18

Background

As the title suggest, a year before I'm in the current program I'm in, I left another Ph.D. program in a different field and got a master.

Issues

As for now, I prefer not to talk about it if I don't need to. Most people don't ask and don't care. However sometime a conversation goes certain way where inevitably I have to mention something in the past. For example (X indicates the other person in the conversation),

X: So do you have a master?

fmlin: Um, yes, but in a different field.

X: What was it? Why didn't you continue Ph.D. in that?

or

X: Where did you go for undergraduate? Did you go to graduate school immediately after you finished undergraduate?

fmlin: [A short answer indicates I was once in another Ph.D. program but didn't finished]

X: [Many questions out of curiosity]

The reasons I don't like to discuss my past are

(a). It's a record of dropping out. It sounds bad despite I think I'm not morally wrong.

(b). I believe I was abused by my former advisor and was not treated properly (see my other answers on this site if you want to know some detail). I had confrontations with him, and some other faculties in the same department.

(c). It takes long time to explain (b). and incomplete information on (b). sometime causes people evaluate me negatively.

(d). Discussing these things in the past can never help what I'm doing now.

Questions

So far I only had similar conversations with some fellow students and it's not a big deal. However, sooner or later I'll start meeting potential advisors in my current department. I worry that, if they ask similar questions, these things in the past will make me look bad.

As the title suggest, my question is, if I have to, what's the most harmless way to address my past record of leaving Ph.D. program in a different field? The goal is to not make people suspect I'm a problematic student (and I'm indeed not!) that confronts supervisors for no reason.

24

Based on the information you provided in the question, I think you should focus on reason (b). You should probably avoid using words like "abuse" or "confrontation", at least in the beginning of the conversation, as they come off as really strong and thus tend to motivate people to question deeper. State that you have had problems with the previous environment (including the adviser and the department) and that it was in the mutual best interest that you continued your career somewhere else. Avoid blaming anyone. If the conversational partner seeks to question further, reveal details to what extent you deem best, but again it is good practice to avoid bad-mouthing your former environment. Stay as objective as possible.

Like you said, most people don't care that much. For those that do care, you can't really stop them from taking it negatively (much as you can't stop anyone from taking anything about you negatively), but you can stay true to yourself, by being honest and objective without bad-mouthing your previous adviser, department, etc.

  • 2
    I like this. In the professional world, you have to live by the fact that you can't change the past, only the future. – corsiKa Nov 2 '15 at 21:05
  • 1
    Also, there are rarely innocent victims in human relationships. If a potential future advisor probes (I would for sure) be ready to state what part you owned in the conflicts and what you learned about yourself. – Fuhrmanator Nov 3 '15 at 13:42
15

Apart from the detailed answer provided by @user3209815, an alternative answer could be

"I felt that my previous environment was not suited for my research. Besides, after much progress I realised that I'd do better in field X within my current environment."

Switching fields isn't entirely uncommon, especially in PhD. The same also goes switching from one grad school to another. There's nothing to feel guilty about in this issue.

6

If it is a topic you just don't want to discuss, and your interlocutor shouldn't care about, you can just say that you discovered that topic wasn't your cup of tea. If they insist, say that [new topic] is much more interesting for [couple of reasons].

A more truthful answer is that you had disagreements with your advisor on the direction or purpose of the project. That doesn't mean that either of you was at fault, or that there was a culprit in the first place. Don't give much detail, and if they insist on asking, politely say you don't want to talk about it.

If they do have a reason for asking, you can elaborate saying that you found some flaws in the previous work that your professor and you disagreed on its importance and the necessary effort to fix it. But in any case, going from computational chemistry to pure mathematics is a big jump. A bad advisor would explain changing university, not field, and I think this is where you should focus. It is also what would strike people the most.

3

For those who want to know, simply tell your story, while leaving out as much drama as you can. Simply say while you were doing research in XXX, you became more excited about YYY and decided to continue pursuing that instead. If the topic of your advisor comes up, just say you weren't a good fit for each other.

It's common for students to change focus in graduate work, or for a student and advisor to not be a good match, so don't feel like you have something to hide when you answer.

2

You care far more than other people do about this reason.

People care about, "will you be able to commit to this program and succeed?" and past experience is an indication about that. Questions about this issue will almost always be indirectly a way to answer that question.

Something like:

  • "I was doing a PhD for X, but it really wasn't working out. I was having a really hard time being engaged with the program and it was hard for me to feel connected. I'm excited about this opportunity as my previous experience has helped clarify what I am looking for in a PhD program and I believe this program meets the needs."

Flattery (well, honest flattery) goes a long way and if the above is not actually true... they and you yourself probably SHOULD question your motivations for applying.

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