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Here's my story. I moved from my home country to the UK in October to start a PhD in the UK with lots of excitement and positive expectations. However, what I discovered once I started was that the division I am in had never funded an Academic PhD project before (they focus on professional doctorates), the environment is not a research one (I share the office with lecturers and tutors, apart from another PhD student who won my same scholarship). My main supervisor, although supportive, is only at the university for for 3 days per week, has never supervised a PhD and has not an Academic PhD (but has the professional doctorate). My second supervisor does have a PhD, but follows me very occasionally, since only taking care of the 20% of the supervision.

Therefore, since the beginning the experience has been very isolating and not really stimulating. In addition, for various reasons, I have changed the theme of my original project and since then I have the sensation that my main supervisor is not really interested in this, even though saying otherwise. Also, has no particular expertise in the specific subject I am doing research on, but has to supervise many people from the professional doctorate as well and is generally very busy (and yet doesn't even check emails during the whole weekend).

Moreover, I am doing clinical research and I have to face many logistical difficulties, such as the fact that the hospital in which I should work in is quite distant from the university (at least hours roundtrip), the collaboration from the staff and patients is hard to get and basically my PhD depends on lots of people whose sudden disappearance may lead to very big problems.

As a result, I am now approaching the 10th month and I haven't done anything yet, apart from having started the literature review the draft for a survey. I feel as this project is going nowhere and even if I managed to fix some of the logistical issues, the isolation, the lack of expertise of my supervisor and the lack of a research environment really bother me. My supervisor actually said my PhD is a "pilot" for the division to see if they should fund any other PhD in the future, but the problem is that the pilot is not going well.

I find myself thinking about quitting quite often in this period, but I am terribly concerned about the possible consequences: even if I quit I still would like to pursue a PhD somewhere else, but what are the odds of getting any other scholarship after having quit one? Also, I obviously can't apply somewhere else without quitting here, because I need updated cover letters, so this means that I would have to move back to my home country just to restart submitting applications. And without any money, of course.

I haven't spoken about it because I think that once I disclose my reservations with my supervisor would definitely lose interest in the project, so I am taking some time to think before doing anything. The problem is that I really don't know what to do. I moved to the UK because I thought I could have better opportunities compared to my home country, but I think I ended up in a quite peculiar and difficult doctoral experience; I am afraid that the fact of having already obtained funding is going to prevent me from having any other opportunity if I quit. Also quitting would have a very big impact on my psychological well-being, since I do not see myself as a quitter and I would totally feel it as a personal failure, despite all the variables that I have told you.

What do you think?

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    Also, I obviously can't apply somewhere else without quitting here, because I need updated cover letters ... -- Can you elaborate on why you can't look for other opportunities while remaining in your current position? – Mad Jack May 30 '14 at 15:53
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    Talk to your advisor. "It's clear to both of us this pilot is not working out as intended. Do you think I should consider leaving/going to another program?" – ff524 May 30 '14 at 16:00
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    "at least 4 go and come back". Maybe "4 hours to go and come back"? – Faheem Mitha May 30 '14 at 20:09
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    One minor comment. This situation doesn't sound good, but I would recommend trying to spend some time outside your work doing something you enjoy. This will help you stay relaxed, and keep a cool head, and some perspective on the situation. Granted, it will not do anything to help your situation directly, but reading between the lines it sounds like you are getting very stressed with yout situation, so it should help you at a personal level. I've had plenty of work-related difficult periods myself, and going to dance classes helped very much in one of those. But that is just one example. – Faheem Mitha May 30 '14 at 20:13
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    he doesn't even check emails during the whole weekend — Good for him. – JeffE May 31 '14 at 0:33
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If the program is really a pilot, then there are likely some people somewhere in the department who would like it to succeed. I would definitely recommend finding those people and seeing whether they can assist with any of your issues, both logistical and advisor-related.

Past that, though, I would definitely also seek other options. For many PhD graduates, their advisor plays an important individual at the start of their career, and not having that resource can make things very difficult for you. Given that you are already in an academic vacuum, you probably don't want to have that kind of handicap. Take care to make sure you're giving yourself the highest likelihood of success.

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Originally written as a comment, converting to an answer at ff524's suggestion.

Addressing the spirit of your problem, if not the exact question asked: quitting should be the last-case scenario. Clearly you're not happy, and you need to talk to your advisor(s) about that. But do think about whether there are changes that could be made that would improve your situation. Could you spend time at another institution? Should the focus of the project change? Pilot studies don't necessarily work "straight out of the box", so everyone ought to be open to discussion. It may be that no solution can be found - but unless you raise the issue, people may not realise there's a problem.

Also, do note that many, many PhD students worry that "they've not done much" in their first year. But often they've actually learnt a lot, about their subject and about the world of research. So don't be too disheartened!

Edited to add: I have known at least one case where someone started a PhD, it didn't go well, and after a year they quit and started a new PhD in a different department at the same institution. However, I'm not sure what the details of their funding were - it's possible that they simply transferred their existing money to the new project.

  • Thanks for the swift answer. My biggest problem, apart from the environment, is that my research is pretty much out of my on control, since it relies on lots of other people (i.e. clinicians in hospitals providing me patients) and this is turning out to be quite hard. This is leading me to face continous issues through project edits that are making me run late in terms of practicalities (ethics application, data collection, etc). When all these psychological and practical issues are summed it becomes really hard to see any positive point in this experience. – Csar May 30 '14 at 17:43
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    @Csar These are the sorts of issues that a good advisor should be helping to resolve. Again, make sure that those in your supervisory chain appreciate the issues. (Equally, do be aware that every research project has its setbacks: if we knew all the issues up-front, it wouldn't really be research!) – avid May 30 '14 at 19:42
  • I have already told my supervisors some of these issues, but his answer was that every PhD has its own. I can't help thinking that this is not the experience I left my home country for, because of course having to do my PhD abroad in another language makes everything harder, but I thought it would have been worth it for the environment and the opportunities. – Csar May 31 '14 at 10:15
  • @Csar He is, of course, correct. Whether the issues that you are encountering fall within the normal spectrum is not something that anyone here can say. Certainly, some students are let down by their advisors. Some others have unrealistic expectations that their advisor will hand them a PhD thesis on a plate. It sounds like you would benefit from talking to someone who knows how research projects in your field generally play out, and who can advise you on whether your experience is normal or not. – avid May 31 '14 at 10:26
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Let me give you a very practical advice: Every big project is accomplished in many small steps. In order to get a better picture of what is going on, make sure that you have a good protocol of all the small steps you're taking. If possible, establish a weekly routine with your supervisor. Everybody has some kind of daily habit, try to figure out when your supervisor is, e.g., arriving to office, going for lunch, going for coffee, etc. Since, as you're reporting, it's difficult for you to get hold of him, try to catch him at some of these points, repetedly. This way you can build up a habitual relationship. You can't fix all of your problems in one discussion. You have to partition down your project related problems/difficulties into smaller, prioritized portions and then start discussing those independently. Giving your supervisor a brief update on what you plan as your next, small step can be done while walking to the coffee machine. All he has to do is to say "yes", "no", "maybe"- and this DECISION is what you have to document. So, also as a way to protect yourself, you have a proof of how you decided in agreement on how to proceed. Trust me, at one point all these small steps will add up to your larger project and you will feel back on track.

  • Thank you for your comment. I know that I can't achieve everything right now, but I've spent basically my whole first year planning and now I find myself still editing the plan and trying to find alternative studies because those that I've drawn are stopped by some issues. If summed up with all the enviromental issues it becomes quite frustrating. Also I don't know if not having a supervisor who's an expert in what I'm doing is a major issue or not. – Csar Jun 1 '14 at 16:17
  • To just come back on your very last remark, as a PhD student, your free (and also expected) to build your own network. Your supervisor "can open doors", i.e. establish contact with those experts you're looking for. But it's your job to find them. What it boils down to in the end is writing papers where you're the first author, your external new expert friend is the second author and your supervisor is the senior author. If in turn your external friends start to put you and your supervisor on their papers, trust me you'll get the attention of your current supervisor. – TMOTTM Jun 3 '14 at 8:55

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