I am applying to PhD programs for the fall 2024 cycle in the US. However, I am very worried because I previously was a PhD candidate in Europe for 6 months. I left because of harassment and bullying. I was doing an industrial PhD and it was my industrial tutor who kept sending me threatening emails and late night whatsapp messages to the point I could not focus anymore. I talked to the university's confidential trusted advisor who advised me to leave because it was clear (from the whatsapp messages and threatening emails) that I could not work in that type of environment anymore.

My main question is, do I mention that I was a PhD candidate and left because I was bullied? Or should I simply state that I was a research assistant at university X? I want to tell the truth mainly because I did very well in those 6 months and proved to be a good researcher. In my application, I want to be able to list my accomplishments there. I also want to tell the truth because it is neither fair what happened to me nor my fault. I cannot even get a reference from my supervisor because he was upset I left the PhD position and he will now lose the funding. Will a future university call my previous university? I have excellent reference letters from my masters program, so I have 3 in total, but it would look odd that I don't have a reference letter from my previous PhD program. Any advice?


3 Answers 3


You should tell the truth, but only the relevant parts. For example:

I was enrolled in an industry-focused PhD program. I felt the industry part of the program was not a good fit for my goals, so I left to seek a PhD position focused on ...

(US PhD programs are much less likely to have a large industry component than European PhD programs.)

The reprehensible behavior of the tutor was unfair to you, but does not relate to your application.

  • Thank you for your reply. It helps a lot
    – Ericka L
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 1:31

First, most applications (certainly in the U.S., and, I strongly suspect, in the EU) really do require complete, verifiable accounts of all graduate work and postdoc stuff. Omitting stuff would not be good. Do not consider it.

But/and, as others have commented, you can/should, in neutral terms, explain your choices. Don't "tell stories"...

  • 2
    This answer covers the serious flaw in the currently accepted answer. You can't omit providing records from all educational institutions you've attended. If you were a doctoral student you cannot just say you were only an RA.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 0:07

I don’t suggest telling about the hostility with your advisor very openly because 1) it is not related to your new university and 2)application reviewer have tendency to judge you negatively when they see evidence of negativity associated with you already even though it’s not your fault. Regarding mentioning PhD candidate status, PhD candidate in US means you are done with your qualifying exam and only thing left to do is defend your dissertation (ABD). So, you might be still considered as PhD student. Being PhD student in US is much easier than being PhD candidate. So, If your experience or research that you did as PhD researcher in the past is relevant to your new university research you may include your experience and research experience without mentioning details about your advisor. That might help. However, given that you have done good work in master and your research interests matches with faculty/department in US, it is less important if you were a PhD student/researcher somewhere else or not. As long as you can fulfill all the application requirements without the help of your PhD advisor, you should be okay. The reviewer of your application may not have enough time to reach back to someone who you have not asked to reach out. Whether university will accept you or not after meeting minimum requirements depends upon matching in research interest, funding availability, papers, standardized scores such as gre. So your PhD researcher experience from past may not be significant for the decision. Regardless, having it as an experience in CV won’t hurt but don’t mention professor’s name.

  • Thank you. I really want to tell the truth as I didn't do anything wrong. If I include my research experience, would you suggest I just state I was a RA at X University? But the problem is I didn't publish a paper, I was in the process of publishing a paper already in my short 6 months there but because of the harassment I stopped.
    – Ericka L
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 3:02
  • 2
    Your answer is unclear. (I did not downvote) What do you mean by "I don’t suggest telling the truth very openly" You mean hiding the fact that the OP was a PhD candidate ? Please clarify.
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 5:11
  • 1
    Thanks @Nobody. This is constructive and helpful to improve my answer. I agree it’s unclear and I will edit making my answer clear. I really hate someone just downvote without asking follow up questions if it’s unclear. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 5:51
  • Phd in Europe are phd candidates (at least in Italy). In the US from what I understand phds start "lower" in level then become phd candidates. In my program I am considered a phd candidate
    – Ericka L
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 15:17
  • 1
    I won’t say “starts lower” because PhD in US requires MS or equivalent degree. There is direct PhD enrollment option after BS but generally requires to complete 90 credit hours but after MS requires 60 chrs only which is why I call MS equivalent. PhD students are called as PhD candidates after passing qualifying exams in US. But as per your writing, they are called candidates after enrolling into PhD programs in europe. So, I think it’s just difference in terminology. Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 2:39

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