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It is about my friend (an undergraduate student in Australia), but I used first person pronoun "I" for convenience. My friend needs advice, and I tried my best to describe the situation. The second-person pronoun "you" can be used in the answer.

After taking an undergraduate course taught by professor A, he offered me an opportunity to do research with him. At that time, I wanted to pursue a Master by Research degree (MPhil) after graduation, so I accepted the offer as having some research experience would be helpful for my graduate admission. However, it was an unpaid job. I was living in Melbourne, and the living cost was really high here. I had to work part-time to cover the living cost. As the result, I did not spend enough time on doing research. I decided to quit.

Later, professor A managed to find a source of funding for the research project, and he offered me a new opportunity to work with him. He really wanted me to do MPhil and PhD at the same university after graduation. It was a paid RA job. I decided to quit the part-time job, and focused on doing research. We have not achieved any significant result since then.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the university faced financial challenges. They decided to cut funding for research students. It has become extremely difficult for potential MPhil students to get the research scholarship (tuition fee waiver + stipend) unless students have a publication(s) prior to applying. His field of research is also not a priority of the university.

As the result, he has worked so hard to get me opportunities to participate in research projects from other research groups at the university. He always suggests me new topics and upcoming conferences, telling me that I should try to publish something there. There was one occasion when he told me to submit a manuscript to a conference when there were literally only 3 weeks left before the submission deadline, and I had from zero because we had not done any research on that topic before. (2) Of course, I did not manage to do it and wasted my time.

I have completely lost the motivation to do research, and I no longer want to work in academia. I have decided to quit again. However, just a few days ago, he managed to get a new research opportunity for me. He told me that I would work with a research group in United States, and they were going to submit a manuscript next year. Now, he sends me emails everyday talking about that project, and I am so anxious everytime I see new emails from him.

I want to refuse the offer, but I don't want to hurt his feelings. What should I do in this situation? How to tell him that I want to quit?


Additional details:

(1) I don't have any other job offer at the moment. I am thinking of enrolling in a master by coursework program after graduation instead.

(2) The stress affected my mental health. I thought that he had done so much for me that I should not disappoint him, but I also knew there was no way I could submit the manuscript in time (within 3 weeks) because the topic was totally unfamiliar for me.

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  • This all sounds pretty terrible, I'm sorry this happened to you.
    – Stef
    Dec 30, 2022 at 19:46
  • Please clarify the visa situation that your friend operates under at present. This has a big impact on their choice of jobs/further education opportunities. It also affects how they may be misled by "well-meaning" - but ultimately tyrannical - professors.
    – Trunk
    Dec 31, 2022 at 15:04
  • This is a master's in philosophy? what is the major. this will have an impact on advice. Each field is a different beast.
    – Questor
    Nov 8, 2023 at 22:19

4 Answers 4

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Only you can decide what to do with your life. But after reading your story, two pieces of advice:

(1) The question is a bit ill-defined when your other option is "I don't know." It's like asking "Should I stay on a sinking ship?": it's easy to say no, but if the alternative is jumping into shark-infested waters, then the answer is less clear. So, I recommend you do your homework, figure out what your plan would be if you quit your RA spot, and then make a decision between two concrete options.

(2) Your professor seems well-meaning but incompetent. Telling an undergraduate student to come up with an idea, research it, and publish it within 3 weeks does not show good judgment. Especially after months of no progress on a different problem. And that he is now sending "daily e-mails" about this new opportunity seems very sporadic. He is clearly well-intentioned, and perhaps also desperate to make progress for the sake of his own career. But at this point, I would have serious concerns about accepting him as an advisor. And of course, you should not make decisions based on pity or a sense of obligation; that will not end well.

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  • It is worse as she is an undergraduate student. I actually criticised her supervisor as I told her that her supervisor was kinda overambitious.
    – Neuchâtel
    Dec 30, 2022 at 21:42
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    Oh, I misread and thought this was an MPhil candidate. Yes, the rule of thumb is that hiring undergraduate researchers is (much) more for their benefit than yours. It is definitely not a good sign that the professor does not seem to know this.
    – cag51
    Dec 30, 2022 at 21:48
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    +1 "And of course, you should not make decisions based on pity or a sense of obligation; that will not end well." -- this statement should be framed somewhere.
    – Outsider
    Dec 31, 2022 at 0:07
  • @Outsider There is trying to decline an offer after accepting it, though.
    – Allure
    Jan 1, 2023 at 7:59
  • @Allure It seems like the conditions have changed since the OP initially accepted the offer. That might be enough reason to decline the offer. Even if that were not the case, I don't think it is a good idea to work somewhere if you feel like you are doing them a favor or doing it out of pity. It'll probably lead to regret when you face any hardships and will likely lead to bitterness. Also, if the supervisor doesn't reciprocate the OP's loyalty down the line, they are likely to feel betrayed. It's just my opinion, though, based on my experience.
    – Outsider
    Jan 2, 2023 at 16:16
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(one thing is missing in your question: Do you have another opportunity? like a job offer)

There are two options for you:

  1. Continue working with your professor with no motivation. You might regret this for your entire life but it might also work out.
  2. You get the courage to kindly tell your professor that you want to quit by stating your reasons. He might not like it of course because he needs to find someone else but he would understand. Even if you are happy and you get a better opportunity, he would understand because, in the end, he wants you to proceed with your career. This is also a success for him.

If I were your professor, I would prefer to let you go and keep a good relationship with you rather than have you in my team without having the motivation to accomplish your tasks.

Now, if you take the second option, it is better not to do it via email but after scheduling a meeting with him and informing him about your decision.

EDIT after "Additional details"

now it becomes opinion-based I think. If I were you I would keep my position (and perform my tasks properly) until I find something else or get enrolled in a master's program. However, if the stress is not affordable, I would quit ASAP. Your health comes first.

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  • I updated the post to address your question. It is (1) in "Additional details".
    – Neuchâtel
    Dec 30, 2022 at 12:48
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    @Pikachu피카츄 now it becomes opinion-based I think. If I were you I would keep my position (and perform my tasks properly) until I find something else or get enrolled in a master's program. However, if the stress is not affordable, I would quit ASAP. Your health comes first!!!
    – Yacine
    Dec 30, 2022 at 19:51
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Is the new research opportunity paid? what is causing the stress? lack of funding?

This also comes down to whether you want to pursue a career in research. If not, then just let your supervisor know. The problem will become more and more serious over time; i.e., a supervisor or student should rip-off a 'band aid' quickly.

If you want a career in research, then you should let your supervisor know to see whether he/she has a solution to your problems/worries. If funding is an issue, then your supervisor needs to fix this. If not, then you will need to go on a different path.

If there is funding, then you and the supervisor should decide on a work plan that is a win-win for both of you.

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  • At the moment, my friend does not want to pursue a career in research anymore. 2 weeks ago, she said that she was still intetested in her research topic. I do not know if it is just because she is stressed, but thanks for the great advice. I also believe that it can escalate quickly if she does not handle it asap.
    – Neuchâtel
    Dec 30, 2022 at 21:07
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    @Pikachu피카츄 I just saw that your friend is an undergraduate. Unfortunately, the situation is quite different. Looks like her supervisor is trying very hard to 'recruit' a student, seems a bit desperate, and perhaps a newbie. Dec 31, 2022 at 0:49
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I had a similar situation after my master degree, albeit less extreme but it stressed me out quite a lot for a few months.

I knew deep down that trying to do research would be a miserable life: low pay, constant stress because I'm a huge procrastinator. Also I didn't have the brilliancy and social aptitude to be good at it. But yeah, I got propositions from a few professors to start a PhD program. Lots of back and forth, them trying to convince me it would be a good choice, but ultimately I noped out of it while not even having another job in sight.

In a sense you are in a better place than me as it's clear you really don't want to pursue a career in academia. For me it was more like, yeah well it looks nice and interesting but I'm really not sure I will get out of it alive.

The few minutes it will take to write an email explaining your decision and send it will be painful, granted. But far less painful than becoming even more involved with some project you don't care about. Occasionally hurting people's feelings (assuming this professor has really put a lot of effort into this) is part of life.

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  • Thanks for your answer. I actually really like your last sentence "Occasionally hurting people's feelings (assuming this professor has really put a lot of effort into this) is part of life."
    – Neuchâtel
    Dec 31, 2022 at 0:48

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