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In the event of a falling out with a supervisor (Master's thesis or PhD) is there generally anything one can do about it if one wants to apply to a (different) PhD program, for which one would need a recommendation letter? I am mostly interested in the European academia.

I am certain this must have happened a lot in the history of academia and I am wondering what happens in such situations. Is it the end of one's academic career? Are the other options to leaving or (if possible) changing research groups within the university? I know that one can't force a person to write a positive letter, but is there anything that outsiders can do to effect such a situation or is all the power with the supervisor?

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    AFAIK In Europe it is somewhat less common to require recommendations for application to the Ph.D. program, so the whole thing could be a non-issue (although of course at the end of the day it all depends on the specific requirements of a particular Ph.D. program and/or graduate school you are interested in). – just-learning Apr 9 '15 at 1:49
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    European mathematics PhDs do usually require 2-3 recommendation letters. – toad67346739 Apr 9 '15 at 6:46
  • IMHO in continental Europe the odds of finding a decent Ph.D. program requiring no rec. letters are far from zero (especially if your future advisor will be interested in taking you as a Ph. D. student), as the number of required rec. letters varies considerably depending on a particular country and on a particular university. There is a fair number of decent universities in Europe which have money for Ph.D. students but do not advertise the Ph.D. positions openly, and the application process is somewhat less formalized -- but again getting in touch with your potential advisor is crucial here. – just-learning Apr 10 '15 at 1:48
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    Why don't you explain the extent of this falling out? Maybe there is some way to make peace and eat humble pie for a greater good? – Arv Apr 13 '15 at 15:46
  • Possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/32626 – Faustus Apr 18 '15 at 2:01
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To begin with, most supervisors are reasonable, decent people. So, the option of communication, depending on the nature of the falling out, is quite reasonable. It is perfectly possible to finish a PhD with a substantially acrimonious relationship. It might be best to study communication skills a bit first.

If that isn't practical, typically, the former supervisor has a lot of power.* However, very few things are absolutes. The purpose of a supervisor's letter is to gain insight from someone who has previously worked with you. In the USA, in my experience, a certain amount of creativity is acceptable as long as you can fulfill that purpose.

For example, my PhD supervisor switched continents and became quite busy with startups without leaving a forwarding address... So, I provided a letter of recommendation from another supervisor along with a note describing the circumstances for some fellowship applications. No problems. Albeit, I worked in research in industry for several years.

*One thing many graduate students overlook is properly researching potential advisors. The cost of a PhD, typically, significantly exceeds the price of a home. And, typically, is much riskier. Yet, somehow, students jump into PhD programs far more easily than they'd buy houses. On the positive side, in departments I have been in, there have been a few supervisors with known personality issues and, within the department, accommodations were made for students leaving those groups.

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    What do you mean by the "cost of a PhD"? Do you mean to say the money lost by staying in a PhD instead of going into industry during those ~5 years or do you mean to include people that pay for PhD? The former I most definitely agree with in STEM - the pay difference could easily be 40k+/year and over 5 years that amounts to a house (or a good portion of a house depending on location). I would sincerely hope no one directly pays as much for a PhD as they do a house.. – Cameron Williams May 4 '15 at 19:21
  • Yes - the opportunity cost of the lowered pay and the time spent. For STEM, I agree in terms of payment. Albeit, I have knowledge only of STEM, and have heard rumors that humanities PhDs can be directly expensive. – erwin May 4 '15 at 21:18
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    The thought of paying for PhD is baffling to me, especially for fields without much of a job market :/ – Cameron Williams May 4 '15 at 23:03
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    @CameronWilliams I've known some people to pay for their PhD, or specifically not the PhD but taking out student loans to pay for their living expenses because they had little/no stipend to live on, often because their application wasn't competitive enough or they just really wanted or had to attend one institution in particular and that place reluctantly accepted them to start with. The people usually really, really were heavily gambling on getting a dream job - and in one case it worked, albeit with $200k in debt on a below-median salary. Gives me anxiety just to think about it! – BrianH May 4 '15 at 23:19
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If you were quitting a PhD and applying to do a PhD with a different supervisor, wouldn't it look weird to have a recommendation letter from your current supervisor? What would they write? "X is a brilliant student and I am sorry that he or she is quitting my supervision and looking for other PhD positions"?

On the other hand, getting letters from supervisors when you are applying for postdocs or jobs is kind of essential. When I finished my PhD, there was a certain coolness between me and my supervisors, but they were still willing to write me letters, because not having a letter from them would have looked very suspicious indeed. I expect most supervisors with integrity would be willing to write a letter, even if they have fallen out with their student, because if they don't, they are effectively torpedoing your academic career.

  • wouldn't it look weird to have a recommendation letter from your current supervisor?No, not at all! My first advisor wrote just such a letter for me, and I have written such letters for more than one of my students. In fact, applying to another department without a letter from your cuurent advisor would raise a serious red flag. – JeffE May 5 '15 at 2:18

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