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I am a first year PhD student in a lab in Europe. I joined the lab 6 months ago and soon afterwards realized that the topic and institute are not what I had imagined it would be.

It took me quite some time of thinking to come to the difficult point to realize that I have to quit my PhD to find another topic where I can do fulfilling work within my interests.

I also started to apply for other PhD positions and I got an offer, which would suddenly start very soon, in 2.5 months.

My problem is that I feel very guilty about leaving my current PhD position, because I am the first PhD student of my supervisor. He is currently still in the process of setting up his lab, the money is tight and time limited and we are few people (2 other PhD students). I feel that if I leave as the first student to join the lab, it would have a big and negative impact on the lab and the career / reputation of my supervisor - But does it?

I feel very guilty about my situation and I don't know what to do anymore. But I have to decide whether I move on with the new position which I would prefer as a topic. If so, I need to speak with my supervisor about quitting my PhD, but I currently lack the courage.

How would you judge this situation?

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    The first student leaving amicably after a few months is less bad than that student performing poorly for several years because they're not happy...
    – avid
    Jan 13 at 8:33
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    If the money is tight, your leaving may open up opportunities for your supervisor that were tied up in your salary. Especially if you aren't passionate about it, you can be replaced by someone who is and more productive. Jan 15 at 2:49
  • Of course there will be a few raised eyebrows (or at least there should!). But lasting damage? Come on! If your supervisor doesn't survive that, he shouldn't become a prof. Definitely the wrong job for him.
    – Karl
    Jan 15 at 23:00
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While it might have a negative impact on your supervisor, it also might not have a negative impact if you handle it properly! And it will definitively have a negative impact on your career if you do not make this switch.

Handling it properly in this sense means soon and professionally. Schedule a meeting to talk to him about your expectations not being met and how this other opportunity is the thing you actually want to do. Offer to help in your remaining time there, document anything you can. That is the best way to limit negative impact in general.

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    From a professionalism perspective, it probably would have been better still to have talked to the supervisor before applying for other positions. It might be that a satisfactory accommodation could have been made. Indeed, that might still be possible, but "I've got an offer" is a negotiating stance with a different and more sour flavor. Jan 13 at 19:28
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    @jeroen, thats such a nice and clear cut point! Thanks for sharing it, it really helps putting the facts out like that. Indeed, I realized I would also not help anyone by forcing myself on this project for 4 years just to please my supervisor, which in the end would just result in bad work from myself that no one would be satisfied with. So handling a transition with most professionalism I realize is for both sides the best outcome.. Thank you for your thoughts!
    – Kev123
    Jan 13 at 21:52
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    @JohnBollinger I see your point, it would have been probably the better way. I did not want to inform my supervisor before applying for other positions as I was afraid of getting quit immediately and therefore end up in a financial very difficult situation without a job. I also was thinking at the beginning, that I will not be selected by another supervisor, being "branded" as someone who already quit a PhD. The fact that indeed I did got an offer from a new position quite soon after my first applications was therefore not expected and led to the situation that I found myself in now.
    – Kev123
    Jan 13 at 21:59
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    @Kev123 If you can explain that, it'll likely help reduce hard feelings even further.
    – wizzwizz4
    Jan 14 at 18:35
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Consider the alternative:

Six months into my six year program, I realized I made a bad decision. I doubled down and finished.

That was the worst mistake of my life and I am still trying to dig myself out of the personal, financial and professional hole that I dug for six years (I finished 5 years ago).

You don't owe your supervisor anything.

By the end of my program, I tried claiming federal disability to obtain reasonable accommodation to address the depression, anxiety and stress disorders that I developed.

I currently work a job nearly identical to a member of my cohort that dropped from the program about the same time I made the decision to stay.

The only thing I 'earned' by staying are negatives. Not one positive resulted from my decision to stay.

You are fine. Sleep easy.

*Edit: Just to give you an idea of 'What-could-have-been'. Toward the end of my program, I read a news article about a student murdering his supervisor and committing suicide on campus. My immediate reaction was 'The student really comes across as the villain in this article'. Thats a true story... and it wont be your story because you had the GUTS to make the right decision.

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    "YOU OWE YOUR FORMER SUPERVISOR NOTHING." I would perhaps temper this into: you owe your supervisor being reasonably upfront and open about your situation (assuming that they have also behaved ethically towards you) so that they can plan accordingly, but you certainly DO NOT owe them several years of your life. Jan 13 at 16:39
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    yes, thank you @AdamPřenosil, i get a little worked up sometimes. dont be like me and dont lose a second of sleep over not being this way.
    – user150207
    Jan 13 at 16:42
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    @user150207 this got me in the feels. I likewise took my sweet time (4.5 years) to realise my PhD journey was not working out and making me significantly depressed. I was fortunate in one regard, the project was such a train wreck it is hard for me to imagine quitting as anything but the best decision in the circumstances. I can relate to the reaction you had to that article, and wonder just how large the population of people whose lives are devastated by PhDs really is. Jan 13 at 21:32
  • @user150207 This really is such a eye opening answer - Thank you very much. It really puts things into perspective to hear such an experience directly from someone who sadly had to went through it. Thank you very much for sharing this. I hope your situation as worked out to the better since then, but either way all the best to you!
    – Kev123
    Jan 13 at 21:42
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    @AzorAhai-him- I think the point is that after user150207's experiences, they empathized and related to the sentiments of a student committing a murder-suicide, feeling that casting that student in a villainous light was unfair (at least as a gut feeling). Their anecdote served as a demonstration (and warning) of the level of emotional damage they put themselves through by staying in a program they didn't like, I'd say.
    – Drake P
    Jan 13 at 23:55
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Well, you are all capable adults, aren't you? Feeling guilty is normal under your circumstances, and you might offer your supervisor some extra help to smoothen things out, but at the end of the day, you have already made your decision and are not staying, and it is in their capacity to handle the lab.

The sooner you two start working something out, the better. You do them a disservice by having them make plans you already know won't work out. The best you can do is to have this tough talk early and try to maintain a good relationship. Best of luck!

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  • It's the supervisor who should be offering extra help. Jan 13 at 16:09
  • @Lodinn very true! That is also an important aspect of the story to keep in mind, is that I dont help anyone by being around when knowing anyway there is no future. Thanks for the insights!
    – Kev123
    Jan 13 at 21:49
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    @AnonymousPhysicist in some aspects, yes. But the usual work ethics applies: if you quit some already agreed-upon obligations, you offer to make up for it and try to comply with reasonable requests. Staying for an extra year is not reasonable, staying for an extra week or two and helping to pass your current work on - maybe?.. Not that there's so much of it done in OP's case, but I'd expect some assistance along these lines in general.
    – Lodinn
    Jan 14 at 0:52
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Some of the longest days of my work life were those before I actually left somewhere I had already mentally checked out of. And the least productive. And the grouchiest.

Do everybody in that lab a favor: leave, and soon. Rip the band-aid off. Like long goodbyes, long transitions are highly overrated.

Truth: you aren't anywhere near so unique that you can't be replaced. You will be. Despite any BS guilt trip you supervisor may try to lay on you to save themselves some trouble, it's just a boring 'ol management issue. Replacing you will just be yet another management to-do for your supervisor. That's exactly what they signed up for by opening their own lab: personnel management, funding management, supplier management..., you get the picture, i.e. doing business.

Besides, it sounds like you were sold a bill of goods, at least to some extent. At very worst you may or may not make an enemy (probably not), but everybody eventually ends up with a few of those. To make omelette, you have to break eggs.

You've learned something. Just be sure to ask the hard questions before taking the next position. Even if embarrassing to ask, assume nothing. This is important: keep repeating or reformulating questions until you get full, straight, non-evasive answers. Otherwise, you'll know it's another bill of goods. Talk to people, future peers. Ask around. Fool me once...

Be that as it may, guilt or no guilt, it's your life and you only get one of 'em. You're at a stage of your life when big decisions have irrevocable, life-long repercussions.

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  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences! This all is super helpful for me to read and see how other people had similar experiences. And it is so true as you say, the one important thing is to learn from this experience and make sure it doesn't repeat itself. This is what I also try to keep in mind as a positive aspect of this experience. Truly this stage of life becomes more serious than the ones before and a bad experience is still an experience.. maybe these hard times have a good thing after all. Thank you again for your insights and all the best to you!
    – Kev123
    Jan 13 at 21:48
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One of the most important/common challanges of management is to deal with staff turnover. It is a standard part of running any enterprise, and something that managers have to learn to deal with. If you feel that your present placement is not good for your career, and you would prefer this other offer, it is reasonable for you to act on that. This will be inconvenient to your supervisor, and may exaccerbate the difficulties with setting up and running the lab, but that is part of the responsibilities of management. (It is unlikely to harm his reputation; you don't lose reputation merely because your students decide they'd prefer to study a different topic to your specialty area.) In the long run this is something that is a good skill for a new supervisor to learn.

Contrary to another answer here, I don't think it is reasonable to say that you don't owe your supervisor anything --- you owe him gratitude and thanks for taking you on as a student and for his assistance in your program. But you don't owe him your life. If you decide to take a position elsewhere, just be honest with your supervisor and try to give him a reasonable period of notice/work before you leave. It is best to accept this offer immediately and put in your notice for your present position as soon as possible, so that you give your supervisor as much notice of your departure as you can. Before you leave you can do other helpful things like teaching your work responsibilities to your replacement, and making sure you leave on a good note. Two-and-a-half months is plenty of time for you to finish up your immediate duties and brief someone else on your work responsibilities in the lab.

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Setting expectations is very important in any relationship, whether it be in a personal, romantic, or work relationship. Changing those expectations is tough and needs to be done in a transparent way to everyone involved. This time, your current situation didn't live up to your expectations. That's perfectly fine. Now you need to let your supervisor know that and what new set of expectations exist.

Just sit down with your supervisor and have an open and honest discussion with them. State any mistakes you think you made in your assumptions prior to joining and that you are leaving. Give them any constructive criticism you can to help them in the future, let them know any positives you had while there, and maybe even offer to help them find a replacement for you. Basically put yourself in their role and do what you would want someone else in your role to do for you. Well, do them if you can actually and reasonably do those things.

FYI, in most situations 2.5 months isn't "very soon". In the non-academic world, that's a long time. Most people don't give more than 2 weeks notice and, in some industries like retail and food service, giving zero to 2 days notice is common.

It's unfortunate that this situation is happening, but it'll probably happen several times over your career. It's unfortunately normal and the sooner you understand and accept this, as well as how to deal with it without unnecessary guilt, then the better off you will be. There's very many different variables when joining a new job or any situation to know 100% that it'll be perfect for you. Employers know and understand this. It's why so many jobs have a probationary period (often 3-6 months), so they know you are a good fit for them.

It's actually a good thing that you've recognized the problems this early. You aren't wasting your time, energy, or mental health any longer than necessary. Being in a bad situation, or "just" an uncomfortable one, can seriously damage your self-worth, your confidence, in working other places or even wanting to work other places. I've seen people in bad work environments that are afraid to change jobs for fear the same problems will exist or be worse. They got to the point where they think that kind of problem is normal, even when everyone else tells them it isn't. They think "better the devil you know than the devil you don't know", giving up and believing every employer is "the devil".

You haven't said your situation is this bad, so that was just me making a point.

Yes, it's hard to come to the realization that a choice you made was wrong and/or that other people aren't living up to their promises, but don't dwell on it. Use it as a learning experience, deal with the emotions that come up with, and move on to the next opportunity. Unless your supervisor is unreasonable, they may take you leaving better than you think they will. A reasonable person would understand that, as a first time supervisor, they aren't as polished as other supervisors and need to learn how to do better. They should also understand the existing time and financial constraints the lab is under and realize that it's not great conditions to work under.

You have to make the decisions that work best for you, not everyone else. It's not always easy, but it gets easier the more often you do it. Don't worry about your supervisor. You leaving will likely have very little impact on their reputation and future.

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