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I am considering the possibility to quit from the phd program I am involved in ( to be completely honest it is not me BiA considering that, but another person that wants to remain anonymous )

The group I am working in has several criticalities:

  • the advisor is not good in managing his time, and he continuously postpones meetings. He already told me several times that I should be more insistent and try to go randomly to his office, so that we could have at least one meeting a week. I tried several ways to fix appointments with him but it does not work.
  • the advisor changes goals for my work every time I met him. This is very confusing.
  • I feel that what is asked for getting the phd is essentially cheating. The advisor wants more than 3 publication in 3 years, and after joining the group I discovered that this takes normally more than 4 and 1/2 years.
  • a lot of people have left the group in the last year, more or less 50% of the people that I knew when I first came to this group. The reason are several but all related with the advisor
  • the people in the group are very friendly but they do not work as a team, also because helping other people in the group is not considered a good practice. Moreover in a while the entire group will be formed of just phd students in their first year.

Since I am still in my first year I am thinking of exit this ugly situation. But sometimes I think it could be too early. On the other side I don't see possible improvements in the near future. And I don't want to stay stuck in a bad situation for 3+ more years.

My primary question is, should one quit a PhD within the first year if the working environment seems to be a poor fit?

As a follow up, what would be good way to describe this situation to a possible future employer without saying "my previous job was really bad"? No one wants you to blame the old boss...

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    "The advisor wants more than 3 publication". This sounds totally reasonable. How much it takes to produce these publications is mostly up to you. What do you want? Someone to guarantee that you will get a PHD in 3 years with no sufficient publications? – Alexandros May 15 '15 at 16:48
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    @Alexandros I think that this depends strongly on the field. It can be true in particle physics or computer science. Not that much in mathematics and theoretical physics. Also I disagree on the fact that depends only on me. – BiA May 15 '15 at 16:52
  • Plus it depends where you want to publish. 3 as a first author on nature is not reasonable (of course I am exaggerating here) – BiA May 15 '15 at 16:54
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    I said "mostly up to you" not "only on you". Also, I do not believe you are in the best university with all the problems you describe. Therefore if 3 publications are the norm at your current university, at a better university the bar will be even set higher. – Alexandros May 15 '15 at 16:55
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    Sounds to me like you should change your advisor, not quit your Ph.D. – Sverre May 15 '15 at 18:36
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There are a few subproblems I want to respond to, then an overall answer.

If an advisor is not invested enough in a project to spend time on it, the student is going to have to struggle with avoidable problems, i.e. issues which the adviser could have quickly addressed. It's still not impossible, and some students might even flourish without micromanagement, but it's not ideal. So then, is it that this advisor doesn't care to spend time on the project, or that they have many other commitments and are just doing a poor job allocating their time? If they earnestly want to meet but are being pulled away by teaching and committee work, then the student might be able to help out by tracking down the advisor when they are available.

Pressure to publish is almost universal in academia and if we want to be successful we have to embrace this as a delicious carrot rather than a heavy stick. However, for many PhD students there is a gap between what the program tells the students to do and what the median student who receives a PhD actually does. If you want to pursue a faculty position, you need to aim substantially higher than the median--in terms of publication counts, everyone should aim higher than the median in terms of personal achievement--but if that's not your path then it's less critical.

Now, those issues aside, I generally feel that if a student is bothered enough by a working environment to make a list of the reasons they think the environment is awful, then regardless of how common any individual factor might be, it isn't working out. Don't torture yourself. If you love the work you do, then look for transfer opportunities. You should quit a PhD as soon as you know it's not working, regardless of how much time has actually passed.

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Unfortunately undertaking a PhD can be extremely bureaucratic, time taxing and unrealistic.

  • From what is sounds like there is only one advisor, which is strange. Most PhD projects that I have come across have a minimum of two and I have come accross projects with up to 6 advisors. It could be possible to suggest the need for an additional advisor or an industry advisor if your project permits it.
  • Unfortunately I too got stuck in this (your second) predicament. To combat this I took meeting minutes and distributed them. When the scope changed or a random idea came back I always referred to the minutes and claimed it would be inefficient to go back. Milestones and planning could be a good idea.
  • An good student in my field will publish 4 conference papers, 2 posters and 2 journal articles in 3 years. However, in other fields I have heard students are discouraged to publish for some reason. If you have a target it may be worth splitting your project into 3 or 4 studies and then target a conference / journal based on that study.
  • I can't comment on your 4th point.
  • A PhD, in my field anyway, is an individual pursuit. From experience I found that it is best not to worry about what other people are doing for various reasons.

I considered leaving my PhD about 4 - 6 months into it, but choose to stay for a number of reasons:

  • I didn't want to be on my death bed in 60 years regretting it.
  • The field I am in doesn't really take you seriously without a PhD.
  • Decent / Comfortable Wage with teaching opportunities.
  • I want to publish, and I want to contribute to the body of knowledge.
  • I have grown to really respect my supervisors and their point of view over time.

For me, it was a point of view change. But if it was unbearable enough for me to leave I would have probably put the reason down to being more industrial minded than academic minded. I think people would generally accept that reason. Regardless, it sounds like the OP needs space to be logical and innovative, and creative and inventive. I would not make any haste decisions and wait at least 6 months and see how your research develops.

  • Thanks for your answer! When you say that undertaking a phd can be unrealistic you mean that the aim of the project can be unrealistic? Anyway in "my" field 1 publication a year is a lot. You are right on the number of advisor, there are 2 but the second one Is the head of the lab, so hard to reach and I have not been introduced to him, from the moment. – BiA May 15 '15 at 16:31
  • No, if the aim of the project was unrealistic you wouldn't be doing it I don't think. I mean the output in terms of publications, posters, teaching, etc. It is up to you chase your supervisors and get to know them. Bounce ideas of each. A good idea may be to set a set time for them both to show up and if no one shows up, then send an email. – ham-sandwich May 15 '15 at 16:35
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    Side note: It is rare in the US to have more than one advisor, atleast in most STEM fields. You will have multiple committee members, but they usually come along at the very end of a PhD and might not have much impact on your research. – Austin Henley May 15 '15 at 21:17
  • @AustinHenley Interesting to know - Thank you for sharing. In the UK and Ireland, it is extremely unlikely for STEM subjects. – ham-sandwich May 15 '15 at 21:20

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