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Today I've just been told by my advisor that she thinks it would be better for me to quit after this quarter. I asked her why and she told me she thinks I don't have what it takes to complete grad school. I am a second-year Ph.D. and currently, I am doing great coursework-wise. I really really don't want to quit. She told me she'll give me some time to think about it. I wonder what should I do? Would it still be possible for me to stay under her mentorship?

Also, I wonder how I should approach our next conversation.

Here are some additional information:

I am in a 5-year program in the US, I am funded by my department not my advisor. I have passed my first year qualifying exam.

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    Well, why do they think you should quit? Without clarity on that and how to fix it, how would you approach a next discussion?
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 9, 2021 at 3:15
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    Coursework is about the least important part of grad school, I'm afraid Dec 9, 2021 at 3:30
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    Unfortunately, courseworks performances are to be accounted rarely as "the bare minimum" (i.e. a problem if not doing good, but no bonus points if doing well), more often as "to be neglected" (i.e. good or bad, it does not really matter). Are you in a lab? doing computational work? doing Comparative literature? How would you describe your experience outside of coursework? could you find a fundamental problem to tackle? could you understand/repeat the approach tried to tacke the problem in the last 20 years?
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 9, 2021 at 10:46
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    "I am a second-year Ph.D." Can you clarify what this means? Are you at the beginning or at the end of your second year? How many years was the PhD expected to last? If you're at the end of the second year of a 3-year PhD, it would be a huge waste to quit now. If you're at the beginning of the second year of a 5-year PhD, it's a different story. Please give more context. Please keep in mind that the organisation and lengths of PhD programs differ vastly between different fields, and between different countries.
    – Stef
    Dec 10, 2021 at 10:22
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    @Stef As a counterpoint, if OP is at the end of the second year in a 3-year PhD, and the advisor does not see it going anywhere so close to the finish line, there is a good chance that spending even one more year would just be throwing good time after bad.
    – xLeitix
    Dec 10, 2021 at 14:48

10 Answers 10

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In any case, it would be unwise to stay under the mentorship of someone who has bluntly expressed lack of confidence in you. If nothing else, knowing that they think you will fail will be a bad psychological situation for you.

You can still get some possibly-useful information from this person, though. Ask "why do you think so?", and get as many details as possible.

Some of the answer to that could be that you have some misconceptions about either technical things or bigger-picture things, and acquiring that info could help you.

My own philosophy about advising grad students is that a big part of my job is to help them achieve what they want, perhaps despite their own misunderstanding about "what the game is", and/or despite unhelpful intellectual/scientific habits they've acquired somehow. And, really, for youngish people, especially with less-than-advantaged/privileged previous trajectories, it is not at all easy to predict future trajectories, ...

Plus, if you really want to do this, it's certainly worth the risk of actual "failure" (whatever this means), rather than pre-emptively bailing out due to the "prediction" of a not-so-subtle person.

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  • Well, we don't really know how subtle the OP's advisor was. Perhaps they hinted and hinted, and the OP didn't get it?
    – TonyK
    Dec 13, 2021 at 1:05
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I would like to contribute just an anecdote from my personal experience that I would like you to consider...

Before I became a professor, I was only really ever around highly talented students. I went to a pretty good school, and I guess I just implicitly assumed that all students were like us. Thus when I started as a professor, I was under the impression that, "Anybody can get a PhD if they tried hard, and wanted it enough". However, that hypothesis was quickly disproved by one of my first PhD students. After about a year of lots and lots of effort on my part, it was clear that one of my students lacked the fundamental skills (programming, mathematics) needed to graduate during the funding period I had allotted. Although it must be said, they were by far the most enthusiast student, and "really wanted it".

How did I come to that conclusion? After working with them for a few months, it was clear that they had a really bad grasp on some core mathematical principles and were extremely bad at programming, both of which were core components of the work. Still, being young and naive, I thought that I could just do some extra mentoring to bridge the gap. However, after a year, the student was only falling further behind where they should have been, and so I had a sit down meeting to inform the student that I did not think that they would be capable of getting a PhD. But I left the door open for them to stay if they wanted to stick it out and try...

Well long story short... they said that they wanted to stay and put in the extra work. However, years later, the funding that I had secured for them expired, and they did not have a PhD. At that point they transferred to another advisor and to my knowledge, they never obtained a PhD.

After transferring to another group, the student harbored a lot of anger toward me, feeling that I should just "give them" a PhD because of all of the work they put in. In fact, it is not uncommon for professors to do this even if the work is not really up to snuff. But really there is a threshold that should be met, and the fact is that I did not believe that the student met that requirement. People seem to be handing out PhDs freely these days, and I despise the grade-inflation in academia. The insidious side effect of this is that giving PhDs to everybody devalues the degree for everyone else.

I do not have contact with the student anymore, but I wonder what they think now. Should they have heeded my advice?

Honestly, I would expect that they would blame me for their failings, saying that I did not give them enough mentoring. But if you take such an answer at face value, then it ignores the fact that I was already putting much more time into mentoring that student than the others, and it was at the point that mentoring that student was taking away from my other responsibilities (grant writing, teaching, mentoring other students). This while I was already working more hours than most of my other colleagues. I had no more time to give.

One parting thought that I would like you to consider...

Do you think that your professor came to this decision lightly?

It took me a week to finally work up the courage to tell my student this. It was nerve-wracking. It was an admission that I had failed to get the student up to speed, and that I did not think that I ever could. I was devastated. I had failed.

If your professor got the courage to tell you this, I doubt that they did this lightly. I would guess that they came to this decision upon seeing repeated issues. You should certainly talk to them about this. But please take to heart what they are saying. How will you feel if you are there for 2,3,4 more years, and still don't have a PhD? Make sure that you are not just falling into the sunken cost fallacy. And make absolutely sure that you are clear that lots of people do lots of hard work every day. It just does not rise to the level of warranting a PhD.

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    Hi, thank you so much for your comment. I have a quick follow-up question. I wonder how do you see a student who can catch up vs. a student who just lacks the ability to complete grad school. In another word, how would you determine if a student is behind in progress but they can still succeed if they work hard enough vs. a student who just lacks the fundamental ability to succeed?
    – user150145
    Dec 10, 2021 at 16:47
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    Being behind of progress could be due to the social isolation during Covid-19. Studying in an environment without any academic peer to cheer each other is filled with hardship. Humans are not wired to participate in all activities online without actually interacting with any peers .
    – Wanderer
    Dec 11, 2021 at 0:24
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    +1 Thanks for sharing the anecdote. I've been in a similar situation at a much lower level. (Entered assuming anyone could succeed, then seeing that belief smashed to bit in practice.) It's a story that needs to be told, even if not everyone wants to hear it. Dec 11, 2021 at 16:09
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    @user150145: You need to talk to you advisor about they have seen to come to this conclusion. But... whatever they believe... they already have a year's worth of evidence to support their beliefs. Why should they believe that everything should suddenly change? If you believe that there were extenuating circumstances, then you should state those when you talk to you advisor. And critically, for the sanity of both parties, set concrete goals for the coming months. If you don't meet those, then it is in both of your interests to cut your losses. Don't chase the sunken costs for more of your life Dec 11, 2021 at 21:36
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    I see this same attitude even in normal courses. Students often complain that their (usually not great) grade doesn't reflect the amount of time they invested. But I'm not grading the amount of time they spent, I'm grading the quality of their work. The distinction is lost on some students. Dec 11, 2021 at 23:18
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Although we don't have any information about why your supervisor wants you to quit, I find it inappropriate to state to students, or people in general, that "they don't have what it takes" to do something (assuming she indeed said this). This expression refers to a permanent lack of innate abilities and is different from simply assessing whether a student is suitable to a given project or has made enough progress.

First, it's patronizing (who is she to tell you that?), second, it's irresponsible (how would she know? She's not a cognitive profiler), lastly, it's a breach of her authority: she's not there to assess personalities and eternal innate, everlasting capabilities, she's there to assess your concrete past track record and achievements to date. She could say: "you have not made enough progress, and this indicates you will not be able to complete your PhD in a timely manner under my guidance". But insulting people by saying "you don't have it" is unacceptable in professional situations.

Also, I wonder how I should approach our next conversation.

Again, we don't have enough information to help here, but I suppose by trying to convince her you do "have what it takes". Say these words precisely: "I believe I do have what it takes", and explain in detail why, if you can.

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    This is wrong because it is the advisor's job to know and assess the student's abilities. Dec 9, 2021 at 23:31
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, I disagree. My assessment of my PhD students are private to me. And they can change in time. The supervisor has made a clear mistake: she claims she holds the knowledge of the permanent, eternal inherent "abilities" of the students. But her authority is to assess the track-record of the student and whether it's sufficient to continue in the PhD, not to assess his/her inherent consistent traits and future abilities.
    – Dilworth
    Dec 10, 2021 at 0:54
  • Additional discussion along these lines has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Dec 10, 2021 at 18:55
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If your advisor says you should quit after the current quarter, it likely means that if you do not quit, the advisor will stop advising you. That means any funding that comes from your advisor will be lost.

It is likely that your options are to find a new advisor or to find a job elsewhere.

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    I guess the OP should ask the advisor if that's what it means or not.
    – uhoh
    Dec 10, 2021 at 6:26
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    @uhoh You're right, but an honest answer is not guaranteed. Dec 10, 2021 at 16:54
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Make sure you understand what it is that makes your advisor thinks this. One possibility that no other answer has mentioned yet is that you do have what it takes but have not prioritized showing that, because you thought different things were more important.

I am just a graduate student, so I have no specific experience to this scenario, but I believe it is important to consider whether it might be mostly a misunderstanding: If you focus on getting great grades in the coursework and your advisor mostly cares about how independently you do research, for example, that will make her think you are bad at it even when you would not be. Clarify what the specifics are that are most important in her view. Ask if it could be worth seeing how you improve when you focus on these.

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Assuming you have an open line of communication with the advisor, they really should give you a breakdown of why they feel that way, what concrete expectations they have that you aren't meeting (publication count, milestones, etc.), and what they think it would take for you to get from where you are to where they think you need to be by the end of the PhD and why they feel you won't reach that.

You said they gave you time to think about it. You can't reasonably be expected to make the decision to leave a PhD program after investing more than a year without being fully informed of why you are making it.

Also, in my experience some advisors are just unreasonable in their expectations or in their assessment of others. Academia tends to reward a lot of people who had some relatively privileged background (went to excellent prep schools, were trained in prestigious departments with lots of resources, had talent nurtured from an early age, etc.), and a lot of those who have had great success in academia have a very self-confident conviction that they are where they are through sheer hard work and talent and merit. These people tend to have a high view of their own intellect. While I was doing a Master's one of the profs in a course I was taking, who had attended a prestigious university starting at age 16 and had a very narrow view of the type of talent required for academia, advised at least two of my friends not to do a PhD. One of them is now doing quite well in a PhD program despite that.

I have no idea if the above paragraph has anything to do with your advisor, but it may be good to get a second opinion if you have a close enough relationship with anyone else in the department.

One more thing, in my PhD experience I found that a lot of issues with my advisor arose from lack of communication, where my advisor was largely out of the loop with what I was doing. At some point they indicated to me that they were concerned about lack of progress, but (at least in hindsight) this was largely due to not communicating often enough for them to have a clear view of where I was, and thus thinking I wasn't getting anything done. I have heard many stories of people who seemingly make little progress during the bulk of their PhD, but culminate in a highly productive period towards the end.

Only you can really assess your own capabilities, and if you do find that you have some personal flaws which are holding you back then it's good to be honest about that and then get help to improve, I'm sure your campus has career resource or counseling services which you could utilize. Personally, I think if you want it and are passionate and feel it's worth the risks (as you judge them to be), then you should pursue it with a clear conscience. Impostor syndrome is definitely a real thing that affects most graduate students. It helps to have a large number of fellow grad student friends who you can commiserate with, so you can boost each other.

In any case I think that if you do want to stay and believe you are capable, you should consider finding a new advisor who doesn't think you are not capable of success, particularly if your advisor's opinion does not change in the near term.

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    Yes, indeed, I've witnessed many privileged people who somehow failed to realize their own privilege (and would be angry if this were mentioned!), were entirely confident that it was simply their own talent and hard work that got them to their situation, and that anyone else who felt the side effects of less privilege were just untalented or lazy. Dec 10, 2021 at 19:16
  • this is a great answer
    – user347489
    Dec 20, 2021 at 9:16
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The assumption of a few of the other current answers is that the advisor is telling you what they really think; that they are giving you a candid, honest appraisal. Another is more agnostic on that point instead suggest that if an advisor says this, then it's probably not a good idea to try to stick around irregardless.

There is another possibility to consider, that the advisor is saying this as a motivational technique or as a test, a bit like being called worthless scum and hopeless by a drill sergeant initiating Stress and punishment in boot camp.

Before you act, give this explanation a review and see if it might fit. Check with coworkers, other students in the group or outside the group who may have some second-hand knowledge to see if your case is unique or perhaps this advisor has given this kind of talk to other students in the past as well.

She told me she'll give me some time to think about it.

It sounds like there is genuine curiosity about how you will respond to this challenge, and there is a possibility that a push back, a doubling down on your focus towards your research and away from classes is the response hoped for, and an "okay, you're right, I'll go" is, despite what was said, not the response hoped for.

See for example Dilworth@'s excellent answer:

...Again, we don't have enough information to help here, but I suppose by trying to convince her you do "have what it takes". Say these words precisely: "I believe I do have what it takes", and explain in detail why, if you can.

Perhaps it's simply a test to see if your convictions and passions for completing your program are strong. Perhaps it just looks like you are not putting enough work into your research or too much on classes and your advisor wants to either drive you to switch the focus of your effort, or if you can't or won't, only then get you to leave or move to another group.

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    Wow, if that's a "test" of the advisor then I wouldn't want to work with them anymore. I am about as cynical as one can be, and the thought to ask a perfectly fine student to quit to see if they stay anyway hasn't ever crossed my mind ;)
    – xLeitix
    Dec 10, 2021 at 14:41
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    @xLeitix I know what you mean; I'm quite allergic to motivational techniques like this as well. But it's always possible that for some people things like this can actually be helpful. In the (very) old days it was called "reverse psychology". I think that there's a great scene in the film The Horse Whisperer but I can't seem to find a clip of it. However, it certainly can be done poorly, or with great insensitivity as well.
    – uhoh
    Dec 10, 2021 at 14:54
  • possibly this one: youtube.com/watch?v=kRuAo6BUS7Q
    – uhoh
    Dec 10, 2021 at 15:03
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We really need more information. Your current situation, previous plan, country and field would be helpful.

From the United States:

What is your current status? Did you receive a Masters degree? or straight to PhD program? If you dont have a Masters, now might be a good time to 'pull the parachute cord', drop the Phd program, leave with a Masters and regroup. You can still pursue the Phd after reaching that milemarker. Do not waste the last 2 years (sheesh). Even a second masters would be preferable to leaving empty handed. I emphasize to not view this option as failure but a very good option professionally and personally. PhDs are simply not that valuable outside of Academia.

What is the comprehensive/qualifying exam situation? If you can pass that exam, you (unofficially) have earned the opportunity to finish. Your committee --for practical purposes-- should move on from you staying or going if you pass that exam. If that exam exists in the future, I would hinge everything on that exam... not by choice... but you are running out of options. quick. Pass and stay, Fail and get a Masters. Its a simple conversation to have.

What was the original plan? was this a 2 year program? a 5 year program? The context here would definitely inform the tactics and strategy of the path forward.

What is the funding situation? transparent? lacking? abundant? There are a lot of variables that contribute to your fit in that program.

Your situation seems awful and I wish you the best. Dont let your program consume you. One day the program will be over and you will still be here. Take care of yourself first. If you stay, its likely to get worse before it gets better.

With the additional information, you stand at a crossroads. If you are going to succeed in your program, I suggest you change your posture. Your school isnt giving you a Phd. You are taking it from them. Phds are masters of their own destiny. They are masters of their own research, their schedules, all that they survey. Everybody wants a PhD until its time to do Phd stuff. Now is that time. If you are here to stay, and your advisor pushes you. You push back. You meet requirements as they are laid out. You identify areas of weakness and you develop them. Carve your destiny out of your will. Just put one foot in front of the other until all options are expended. Theres no other way. Or quit. Like I said, its simply not that valuable, and the cost is very, very real.

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    "PhDs are simply not that valuable outside of Academia" [citation needed].
    – astronat
    Dec 10, 2021 at 17:47
  • @astronat personal experience (USA). the number of phds produced vastly outnumbers the positions for them, both in academia and out. a phd is a person that knows too much about too little. my job is unrelated to my phd. of course, i have the personal growth, but the applied content is almost completely wasted. your phd might help you, but "fully realized" phds are very few and very far between outside of academia. i am not saying they arent valuable. i am saying the most value is to the phd recipient personally, and not to the employer of.
    – user150207
    Dec 11, 2021 at 0:58
  • @astronat i can prove it. are you hiring underemployed phds?
    – user150207
    Dec 11, 2021 at 1:00
  • At least in CS, PhDs are highly valuable.
    – sean
    Dec 12, 2021 at 16:37
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I would reevaluate what you are best at in terms of research skills and repivot to that. I will say from personal experience that I started a PhD in a more theoretical discipline 10 years ago. I struggled and eventually dropped out. I didn't get to the point that I was told that a PhD is not for me, but I started getting comments about being not as good as the rest of the students in my cohort and I also failed half of the qualifying exam (it was comprised of two sections).

I did not want to give up on the dream of a PhD and after a 4 year break from academia, I found a program where the research was more applied. This was a much better fit for me. I passed the qualifying exam in this program and am now working on my dissertation.

Try to talk to other faculty with funding in the department or in adjacent departments. Look at the research you have done so far and figure out what parts of the research you found more rewarding.

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  • I feel I simply lack interest in applied fields, so don't feel it easy to learn them. When I couldn't find a job in theoretical fields after completing my MSc, l accepted a research assistant position in an applied science research center though I knew I was not that interested in applied sciences - l just thought maybe I could also be interested in applied fields, but after l started working there l felt none of those applied subjects interests me greatly and often felt nostalgia for my MSc research about theoretical fields.
    – Wanderer
    Dec 11, 2021 at 0:35
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This is similar to Paul Garrett's and Kai's excellent answers, but here's my two cents as someone who dealt with a similar situation at some point and managed to survive (PhD, good publication record and currently a postdoc at an R1). I had a really tough time with my first supervisor, which ultimately concluded with them failing me on my candidacy exam. The process leading to that and the event itself were devastating and it's still something I am working on. I don't think your situation should get to that point.

I think you're in a good position given that your funding doesn't depend on your current advisor. Here's an outline of how I would approach the situation:

  1. Take your current advisors words as feedback. Are these things well-founded? Perhaps it's a work chemistry thing? Do they have unrealistic expectations? Are they on a power trip? All these and more things are possible. Advisors hold a lot of power over PhD students, but remember that this is only their opinion. Don't believe everything they say at face value, but be honest to yourself.

  2. Start looking for a new advisor. Let everyone involved know what's going on (including the grad student advisor/equivalent), no need to hide any details. Faculty will talk before making any decisions, so it's better to be open about it with everyone involved. Be open to work on things that are unrelated to what you've done so far. Discuss graduating plans. Ask questions about other possible advisors: Do they have a project that can be finished in a reasonable time? Do you know any of their current students? What's their experience? How often do they meet? etc. From my own personal experience, and that one of other people in my program, it's more important to have an advisor with whom you have good chemistry and has confidence in you than working with some hot-shot or whatever.

  3. Do your best and don't let this experience take too much of your head space. This won't guarantee you'll get your degree, but I would bet it will improve your quality of life.

I honestly hope everything works out.

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