I want to give up my current PhD program, which I started 5 months ago, because I really do not like my current advisor's personality and working style. He lives a relaxed life and has no enthusiasm for science after getting tenure. He does not have funding and never releases decent papers because he does not work hard.

But I like my current direction. So I want to give up my PhD and switch to the master's program - as I have nearly finished all the coursework, and I do not want a gap in my CV - and then apply to a new school, as there is no other professor in my school doing work in my direction.

My question is: how can I tell him that I want to leave the PhD program? I do not want to tell him the true reason, because I want him to write a recommendation for me, and I think he likes me.

  • 3
    Tell him you want to find another school with better matching of your research interest.
    – bingung
    May 25, 2014 at 7:54
  • 15
    @adipro Why not? "My advisor has no drive to do excellent research and does not publish high-impact papers" seems like an entirely legit reason to leave.
    – xLeitix
    May 25, 2014 at 9:18
  • 1
    @xLeitix If the asker's own research is going well ("I like my current direction"), the issue seems to be just not having much respect for the advisor. I'm not sure it's worth the disruption of starting a new programme for that. May 25, 2014 at 10:32
  • 3
    Is there anyone else you could work with at your school or within the department? I have friends who have had similar issues (and I think a good relationship with one's advisor is actually quite important), and they have either found someone else as a main advisor, or kept on with their original, but worked with others as well. Not all programs are structured like this though so leaving may be the only way. But why do you have to stay through your masters? You could just switch schools and graduate a bit earlier than others. But as others have noted, it may depend on what year you are in now.
    – Skunkness
    May 25, 2014 at 11:59
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    I think I respect my advisor. — No, I don't think you do. If you respected your advisor, you wouldn't even consider lying to him. You may like him, but that's not the same thing.
    – JeffE
    May 26, 2014 at 16:38

3 Answers 3


Tell him why you're even more excited about the places to which you're applying.

At University X, Dr. Y is doing groundbreaking work in Z, and has published three papers in Prestigious Journal With A Latin Title in the last two years alone. Her students are also proving amazing results and speaking all over the world about them, and one of them just got a job at Top-Class University W. Every week they have a seminar where they discuss blah-blah-blah... [etc., etc.]

I'm grateful for all the opportunities you've afforded me here, and I think that X,Y, and Z would be an even better fit for me.

  • Sounds like "You/This place is not good enough for me".
    – Taladris
    May 29, 2014 at 17:56
  • 1
    Which makes it all the more of a perfect answer to the question. Not lying, just masking the truth with flowers.
    – cregox
    May 27, 2015 at 13:42

It seems that you have been wondering whether you had chosen the right advisor, ever since you started your PhD 5 months ago. You didn't even like your subject then.

Earlier I commented that I was not sure if what you described would be a valid reason to leave your PhD program. Given that you have struggled with this decision for the last 5 months and you have not seen any improvements except that now you like your subject, it could well be the right decision to leave. I must quickly add, though, that many PhD students have had minimum guidance from their advisor, yet they persisted. This is something you need to decide yourself, and it seems that you are determined to leave, and that is fine.

What you must not do, as others have commented, is to lie to your advisor. Do not think about getting a recommendation from him. First, I don't think it is necessary, and second, it will help you be more objective in conveying to him your reason for leaving.

  • Thanks for your kind suggestion. Now I do not expect him to write a recommendation. Also I do not want to offend him.
    – user9983
    May 29, 2014 at 5:42
  • 1
    @user9983, I do not have the experience of leaving a PhD program, so I am not the right person to advise you on what to tell your advisor. But maybe you could say that you thrive on closer guidance. It is also important, I think, to say that you have been thinking a lot about this and you are afraid of offending him.
    – adipro
    Jun 4, 2014 at 21:35

If you want a good reference the only thing you can really try is to tell him the subject does not suit you at all and fit your new found plan to become an x, y or z. Your supervisor may wonder why you are asking for a reference to go do some similar course if you do that after telling him you hate the subject, though...Your supervisor may try to persuade you to stay, in which case you could negotiate he stop doing whatever is annoying you or just keep firm with your decision.

What you must not do is fake family death or personal illness. You will in all likelihood, need to prove those have happened, especially if you want a reference.

Personally, I think not liking your supervisor is a terrible reason to quit your PhD. You will always have to suffer fools in life, that is just part of being an adult.

  • 4
    But it doesn't seem like the issue is 'liking' as much as feeling like the advisor is not going to be effective in terms of the poster's academic development. If the advisor has no interest in his own work, let alone that of his student's, I think it's a problem. But I may have been reading into the post. If it really is just a personality issue, then maybe that's not a reason to leave.
    – Skunkness
    May 25, 2014 at 12:04
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    @user9983: Please forgive me if I'm way off-base, but: I find myself being skeptical of the way you are writing off your advisor as having "no enthusiasm for science" after only knowing him for five months. That wouldn't be enough time to evaluate the work ethic of a student, and as a student it's much harder to evaluate whether a mature academic is working hard or doing a good job. May 25, 2014 at 21:52
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    You write "he never works during the summer break (3 months) which I think is the golden time to do research cause he does not need to teach". First of all, that's a little judge-y: he gets to figure out what's his golden time to do research. Second: if you started working with him five months ago, you have not seen him through even one entire summer break, so how can you know that he "never works during the summer". Or did he say to you flat-out, "I never work during the summer since I got tenure?" May 25, 2014 at 21:54
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    the only thing you can really try is to tell him the subject does not suit youNO. DO NOT LIE.
    – JeffE
    May 26, 2014 at 0:34
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    @user9983: Somehow your story is not quite adding up to me. (i) If you got the opportunity to see your advisor's group in advance and you got almost entirely negative feedback from the students, why did you join? (Why did they join?) (ii) If your advisor and is research group is underperforming to the extent that you -- a master's student -- don't feel like it's worthy of your time, why would the research community view your adviser more favorably? And if your advisor does not have any stature in the research community, why is his recommendation important or valuable to you? May 26, 2014 at 4:56

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