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Throughout the completion of my master's thesis, my supervisor suggested that we continue on to a doctoral program together. And after successfully defending my masters thesis, he requested weekly meetings trying to persuade me. However, what he offered was minimal to none.

Specifically, there was no funding from the state nor the university, and the only assurance he provided for me was the possibility of collaborations with foreign universities after the completion of the program. He also suggested that I find another job alongside the doctoral program, and as for the funding itself, we would review that option in the future.

From my side, I thought that working alongside a doctoral program would bring about significant physical and psychological fatigue. When I expressed my thoughts to him, he became more persistent and appealed to emotion, saying that all the work I've done in the master's program would be lost, and if I opted for a university abroad, I'd start from scratch. Furthermore, he mentioned that I needed to decide by the start of next week.

My thought is, if I reject his proposal and get rejected by other universities abroad, then what? Additionally, if my psychological state is at this level due to the continuous meetings and pressure at the very start of a potential doctoral program, what would happen in a year? Is a doctoral program ultimately worth it under these circumstances? Should I tolerate such behavior? Although I have to admit that it is my fault after all, I let him believe that we'd continue together and had not review my choices first.

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    Don't walk. Run.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 4 at 18:17
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    By what definition is this "together"? What's he intending to put in?
    – Graham
    Commented Apr 5 at 7:49
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    You don't seem to mention if you actually personally want to get a doctorate or not. Getting a PhD isn't something you can easily do as an unfunded hobby next to a day job, it requires quite some dedication. So the first question you need to ask yourself is just how badly you need a PhD and how much you are willing to sacrifice to get it. If you already have an answer to this question, please edit it into your post.
    – TooTea
    Commented Apr 5 at 9:05
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    @CaptainEmacs Yeah, I linked it to a Meta discussion about use of this phrase, specifically JeffE's defense of it, in part to credit the originator and in part to acknowledge its value and limitation. I've expanded my thoughts into a proper answer now too, though.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 5 at 13:29
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    What part of the world are you in? Supervision seems highly unusual. Commented Apr 5 at 14:27

7 Answers 7

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While I can't recommend what to do, since it is your future at risk and not mine, it sounds like you are being used. I sympathize and agree with all of your concerns.

My suggestion is that, assuming you are interested in him and the project, that you tell him you can continue only (only) if he can find adequate funding and guarantee that funding for a reasonable time to completion. You might have some tasks to perform for that funding, such as a TA or RA would in the US, of course.

Yes, you would have to start over in many ways at a foreign place but what you have done wouldn't be "lost". Life is full of risk, but you should think of your needs, not his, in such situations.

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    And here "guarantee" means a legal contract, not a personal 'guarantee'. Commented Apr 5 at 6:38
  • I think that the answer would be a good one if the supervisor merely did not have money, but they look like a serious nag. I think the advice should advise, in fact, to move away from this supervisor. Commented Apr 5 at 12:15
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    yes, any PhD advisor will know that funding is a serious issue. You should be very comfortable resting on that alone. Nothing is stopping you from applying to multiple programs, along with this professor's, and then comparing the final offers, including funding.
    – Mike M
    Commented Apr 5 at 18:38
  • @GregMartin is that a thing in practice though? Where an adviser guarantees funding in writing? My gut feeling that this is something that rarely can be guaranteed unless it has already happened... Commented Apr 5 at 21:47
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    Typically it's the department/university that guarantees funding in writing (which is perhaps what you mean by "already happened"). I did intend my comment to mean waiting for this type of guarantee, regardless of who signs it. Commented Apr 5 at 23:15
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The success of your applications abroad is probabilistic. And so is the potential outcome of your work under your supervisor. So I am unable to offer you a definite advice.

Nonetheless, two comments.

(1) Whenever someone is making you an offer and demands that you make your choice "by the start of next week" -- this is a sure sign that this someone is trying to manipulate you. Whatever the potential benefits, beware also of the perils of dealing with such people.

(2) Except in extraordinary situations (like when the fate of your country or your family is at stake), put you health (including your psychological health) first. Working for several years under extreme psychological stress may bring you great benefits -- but at what cost?

Please don't get me wrong. I am not trying to convince you from working for your supervisor. I simply recommend you to first compare the yield and the cost -- and to ask yourself if you can afford it.

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    I think there is more than one red flag here, this supervisor's trouble. He showed himself when OP was not yet in their full power. Imagine how it will look when they have become a dependent. Commented Apr 5 at 12:17
  • Just curious, why is asking that a decision be made before a deadline a sign of someone trying to manipulate a person? Commented Apr 6 at 15:59
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    @ErikVesterlund This is a very typical trick of dishonest salesmen. Respected businessmen do not act like that. A rule of thumb is to immediately say `no' to an offer made in that manner. Commented Apr 6 at 16:37
  • But don't we all, in misc contexts and situations, have to make decisions before a deadline all the time? Is "offer" the key item here? Commented Apr 6 at 16:51
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    @ErikVesterlund Yes, you may say that `offer' is the key item here. Or, specifically, the style in which the offer is being made. Usually, such a style indicates dishonesty. Commented Apr 6 at 16:57
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A PhD is a job. In some places it's legally required to be, in other places it's merely convention, but your professor has not offered you a real PhD position if they haven't offered any funding, just like someone who offers for you to come and clean their house for no pay has merely offered you work, not a job.

the only assurance he provided for me was the possibility of collaborations with foreign universities

There is no value in this promise. A "possibility" does not pay any bills. This professor isn't offering to pay you, he can't substitute that with a suggestion that someone else might pay you in the future.

You know how this person actually behaves because you are already experiencing it. He will find new things you need to complete to earn the next little crumb of support. When your thesis is complete by someone else's standard, this person will tell you that it's not really complete yet and all the work is a waste unless you work for free just a little bit more, and you will feel compelled to do it because of sunk costs. This is a classic abuse paradigm. Unfortunately humans are susceptible to this kind of abuse. People are physically beaten by their partners while justifying it with "oh, if I had just done ______ a little better, I wouldn't be hit". This makes total sense to someone in the moment when it doesn't make any sense to anyone looking from the outside.

Do not fall into this trap. You are worth more than that.

The vast majority of people who complete a PhD will not have a permanent job in academia, they will work elsewhere. If you apply for PhD programs and are not accepted anywhere, you are in a similar position to those people except you have a head start. By the time they finish their PhD, you will have years of experience in the non-academic career you join instead; that experience will likely have more value than the PhD would have.

Your professor knows his offer is a terrible offer. That's why he has a deadline on it, there is no other reason. Just pure manipulation.

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Red Flags

Working: The casual suggestion that you, in effect, "Fund yourself" by working a job alongside your PhD studies is a major red flag. Not only because that is usually not how things are done, but also because your suspicion is correct-- working a full or even half time job in addition to PhD studies is a very heavy load.

It can, in some circumstances, be done. The second half of my PhD, I had to work 20 hours a week at my professional job, and the remaining 20 hours (which was more like 30) were devoted to PhD studies. I made it out with my degree intact, but it is not recommended.

One way or another, this will slow your progress down. There are only so many hours in a week. It is also extremely stressful, as you surmise. Enough so that (and this is an admission I'm only comfortable with behind a veneer of anonymity) I probably should have availed myself of mental health resources on campus. What is bearable for a month, or even a year, can become intolerable for the length of an extended PhD.

It can be done, but hearing an advisor make that suggestion causes me to think they do not have your best interests at heart.

Exploding offers: Likewise, the sudden pressure to decide now, now, now! Especially without any better reason than because he doesn't like indecision. If there is some good administrative or financial reason you have to make the decision right now, he should be willing to share it with you. Sometimes life does force us to make fast decisions, but this doesn't seem to be life, this seems to be your advisor.

Both of these are red flags in my mind, not consistent with how a good advisor acts. Two together...?

What Ifs

There are no guarantees in life. No one here can promise that you'll be accepted and gain funding somewhere else. No one at all can promise you that you'll flourish if you do. No one knows the true value that you will derive from having a PhD.

Consequently, no one can give hard, specific advice.

But I do have some thoughts to consider:

  • As I alluded to above, you deserve an advisor that has your best interests at heart. Ask yourself if you really think this guy fits the bill.

  • Failing to be accepted to a PhD program the first time out is not the end of your aspirations. I took a long break from academia after my Masters because I didn't get a good enough offer. But I did come back, and did persevere through the 20 hour work weeks.

  • The sunk cost fallacy is very real. I know it seems like you've invested nearly everything into your current work. I encourage you to think about that with as much objectivity as you can muster, perhaps with some outside advice from someone else you trust at your current institution.

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In addition to what the other commenters have written: is there another senior academic at your institution who could provide you with a more tailored perspective? This could be whoever runs your degree program, a former project supervisor or a similar person.

Getting some mentorship from someone in your field (and culture/country) could help you estimate if you're a strong candidate for "applications abroad", and gauge if it's normal for PhD positions in your field to be unpaid. They might also serve as a letter of recommendation writer. You shouldn't go into detail about your "breakup" with your supervisor, just mention that you're not financially able to accept an unpaid position, but would like to continue in science.

An anecnote on "starting from scratch": in my field, having disjoint MSc and PhD projects can work to your advantage, since you can show experience working on a broader range of topics going into postdoc applications. Academia varies a lot, but I wouldn't see a fresh start as automatically negative.

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A PhD requires a lot of time and concentration, making your concerns about workload very understandable.

Reasons that legitimize declining the offer from your supervisor include:

Financial concerns: The lack of funding makes it difficult to commit to a PhD program. This is especially important because a PhD program is a significant time commitment.

Workload: A PhD requires dedication and sacrifices. However, it's important to have breaks and other activities outside of your studies. Neglecting this can lead to a gradual decline in productivity over time. Your physical and mental health should be a priority at this stage.

Additionally, some red flags regarding your supervisor's behavior raise concerns:

Pressure: If your supervisor tries to exert this kind of pressure now, it's likely to continue in the future. Are you willing to work on your PhD while holding another job and facing such manipulative behavior?

Future options: It's important to ask whether finding future funding is realistic. Is the possibility of future funding realistic, or is your supervisor perhaps misleading you?

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Do not, do not, do not, enter into this - or any other commitment of this nature - if you cannot do it wholeheartedly. Ultimately, you have to do what is best for you, regardless of any pressure that may be coming from your past supervisor. The amount of pressure being applied here is concerning anyway (that is no way to begin a PhD program). You will be fine, and your former supervisor will deal/be okay.

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