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I have been enrolled in a PhD program for 3 years now. I have a had a pretty disappointing experience so far: I have had three different supervisors (didn’t get along with the first, the second moved abroad), and have also changed topics multiple times as a result. The department has let me down multiple times in terms of academic support (my supervisor wouldn’t read my drafts, sometimes wouldn’t respond to emails for months when he’s abroad) and I don’t feel like the university has any interest in actually supervising, or teaching, postgrad students. Many here act more like “answering machines”: come to me if you have questions, otherwise I have nothing to say to you. There is no postgrad community to speak of, and I am the only PhD student working in my area. I do have partial results for some of the projects I have worked on over the last few years, but nothing meaningfully complete. More importantly, however, I don’t feel like I have learned (and been taught) what it means to do research yet. If I were to write up my results and turn them into a thesis, I might pass, but I wouldn’t feel able to do (independent) research as a post-doc (which is what I want to do in the future).

Even though I have three years left of funding I am considering quitting. I am very unhappy here, and being at this university has throughly diminished my enthusiasm for the subject I’m working in. I have also developed a certain level of dislike for this university, and the department. I don’t really trust that any of my current supervisors have my best interest in mind. I have to say, I wouldn’t really want to have a degree from this university.

I would love to stay in academia, though. I have hope that, at a different university, in a different environment, I could thrive.

I understand this is a very general question, but basically I am wondering: what are the odds of leaving here and finding a PhD elsewhere? The “sunk cost” is high, and I have already spend three unhappy years here —- I don’t want to turn them into six, unless there’s a very good reason to do so.

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    How long is the PhD program supposed to last? You say you have been through 3 years already. How much do you have left? The answer won't be the same if you can be finished in six months than if you have to stay 3 more years to complete the PhD.
    – Stef
    Apr 5 at 15:20
  • Please clarify your specific problem or provide additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it's hard to tell exactly what you're asking.
    – Community Bot
    Apr 5 at 15:47
  • @Stef it was meant to be 4, with funding for 3, but given the circumstances the university has given me a fellowship for another tree years. Apr 6 at 9:15

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This depends a lot on which field of study and which country. In the US, graduate school admission is done via a centralized admission process, and you would have to submit an application just like any undergraduate applying to grad school for the first time. And after you transfer, you would typically have to re-start the process of taking courses, qualifying exams, finding an advisor and thesis committee, etc. On the other hand, in most of German-speaking Europe, PhD applications are quite informal and more like job applications, so it would be relatively easy to switch, assuming you can find a willing supervisor at the place you want to go to.

The "sunk cost" factor depends heavily on the field. In some fields (e.g. physics), graduate school consists of doing a series of projects, and your eventual PhD thesis might just involve "stapling" together the papers you have from your time as a PhD student. In that case, there will not be much of a sunk cost at all. But in other fields, a PhD might actually involve some sort of main project that takes several years to finish, so in that case switching to a new lab/department/university may indeed be a huge sunk cost.

Finally, in any case, you would have to justify why you want to move, and come up with reasons why you think the problems affecting you at your current institution won't carry over to the new place. But don't lose hope; it is possible to transfer to a different university as a PhD student. Many people have done it, and it is not as hard as some might make it out to be.

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  • Thank you for this! I really appreciate it — it means a lot to me. I think in terms of the “sunk cost” factor, I’d be firmly in the former group: I might just be able to “staple” (even though I don’t have many publications); however, I was worried I hadn’t learned what it takes to be a researcher, so even completing the thesis might be , in my view, irrelevant. Is that too harsh? Apr 6 at 9:17

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