He reasoned that I lacked the understanding of the subject and so not competent enough for a PhD. I agree to his concerns, since I was studying this concept for the first time (for my thesis) and was a bit slow in my approach. On the other hand I'm very passionate about this particular subject and intend to pursue an academic career in this field. I did manage to get a decent score in my thesis and graduated with cum laude. The question is should I give up and take up some job since nothing will move forward without a recommendation.

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    Try other advisors. – phys_chem_prof Dec 4 '15 at 14:05
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    I'm very passionate about this particular subject — Passion is not enough. You actually have to be good at the subject if you want any hope of pursuing an academic career. – JeffE Dec 4 '15 at 14:48
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    With apologies to The Incredibles, If everyone gets a recommendation, no one does (because the recommendation is meaningless) – Ben Voigt Dec 4 '15 at 15:40
  • You could consider doing an internship before a PhD, to get a new chance of earning a recommendation letter. – mmh Dec 4 '15 at 18:39
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    Agreed with @JeffE. I want to be careful: we don't have nearly enough information to give you meaningfully discouraging advice. However your advisor does, and what you say to counterbalance his assessment is not of equal weight. Having a passion for academia is a necessary condition for an academic career but it is not enough: think how many people are passionate about, say, baseball and how few people become professional baseball players. It is not rational to say "I must have an academic career, so I'll work towards it one way or another." You don't need one and need not get one. – Pete L. Clark Dec 4 '15 at 18:52

From what you've written, it sounds like your adviser doesn't think you know enough to be able to research a subject. Knowledge can always be learned. It's actually a very important trait for a PhD student to be able to sit down and learn what they need on their own.

There's no reason not to apply to PhD programs. It's going to be very hard to get into one without a letter from your adviser, but it's not theoretically impossible. The worst thing that can happen is that you spent some time and money and fail to get accepted anywhere. The best thing that can happen is that you get into a program and have the chance to follow your passion.

On advice from Pete L. Clark, I'm adding a caveat: You should be careful as to what sort of programs you're applying to and think carefully about whether those programs will lead to your desired outcome. Going into a PhD program is not something to be taken lightly. It will takes years of your life and be a potential drain on you mentally, emotionally, and economically. To land a decent academic position you need to graduate from a top program and produce high level research. Afterwards you may have to put in more time and effort as a post-doc. Once you do finally get a position, you'll have to work your way through the tenure process.

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    "The worst thing that can happen is that you spent some time and money and fail to get accepted anywhere." I'm afraid I disagree. I think it would be worse for the OP to be admitted to a poor PhD program, having to pay funding out of his own pocket, and spend up to ten more years realizing that he cannot complete the program and/or cannot have an academic career afterwards. Anyone with a master's degree in something has already followed their passion in that thing and should have enough training to continue to do so on their own. Almost no one wants a PhD and not a career that uses it. – Pete L. Clark Dec 4 '15 at 18:56
  • I disagree. There are jobs out there that require a PhD. I'm assuming that OP wants one of those. I'm also assuming they're smart enough to drop out of the program if it goes poorly. The only indication that OP is not a good fit for a PhD is that one professor said they lacked some understanding of a subject. Without knowing the full details, it's hard to read much into that statement. – Ric Dec 4 '15 at 19:08
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    "There are jobs out there that require a PhD. I'm assuming that OP wants one of those." There is no need to assume: the OP says he wants an academic career. It is an empirical fact that only the upper echelon of PhD students can have a successful academic career. "I'm also assuming they're smart enough to drop out of the program if it goes poorly." After how many years and how much of their own money do you assume it will take for someone to drop out? And what will the indication be, if it is more serious than their thesis advisor recommending that they not continue? – Pete L. Clark Dec 4 '15 at 19:12
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    I agree (and said in a previous comment) that we cannot know whether the OP is suitable for an academic career. But you seem to advise everyone who is interested in an academic career to attend whatever PhD program will admit them. I think that is not just bad advice but rather irresponsible. Certainly anyone contemplating a PhD program and an academic career should take steps to evaluate the chances of success. The OP should take more steps in his evaluation, not fewer. – Pete L. Clark Dec 4 '15 at 19:15
  • @PeteL.Clark I've added a larger caveat to the end of my answer based on our discussion. Thank you for bringing those issues up. – Ric Dec 4 '15 at 19:35

While I was an undergraduate student at a lower ranked institution in my country, all the professors in the department were thinking that I don't have any academic merit. Just after that I took some time outside the school, and later attended classes at a top-ranked school in my country just as a visiting student.

I was the best in the class and the professor was overly blunt to state that fact in front of the other students. The people in my undergraduate institution were so biased and mediocre that they have never had an intention to give me a chance or were so insidious and sinister to undermine me.

So, sometimes, at some places you simply do not fit with others. You should try your chance at other places, internships etc. A single institution or professor does not suffice to assess your abilities.

A last note: some academics are real jerks, do not give up at the first obstacle.

  • I would suggested that you edit out the offensive part in the last sentence. – 299792458 Dec 6 '15 at 12:33

Letter of recommendation is not always mandatory for all PhD admissions. You could still apply for a PhD without it.

You might have to vouch for your talents in other ways to certify your ability. Eg., Online certification, skills development, and independent research.


Saying that you "lack understanding" seems like a really vague criticism, especially when you are working on a specific topic for the first time. Ask other professors what they think.


There are two aspects of this. One is Should I forget about a PhD? and another is Is this a show stopper?

But for both questions, a lot depends on the opinions of other elders in your department. Are there other professors in your department who know your work, whom you could approach for career advice?

When you meet with such a professor, try to keep your questions open ended. It's okay to express an interest in pursuing further studies, but in that preliminary conversation try to keep all options on the table, even if in your heart you feel a strong drive to jump straight into further studies.

Unless, of course, the professor asks you what your preference is.


The question is should I give up and take up some job since nothing will move forward without a recommendation.

You are right, a recommendation from your thesis adviser plays an important part in getting a PhD position (experience!). But giving up is out of question if your words I'm very passionate comes from your heart. I strongly disagree with those who commented, one have to be good at the subject if you want any hope of pursing an academic career. It bear a high degree of vagueness with it because the terms good and hope are incredibly inappropriate in this context as it is not at all clear that OP indeed lacks the potential to be good at the subject.

I think you can do a couple of things here

  1. Talk to your thesis adviser and ask him politely to explain why he thinks you are not apt for the recommendation.
  2. Value your adviser's words and spent some time on working out yourself on the subject core.
  3. If you think that your adviser misjudged you, try for a short term project position, which can be relatively easy to find even without your adviser's recommendation.

I think there are plenty of choices before you and tremendous room for improvement, once again in my humble opinion, its too early to give up.

  • @Down voters, at least show the courtesy to let the answered know why you down voted. – Sathyam Dec 4 '15 at 19:20
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    Is it out of the question for anyone who is passionate about space exploration to give up the idea of becoming an astronaut? For anyone who is passionate about athletics to become an olympic athlete? Disagreeing with the statement that you have to be good at the subject to succeed in academia is disagreeing with plain common sense. Telling someone that you don't know that it is too early to give up is what is inappropriate. If for instance all the faculty members the OP has ever interacted with think that he should not go to a PhD program, then he should give careful thought to giving up. – Pete L. Clark Dec 4 '15 at 19:23
  • @PeteL.Clark Its clear that you haven't read the answer fully. Of course one have to be good at the subject to succeed in academia. One may not be good right now. But that doesn't mean one won't be good, on the contrary he will be good if he have the potential and the passion to work hard for the subject. – Sathyam Dec 4 '15 at 19:31
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    "Its clear that you haven't read the answer fully." I paid you the courtesy of explaining my downvote, and you replied with a bad faith assumption about me. If you want people to be courteous to you, please be courteous in return. For now I will not engage with the rest of your comments. – Pete L. Clark Dec 4 '15 at 19:35
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    Downvoted. I never said OP should give up. Neither one of us knows whether OP is good—or has the potential to become good—at their subject or not. Nevertheless I stand by my comment. If you aren't demonstrably good at your chosen field of study, you will not get an academic job. Suggesting otherwise is irresponsible. – JeffE Dec 5 '15 at 4:09

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