities).

On the moral side of it - yes it's definitely okay to have a change of heart. Motivation and drive are crucial to a successful PhD. Ultimately, a PhD is a significant financial investment (see here), even in lucrative disciplines like computer science. You don't want to sink that money into something you hate.


There are a few options you might want to consider. First, you can always change your supervisor and many departments are quite supportive in helping students find their best matches. Did you check if there are other professors in your department that share your interests? Chances even are that there are professors in your department that have a seat in the physics department as well. Department name really doesn't matter as far as doing a Ph.D. is concerned. I wouldn't be surprised to find out there are professors in your department that have a background in physics and do physics-related stuff. You can even start talking to professors in the physics department of your university and see if they are willing to co-supervise you jointly with a professor from the math department. Once you find such a professor in the physics department, it is not usually hard to find a professor in your department (math) to take on the role of shared supervision but act as a place-holder of some sort and just loosely supervise you. You have a better chance with that if you approach more senior professors, even semi-retired ones. Since I assume you applied to a math department for a reason, your interests lie on the boundaries of computational and mathematical physics and not experimental physics. Assuming that, you have a good chance to work out a place to do work on what you want without withdrawing from your program.

If it all doesn't work for you, you can always quit the program and apply for another one. However, make sure you have a sound explanation for your decision when you apply to your next program. Your next program/supervisor (rightfully) would have the right to be skeptical/conscious about your past experience, but if you approach it all it is not the end of the world and you can definitely succeed in finding another position.

  • Yeah the thing is I realise I don't want to do applied maths any more and prefer more practical physics. Sadly, the project is also tied to one professor. Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 22:26

“Is it ok to quit the PhD?” Morally? Of course! It’s completely Ok to explore something, decide that you don’t like it and quit, before digging yourself a deeper grave and pulling down others with you. And frankly, if you really feel that way about your research, it’s better for you to quit- research can be hell for people who don’t like their work.

Legally? I don’t know about the rules governing these things for your university. Some require you to repay the scholarship money and that could be a problem if you are short on cash.

“How do I approach this with my supervisor” Say to him what you wrote here. Be honest about this. You don’t think you are a good fit for this research and are not passionate about it. That’s it. You didn’t do anything wrong. Besides, any supervisor worth his salt would know that a de-motivated grad student is a drag on research.


It is absolutely too early. I do not know if this is a genuine feeling. In case it is the answer would be quit. But for what I know, and having had my own PhD experience as well as having witnessed the experience of at that time fellow PhD students as well as that of current PhD student, I can only say wait.

  • For the downvoter. I myself I have found relatively hard time at beginning. I did personally encouraged fellow younger students not to leave when they felt there was no way to go. Both are currently permanent researchers. Having a period of down at beginning is quite a common feeling. I can't be sure if indeed OP dislike so much what s/he started JUST 6 WEEKS AGO. If that is really deep and genuine one should downvote the OP :)) not me.
    – Alchimista
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 10:08
  • 1
    "Both are currently permanent researchers." We do not know how much they suffered on their way there. Plus, if they had quit at the beginning and changed field, maybe by now they would be professor. It is not really helpful to point at the end of their journey.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 15:56
  • @EarlGrey my point is that few weeks are absolutely not enough to quit a program such as a PhD. How one can change mind in a month is valid for every program. Critical period might even come in too early. I am saying in my answer that if I could made an assessment and the motivation are so deep then the answer would be "quit". I really don't understand the downvotes nor these critics. I tried to tell OP to reflect further, solely trying to help him. At the end nobody knows. This thread is opinion based, at the end.
    – Alchimista
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 16:16

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