I'm a CS master student in a German university currently writing my thesis. Three months ago I saw an advert from a PhD student in the group where I'm doing my thesis asking for a student assistant (HiWi) to work on a programming project. I went and said I'm interested in the job but specified I can only work 5 hours a week since I must work on my thesis. It was agreed saying "I don't care how much time you will take to finish it".

Since I'm writing my thesis and was about to finish when asked: "how long are you staying here" and I said that I don't know yet and asked why; the reply was "because now I'm concerned that you might leave me if you finish soon" and I mentioned that I will stay to do my PhD.

So I started working. After the first week I noticed that the Phd student is actually quite weird. Once I mentioned that I'm going to use framework "X" for a particular part of the project, and was told: "No I want you to use framework Y, because what if you die then I have to continue doing the project". I didn't like how it was said, but I considered it a joke. Then the weird stuff continued. I won't mention them because it will take too long.

Because of administrative issues they couldn't start my contract for two months, so I worked two months for free. It was said that for the coming months they will put more hours in my contract and I can skip some weeks without working so I can make up for the two months.

However the most annoying thing happened 4 weeks ago. I was told that we need the project done earlier than thought (never mentioned any deadline previously). Then I thought OK I will work twice the time (10 hours a week) for two weeks and then once I finish the main functionalities in the project I will ask to skip two weeks so I can make up and work on my thesis.

Surprisingly after those two hard weeks I was told that the project is wanted done by the end of next week! I said that I was already working overtime and was replied "I don't care I just want it to be done by the end of next week because I have a workshop and I need to present it"!

That was the time I made the decision to quit since it was known very well that I can't do this because I have to work on my thesis, also because of the Phd student's weird behavior. However after receiving the shock I decided that it's not professional to quit at this stage since there is a deadline for the workshop. Also I finished 60% of the project and we made the deal to finish only until 70% for the deadline.

However I want to quit after the deadline but I have the following concerns:

  1. The atmosphere in our work group is very familial. I have lunch with all PhDs and postdocs and jokes and everything. I'm now concerned that quitting would make the atmosphere negative between us.

  2. Whenever I think about quitting I remember when I was asked about how long I will stay because of the worry that I might leave, to somehow not to screw up things. It's the main concern since the project will be 70% done and hiring a new student would be painful since they would have to read what I did and so on and will delay the project.

  3. The professor is also concerned about this project and now I'm afraid that quitting this project at this stage would make my image look bad as a quitter.

So how do you recommend me to quit this job?


One way I thought of quitting is to go after the deadline and say that I won't work for 2 weeks because I need to work on my thesis. Now if told that I can't do that, then I will tell say "then I'm probably not a good fit for the requirement of this project and I don't want to be an obstacle for its progress. I think it's a good idea to find someone who is a better fit". Then I will pray that the response is "Yes you are right". The issue is that we have a lack of student assistants so he might still want me to work under my conditions, but I don't want to continue working for them!

  • 1
    Are you planning to do your PhD in the same research group, or just the same university?
    – aeismail
    Oct 21, 2014 at 18:01
  • @aeismail same research group
    – Jack Twain
    Oct 21, 2014 at 18:06
  • 8
    I'm concerned that you might leave [..] if you finish soon and use framework Y, because what if you die? are not surprising and sound like ok concerns for an employer. The rest though raises a few flags, in particular the part where you work 2 months for free...
    – Cape Code
    Oct 21, 2014 at 20:27
  • 13
    so I worked two months for free — Note to others: DO NOT DO THIS.
    – JeffE
    Oct 21, 2014 at 23:51
  • 1
    @mmmmmmm: Yes, but the OP continues right after that: "I worked two months for free. It was said that for the coming months they will put more hours in my contract and I can skip some weeks without working so I can make up for the two months." - clearly, the agreement was such that payment was supposed to follow later. Apr 11, 2016 at 18:19

3 Answers 3


German university students leave HiWi positions all the time; essentially all universities have forms that allow you to break a running contract (Auflösung) for essentially any reason that you so choose, given the requisite notice; typically this is one month before the new end date of the contract.

Your situation is not that unusual, in that you're doing a HiWi in the same group that you're doing a master's thesis (and intend to do your PhD in). Since it's clear you really don't want to do the HiWi work right now, you can mention, as you suggested, that you're worried about finishing your master's thesis on time and doing a good job with it. However, leaving this position in this manner means you won't be able to take another HiWi position within the group (although you might be able to accept something else in another chair).

However, you shouldn't worry about quitting the position because of time constraints. This happens fairly frequently for lots of reasons. A good graduate student and research group will understand this and not be bothered by it. (If they do have a problem with it, then you should reconsider the wisdom of doing your PhD there!)

[On a side note, though, it seems your PhD student supervisor had unreasonable expectations of the position and what you were supposed to do. Most of the issues are on his side—particularly since he agreed that you could work just five hours per week in the first place!]


It sounds to me like you don't exactly need to quit. Remind him of the conditions under which you took the job, and ask him to stick to the agreement. If he can't do so because his requirements have changed, then that's his choice. You might say something like this:

As you recall, when I accepted this job, it was under the condition that I would only work 5 hours per week so it wouldn't interfere with working on my thesis. Because of your workshop, I have been working far more time than we agreed. I'm concerned that you need more support than the 5 hours a week I am able to provide. What do you think?

Note that I said "5 hours per week" twice for emphasis. Give him a chance to respond. At this point, if he promises to stick to 5 hours per week in future, and allows you to take the next few weeks off to catch up on your thesis, then perhaps you might give him one more chance.

However, if he indicates that he needs you to work more hours, or be available whenever he has deadlines, then you might say something like this:

Unfortunately, I can't work more than 5 hours per week, and it sounds like that just won't be enough. Perhaps the best way to solve this is turn the project over to someone else. I'll do what I can to ensure a smooth transition.

Instead of "quitting", you're working with him to solve his requirements. If it turns out that the only way to meet those requirements is for you to hand off the work to someone else, then that's his choice.

As for the time you worked for free at the start of the contract, I think it is going to be difficult to get paid for that without burning bridges. Of course, you are entitled to be paid, and you could pursue that legally, but you may not want to. In future, remember never to work without a contract.

  • 1
    Why is it difficult to get paid for the time I worked without contract?! We had a deal and he broke it because his requirements changed, then he can simply leave my contract running for two months without me working so I can get back the money. I didn't really understand what you meant by "without burning bridges"
    – Jack Twain
    Oct 21, 2014 at 18:11
  • I interpreted your question to mean that your primary concern was to preserve your professional relationship with this person. I'm sure you can get him to pay you, but he may do so grudgingly since he'll have to pay you and someone else during the transition. Just be prepared for the possibility.
    – mhwombat
    Oct 21, 2014 at 18:25
  • yes my primary concern is to preserve my professional relationship with him and the professor. Actually the professor is paying not him ... since he gets the funding.
    – Jack Twain
    Oct 21, 2014 at 18:40
  • 1
    @AlexTwain maybe you should explain all this to the professor. He will be the one deciding if he hires you.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 22, 2014 at 5:50
  • 1
    @JeffE but he told me informally that I can skip weeks without working so I can make up for the free time that I worked. That was the deal.
    – Jack Twain
    Oct 22, 2014 at 6:05

Agreed with @Davidmh re: going to professor. Things to bring up: 1. Change in deadline conditions (you took the job under a condition of open deadline, which then changed to specific dates); 2. Change in hours (you took the job with a cap of 5hrs/wk, which then increased and began to interfere with your thesis work which should be your #1 priority as a student; 3. Change in project scope (e.g. frmwrk Y) If the grad student will feel that you went behind his back, let him know you felt the professor was best positioned to answer a funding-related question since he is the one ultimately paying.

Also, be sure to mention to the professor the issue of working without pay (same as delayed pay) for 2 months. Make sure he is aware that YOU are aware of this and that you expect reimbursement in accordance with the contract. Be sure to remain calm, courteous, and overall professional in this discussion, and ground your arguments in principles (e.g. getting paid for work) and not people (e.g. the student not paying you on time). This will position you as someone who is in control of the negotiation and speaks from a more objective position of fairness rather than individual-specific nuances.

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