I'm in the beginning of my third year in a 3-4 year PhD program in the UK, in a STEM field.

Long story short, there is a misalignment of interests and skills between my advisor and me. My advisor is aware of the misalignment of skills but he most likely underestimates the amount of interest misalignment. My PhD hasn't been very productive, mainly because I'm not interested in the topic at all (not only the exact topic, I've become tired of the entire sub-field).

My advisor cares deeply about their students and has always been very kind. At the same time, I have struggled communicating disagreements because he has greater assertiveness than me. He is extremely assertive and I'm extremely unassertive.

I need to finish as soon as possible meeting the bare minimum requirements to graduate. How should I communicate that, taking into account that a) he is way more assertive than me, b) due to my lack of communication skills, he has no clue that this is what I'm thinking right now, and c) I really don't want to lose his respect and professional contact. I just want to graduate and move on and do something in the same field but completely unrelated. I'm grateful to him for the opportunity but I just need to stop doing this before going insane.

I'm on risk of burning out without having published much. Realistically, I think I could get to the very lower bound of publications of what's typical in the field and university during this year. At the same time, PhDs in the UK are not supposed to run for much longer than that.

Apart from the communication, I'm also wondering if you have any tips on guidance on how to execute a "rush exit". I'm totally used to academia times, so I understand that accelerating my graduation perhaps just means advancing 1-2 months the graduation date; well, every single day I can spare from doing this will be very welcome. I just want to graduate asap whatever it takes, even if the resulting thesis is mediocre.

Another possibility I've considered is to ask to move to a part-time arrangement and work on the side, officialy 50-50 but in practice doing more like 75% work, 25% PhD, but that might be unwise.

  • 4
    Is there any reason you don't just drop out right now? Generally, a mediocre PhD is worth about exactly the paper it is printed on. Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 1:35
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    Yes. The reason is that in my field a PhD gives you better hiring prospects. Recruiters are highly unlikely to even understand the abstract of your thesis.
    – nohamk
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 1:46
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    IMO, there's not much you can do to get traction around a state of "I don't like this subject and am not successful at it but I need a degree in it ASAP". Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 4:00
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    @AlexanderWoo That is not true in general and strongly depends on what you want to do afterwards. For an academic career this may be true but if you plan to go to industry, a finished PhD is worth a lot more than a drop out after a few years of study and the quality of the PhD is fairly irrelevant.
    – quarague
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 8:18
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    "A mediocre PhD is worth about exactly the paper it is printed on" -- that paper is a diploma, and it is probably worth $10-20k in salary every year until retirement. The quality of the work does not even factor into that, all anyone cares about is the diploma. Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 10:31

3 Answers 3


The simple thing to do is to ask for a face-to-face meeting with your advisor and simply ask them what you still need to do to finish. You don't need to express much of the background you give here, unless you think it would help. That latter requires an analysis of their personality that we can't make here, but you can. You can make suggestions to them in that conversation, of course, even saying that some suggested things won't work out for you.

Every advisor should be able to respond to such a request with more than "we shall see" or the equivalent.

But ask for a detailed list or program for getting to the end. If the program is reasonable, from your standpoint, send them a memo afterwards so that you both have a record of what they believe you still need to do.

If it is a reasonable program, then do that, avoiding other commitments as much as possible. If it is unreasonable, then explore other life options that might be open to you.

But it needs to be face-to-face, I think.


You don't quite state what you would like to go on to do after your PhD. My feeling from reading what you have written is that you'd like to stay in academic research, but not in this field/subfield. Wanting to work in industry is also congruent with what you've written. This difference is quite important, because it informs what finishing will look like.

It's generally a not very well understood fact amongst graduate students that the meeting the minimum requirements for a PhD as laid out by your university is almost certainly a substantially lower hurdle to cross than the disciplinary norm for what a PhD thesis should look like. If you want to stay in the academia, you need to be aiming for the disciplinary standard, if you want to leave academia, then aiming for something more like the university standard might be a better choice.

Thing is, the people who make the decision as to whether you get a PhD or not are the examiners. Some examiners will be willing to award a PhD if it meets the expectations set out by the university, some will require it to meet the disciplinary standards. The person who understands whether your work likely meets both the university and disciplinary standards, and is familiar enough with a range of potential examiners to know who will hold you to which, is your supervisor (and possibly an advisor, but they don't get to pick the examiners).

Given your supervisor has the power to pick examiners that will aid you in your goal, and will know what the minimum might look like to meet that goal, you really do need your supervisor's cooperation to make this happen. If your supervisor really does care about their students (as people, and not just as researcher units), and is always kind, then they will understand if you want to finish as soon as is practical.

Given the difficulties you have in talking your advisor, i'm going to disagree with Buffy, and suggest that you might start this process by laying things out in an email. Say that you would like to finish as soon as is practical, and that ideally that would be considerably before your deadline. Tell them what your aim post PhD is, so they know the goal you are trying to achieve with your thesis. Say you would like to meet and discuss what a plan for getting to that point is. You may or may not want to say why you want to finish ahead of time - you'll have to judge that using your knowledge of your supervisor. Hopefully doing this ahead of time will 1) Nullify your supervisor's assertiveness advantage 2) Give them time to get over any initial feelings of disappointment.

  • Excellent answer, thank you. Currently I'm more inclined to industry labs adjacent to research (R+D kinda of thing). In case I changed my mind and wanted to stay in academia, wouldn't it be possible to compensate a mediocre PhD with postdocs? I feel like postdocs are more convenient for my way of working: shorter, with less pressure, and more freedom. If I had this freedom for say a year, I don't think it's realistic at all to assume that I'd be able to get a good paper out.
    – nohamk
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 15:21
  • Sorrry, in my last reply I meant UNREALISTIC, not realistic. So I think in that setting it would be feasible for me to be quite productive (I was way more productive as a master student than as a phd student)
    – nohamk
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 15:28
  • @nohamk a productive postdoc can compensate for a mediocre PhD, but you have to get the postdoc first. I can definitely get a student through a PhD much quicker if they don't need to be in a position to get a postdoc afterwards. These things are field specific, but in my field postdocs are as lo g as PhDs, and often come with less freedom (as you are hired to perform the work set out in a grant). A good postdoc will require evidence of good performance. You want to be in a good research group if you want to be productive in a short time, and that means a good cv (papers, presentations etc) Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 16:08
  • Also factor in time to get settled in a new field if you are changing. Banging a good paper out in a year might be feasible if you were staying in the same field, but might be considerably more difficult in a new field. Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 16:09

Does your university have PhD mentors or contacts outside the research team that can assist with these conversations? If so, set a meeting with them and explain that for personal reasons you need to graduate as soon as possible, and would appreciate their guidance on (a) getting to the minimum expectations asap, and (b) how to have this conversation with your advisor.

If you don't have such people - I suggest that you set a meeting with your supervisor, sending them an email in advance that lays out basically that due to things in your personal life you need to submit as soon as possible and do what is necessary to meet that minimum requirement. I would recommend setting out your goals for the PhD given this, and what you want after. You need to make it clear that you understand that this could mean you are not competitive for postdoctoral positions, and that you are ok with that. Email followed by in person means that your supervisor isn't blind sided, you can get out your key points without interruption (you don't need an essay - just a few points so they know what you want to discuss), and you are still having the discussion in person.

Ask them to help you prioritise to meet the minimum to submit. They will have the best understanding of what is needed in your field, and hopefully where you are at.

My general advice for needing to submit asap is spend a little time identifying the minimum path. What hurdles are there and what are the specifics? For example, our students must have a paper accepted in a peer reviewed publication to submit. My field has peer-reviewed conference papers that focus on preliminary or small case studies - these meet the administrative requirement and are typically reviewed and accepted on a much better timeline than most journals - as well as taking a lot less time to write. Some places require that you must have a set number of papers accepted or in submission - in that case I advise not submitting papers until your thesis is ready to submit to avoid delays dealing with reviewer comments while trying to submit.

Then work through your thesis plan, figure out what parts are close to done - and prioritise getting those completed. Take out any stretch goals you aren't close to meeting already.

Take a look at critical paths and blockages - work out what you can do in parallel and what will hold up other things. Being careful of where you put your time when can make a huge difference. Have some brain dead tasks identified for when critical thinking/writing is not going to work or when you are stuck waiting on others (tidy up that reference list, write your acknowledgements etc).

If you are worried about the impact on your supervisor of not submitting publications, you can offer to hand over your work to a research assistance / project student to take your thesis and turn other chapters into papers with you not first author.

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