I am a new PhD student, almost one year into the program. I was in theoretical research in my Master's program and switched to experimental research for my PhD. During my studies I have used a programming language but I do not have any expertise with it. I immediately started to working with this language, but still have great difficulty working efficiently it. I don't have any positive contribution and my supervisor doesn't seem to be happy.

I don't want to just quit and go back to theory. I really want to continue with experimental study, but not in my current university. When I talked to my supervisor about this he just told me to quit and find something else but I don't believe this is the proper way to motivate a student.

I've applied for other positions which are of a different topic but also experimental. The people who I contacted were very interested in my studies I have done before. But at the end, these people will contact with my supervisor about my progress and I think he will not say good things about me.

I think I behaved very honest for my new application. One of them knew my supervisor and he wanted me to ask about my current performance and I told him to ask if he wants, but I also explained that this talk wouldn't be a glowing recommendation since I have been unable to meet objectives in my current program. Now I think being honest didn't work for me since I didn't get any response back...

What should I say to those people to get accepted into a different program, since I really want to continue in this experimental field?

  • @J.Zimmerman I was going to close as "unclear" because I wasn't sure if OP was asking "how to become proficient in experimental research" or "is it possible to move from theory to applied research" or "should I quit and go back to theory" or something else. Hopefully the OP can confirm his/her intent.
    – ff524
    Jul 9, 2014 at 11:48
  • I read the question as "I'm struggling with the move, can anyone tell me how to proceed?" @didier, if I misunderstood, feel free to edit the question again! Jul 9, 2014 at 11:51

3 Answers 3


If your relation with your current advisor is not good, you probably don't want to cite him/her as reference or ask them for recommendation. Usually one ask recommendation only from people we are sure they have a good opinion. Maybe someone else from your Master can give a better opinion of you. Or colleagues/postdoc/teaching assistant in your current position.

This does not mean you need to hide the current situation. It is better to introduce the problem when you say why you want to change position. And be super clear with the situation, if they ask you what was the problem, be open with it. If you are hesitant to speak, they will feel there is something shady and might become suspicious. Also you should not try to discredit your current supervisor, but you can try to explain why his/her expectations were not met.

If they still insist on contacting your current advisor, then let it be, there is not much more you can do.


Honesty is always the best choice.

Supervisors are genuinely interested in your background and in what you did. They have lots of experience and they know well enough that the success of a PhD candidate doesn't depend exclusively on him/her.

Supervisors' opinion about you won't be affected as much as you expect by the recommendation letter or by a chat with your current supervisor. Be honest with them, talk openly about what went wrong during your previous experience (don't hide it from your CV). Be confident. :)

  • 8
    Being "honest" about how bad you think your previous supervisor was... is not usually a good choice.
    – ff524
    Jul 9, 2014 at 21:23
  • @ff524 is right. I forgot to mention that professionalism is the second best choice. :) Jul 9, 2014 at 21:32
  • @filannim There doesn't have to be a choice involved: Be honest about yourself, give others the benefit of the doubt. Aug 15, 2014 at 13:25

Have you considered finding another advisor at your current university? It sounds like your current advisor is not a good fit for you. You'd be surprised the number of PhD students who decide to switch concentrations after one year in the program.

I would arrange a 1-one-1 meeting with your current advisor and explain what you've said here - you don't feel you are able to make him happy with your work. In my experience, these meetings are generally a relief for both the student and the prof. as the problem is in the open, and both parties can work towards a resolution.

There may be another experimental prof that needs your background in theory, and will be willing to work with you to improve your skills in more applied fields. Just because one prof. didn't work well with you doesn't mean none of them will. If you cannot find another prof at your current university, then consider applying elsewhere.

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