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My situation is a bit particular and I am suffering from it. I do not know exactly what to do with my CV.

I started a PhD in October 2021. After almost a year, I realised that the project was not for me (I always wanted to study plants but it focused on fungi). Plus, my relationship with my supervisor was awful. So, I decided to apply for another PhD position abroad, which I really liked and subsequently got accepted for.

After nine months of this second PhD, my supervisor ended my contract due to my slow progress in the research project, despite recognising my dedication and enthusiasm. He tried to convince me to apply for a third PhD, but I refused because I did not have the right motivation anymore.

I would like to move on and apply to companies. I know that I cannot lie on my CV, so I should list my two failures. Honestly, I fear no one will hire me if they see these not finished PhDs. How should I mention them on my CV?

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    "ended my contract due to my slow progress ... tried to convince me to apply for a third PhD," That makes no sense. Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 11:18
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    I suggest you seek advice from people who are working in the field you are now intending to work in rather than from academics. The approach to CVs, as well as what is favoured, tends to be quite different in industry and academia. Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 15:33
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    What country? Are you really sure it's a CV in the sense of a 10+ document asking for every detail of your life? Usually, US companies ask for a resume, which is a brief (1 page) list of your highlights (so no need to bring up things that didn't work out). Confusingly, some countries say CV but actually mean a resume (short). Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 5:06
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    I don't understand why Anonymous Physicist's harsh and unnecessary comment gets 32 upvotes: it's easily conceivable that the OP's second research topic was again outside of his/her specialisation and/or interest and that the slow pace of progress has no relation whatsoever on his/her capacity to do original scientific research.
    – 5th decile
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 13:20
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    @Vergilius: For what it's worth, I understood Anonymous Physicist's comment to be harsh towards OP's supervisor (and rightfully so, I'm inclined to think), not towards the OP. Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 15:52

9 Answers 9

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As somebody who has a PhD and has hired people with PhDs, without PhDs and some with terminated PhDs, I say be honest:

"I stopped the first position since I felt it was the wrong subject and in the second PhD Project my work would not be funded since the progress was slower than expected - I decided to leave academia instead of continuing in the same chair."

I prefer people who make a conscious decision to end their academic career and do not ride a dead horse (e.g. staying in certain chair) over those who do a mediocre and uninteresting PhD for 6 years with meager results to bore me in the interview.

Added after comments:

It is my assumption that they would not sort out your CV if you mention 2 positions which you shortly held after each other (if you were employed put it as employment history and not as studies), but I expect that the question will come up in the interview. So in the CV

  • 2020/1-2020/5 (title) at ...
  • 2020/6-2020/10 (title) at ...

should be enough. You don't want to work with companies who sort out your CV based on this anyway.

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    That would be an appropriate answer if you were asked about it. That is not an appropriate statement to include in a CV. CVs are lists of facts without explanations. Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 22:28
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: I assume a cover letter/motivation letter comes with all CVs. Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 2:38
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Honestly, I fear no one will hire me if they see these not finished PhDs.

Nearly all the time, the person hiring also has not finished a PhD. All large organizations hire people with unfinished degrees. All you need to do is write

PhD student, University Name

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    Better write Research Program, University of .... Had it worked out otherwise it might well have become a PhD. But it didn't.
    – Trunk
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 8:10
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Write them as research assistant positions.

Describe what you did and what you learned, at the interview you will be asked about them, clarify them, especially the my supervisor ended my contract due to my slow progress: slow progress in themselves are not the reason for your dismissal, there must be a deep reason for this initially slow progress (topic too vast, lack of infrastrucure, lack of guidance, lack of skills on your side).

Think of them impersonally, and good luck.

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    Wouldn't that be dishonest? Unless hired as a research assistant, that description should not be used. It's far worse to be dishonest on a CV than to be unimpressive.
    – Argalatyr
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 2:07
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    In the US, you're usually paid as a "graduate research assistant." It's what I always put on my taxes as my profession during my PhD. Also, I don't think it's dishonest to include a description of what you did as the job title of the job title is not readily recognizable or doesn't really represent what you did. You might put the true title in parentheses, but it's normal to put the "essence" title on a resume in the US.
    – GenesRus
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 5:35
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    @Argalatyr to which country do you refer? a PhD is performing research under supervision, so I cannot see what is wrong with that. OP was employed as a PhD (not sure if they were paid, it does not matter). A PhD is a worker, the work is "do research", even doing literature review is "research work", let's stop considering a PhD simply a student.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 7:05
  • OP said that they haven't yet received their PhD - that they left during training for a PhD (at least, that's the way it seemed to me). Your comments seem to apply to some sort of post-doctors position, which doesn't seem applicable here. Perhaps I'm mistaken?
    – Argalatyr
    Commented Sep 25, 2023 at 12:02
  • @Argalatyr Exactly. If OP would have completed their PhD, they would write PhD student in their job for the time. Which often in the industry is perceived by clueless HR as "student" (safe assumption: HR employee are clueless of everything apart the direct benefit of their employer). If you write research assistant, you explicitly say you were working an assistant. Which is true and also understandable for clueless HR: in the industry, you are a project collaborator (assistant) until you are promoted to project leader.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Sep 25, 2023 at 12:15
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I think you should never write things in your CV that are not true. Instead, especially when making the switch to industry, you should add your motivations to make the career switch. Make sure to emphasize your skills and interests. Especially in the US, PhDs are not seen as work experience anyway and industry mainly focuses on work experience. The fact that you didn't publish papers may not make much of a difference to them, barred jobs that require a PhD, such as field engineers and folks in R&D.

Industry often works with resumes instead of CVs, that makes resumes ideally suited to emphasize your skills and strengths, so you can more easily avoid putting to much emphasis on the things that didn't go as planned.

In Europe, PhD research is more often seen as work experience. But again, don't try to hide the past and emphasize they were conscious decisions to terminate the PhD research in both cases. Emphasize you now know what you want and have the skill set to do just that.

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    > "In Europe, PhD research is seen as work experience." No, it is not (well it depends but often, no)
    – Yacine
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 14:37
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    @Yacine I toned that statement down a little. At least in Holland, people tend to take a PhD more seriously; salaries nowadays for a PhD candidate are not at all bad any longer
    – AliceD
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 14:53
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I think an honest answer is the only solution. Sometimes people get bored by the topic, lose motivation, and it's normal. You are fired not because you are not smart; people already hired you because you are smart. Might be the topic is not yours, might be internal issues, might be personal issues, lack of soft skills, whatever can happen. Be honest, not only are you chosen for a job, but you also choose a company, thus why do you need a team which doesn't want fired PhDs, etc.? Select the team which chooses you to work with based on your skills and fit of the project and team at the time of your interview.

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People in the industry don't really care about PhDs unless the position is "R&D scientist" and the job description says "PhD required". Everything else, up to and including "PhD preferred but not required", it's not really a big deal. I mean if you had completed it, it would be an extra little bump to your application, but since you're not even close, you need not stress about it.

What they really care about is evidence that you have skills and experience relevant to the job you are applying for. I don't mean here, "you're really smart and the job is accountant so it helps to be smart when doing that". I mean "the job is 90% hacking at SPSS code, and it says you spent 2 years in PhD school mucking around with SPSS, so you must know the SPSS pretty well". So they're not asking what stuff you could quickly pick up on the job, they're wondering what you already know and won't have to be taught on the job. Carefully read what's listed in the job description, and see which points you can say apply to you, and focus on those.

In that sense, if you mention your PhD attempts at all, it would be as work experience. You never received the degree, so no sense listing it in "education", because that's normally for completed degrees. If you decide to claim your PhD work was relevant experience, you will be listing it as "research assistant", because that's what your job was. Even I write it as assistant on mine, even though I actually completed my PhD, because my stipend checks said "research assistant" not "PhD student".

  • If they ask you why you left, you can say that you had disagreements with the supervisor and did not like the work (research). That's safe to say, because probably the job you're applying for is not research, so they don't mind that you don't like things that aren't your job.
  • If they ask why you started in the first place, you can say you wanted to increase your experience and knowledge in the field, which presumably is true.
  • If they question why you failed twice, you can say that the first one you thought the research group was a poor fit. After the second you came to realize that research in general is not for you. This shows maturity and learning from setbacks, so it makes you look good. It helps to have some cute reason like what you hope to learn and accomplish in the industry, so it doesn't sound like you were just desperate for any kind of job.
  • If they ask you, "was this a PhD you tried to do and failed?" you can of course confirm that yes working as an assistant was required by a PhD studentship and you did not complete the degree. No need for details like fired vs. quit or whatever else. They probably won't ask this, because it's not useful for hiring you, and a waste of valuable interview time - obviously you do not have a PhD, or your application would say so.
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It would be so much easier to answer this question if you had provided more detail on how these two "failed PhDs" evolved.

From what you've said, the first PhD mainly failed due to having an uncongenial topic and a bad supervisor.

The second one needs more elaboration. You seemingly approved the topic and worked hard at it (if work followed "dedication and enthusiasm" - though this is not necessarily so, of course!) but "progress" was not made. This and your saying that your second supervisor advised a new topic does not reflect badly on you: if your supervisor blamed you for the lack of progress, you would not be invited to apply for another program.

By the timeline provided by you, you have just recently stopped work on program #2. I truly understand your sense of disappointment about your energy and commitment on the last program being wasted on a dry well - that is the bane of all researchers, industry as well as academia. But I would advise against being too hasty in giving a final "No!" on pursuing PhD research as this is more likely a decision of an exhausted heart than one of a clear mind.

To answer the question of how to account for the last 2 years on a CV right now if you look for an industry job: all you can do is be wholly honest about these two programs.

First draft in longhand an honest statement to an anonymous non-judgemental friend of what you did over these years, what you were trying to do and how it panned out.

This will be emotional for you. But it's just like setting out household income and expenditure - it won't ever be as bad as you had feared and you'll learn a bit on where the money has really been going.

When you finish it read back over it. Now look at these events in the round and describe more briefly how these years were dedicated.

In the case of each program, detail the project and the results obtained in each up to the point of abandonment. It is also important to detail any training in techniques you acquired as well as literature surveys done. A lot of industry jobs in STEM are given to those up to speed in those techniques used in that company's labs and they dislike having to train people.

P.S. Is there any chance that your second supervisor would hire you temporarily as a Research Assistant as you settle your morale ? It's nice to just do experiments for a while without the anxiety and perceptual bias that goes with the responsibility of a doctoral program.

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Context: I left PhD because funding was stopped, and I didn't want to beg for it. Before that, I dropped out of my first MS program, but completed second MS and dropped out of third MS again.

Honestly, I fear no one will hire me if they see these not finished PhDs.

This is subjective opinion, because real people do fail.

How should I mention them on my CV?

  • 01/2023 - 09/2023, Name_of_University, PhD Student

    1-2 lines of your activities

  • 12/2021 - 12/2022, Name_of_University, PhD Student

    1-2 lines of your activities

Do not write reasons, be objective.

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Context: I'm an MS student graduating this year and looking for work, so take this answer based on its logic, not its authority.

I agree with the other commenters on this question that you should definitely not lie. Mubeen Shahid's response is pretty much all you need in terms of resume/cv. But when it comes to what narrative you would tell an employer i.e. in an interview, cover letter, etc. is also relatively simple.

This narrative must also be true. I assume you actually have a plan to continue past this setback of losing two PhD programs and that you have put in some work to transition into the next phase in your career. Explain your reasons for switching into the position you are in now and why it is the best fit for you (i.e. why you made the decision for yourself). In general, your reasons should be good, so the narrative should also be good for your future employers. Try not to make it seem what you are aiming for now is just a backup plan, but rather something you really want to do. Add some pizzazz. You should be fine.

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