There are a lot of threads about whether people should drop out of grad school, or PIs forcing students to leave. My situation is a little different, some people might call this ungrateful, but I want to ask how I should actually talk to my PI about leaving the lab. How to start the conversation, and do it in the most professional and kindest way.

I'm in the first year of my graduate program, and my PI is extremely nice. Like to the extreme. To the point I've never heard any criticism come out of his mouth. I also thought I loved my project very much upon joining the lab. Everything was off to a great start. However, I have soon realized that this is one of those projects that will likely lead nowhere. I am not Edison, and I don't plan on failing 10,000 times before success. It will break me down. My professor is also not very good at mentoring. Nice, but incompetent in a way. He is a new PI and I'm sure will get better with time. But I feel like I'm his experimental subject, the one that is meant to fail so he can get better at what he does. He does not know how to lead me on, and gives me 100 different directions to try. I'm becoming very unhappy in the lab.

On the other hand, I have recently been offered a job. A good one, one that I can make a career out of. I don't feel that I will ever love this job, but it is the smartest thing I could be doing. However, this means that I have to drop out of my program and leave the lab first. As you can imagine, I do not know how to have that conversation with my PI, just given how nice and encouraging he is. He keeps telling me that I am doing great work, but I am just so tired of the way things are going. He is also a new PI and need prelim data for grants. Which makes me feel worse about this because I feel like I'll be leaving him to the dogs...

So long story short, I haven't completely decided to go through with this, but if I was to, I had a few questions:

  1. How should I start the conversation? I'm actually at a complete loss for what to say
  2. Is there anything I can do to not ruin the relationship? I really respect him as a researcher, just not a mentor, and would hate for him to hate me... Although maybe this is too much to ask for
  3. Am I doing the right thing? If I was leaving a job, I wouldn't think twice about it, but for some reason leaving academia seems like I'm committing a sin...
  4. Any other suggestions for when I have the conversation with him?

Additional info: one thing I forgot to mention is that he is also very busy. So although extremely nice when we do talk, we've barely spoken for the past month with only one actual meeting...

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    "I don't feel that I will ever love this job". Oooh, that's a big red flag for me. I'd much rather fail at something I love, than succeed in something I hate (or simply don't love). Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 14:04
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    Your expectation of what a PHD entails were unrealistic: "gives me 100 different directions to try". "I don't plan on failing 10,000 times before success". But this is exactly how PHDs are supposed to work. Trying 100 new approaches to a single problem until finding something that works better than previous methods. However, you do not have to feel bad for trying for a PhD and realizing that is not for you. It is your life and if you exit politely, timely and gracefully and treat your advisor with respect, you have nothing to worry about.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 14:54
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    My advisor threw a lot of ideas into the mix at each research meeting. He did not seem to expect me to use all of them. I took notes, thought about them, organized them, and picked any that seemed useful. Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:07
  • @alexandros I do not feel that they are unrealistic. If these directions are good ones, I would be very excited to try them. However, that is not the case. These are easy suggestions that he throws my way because he does not know what other options to offer. Often times these experiments have already been done and were not feasible. He just did not know as he got the idea from 10 minutes of reading. Upon talking to other PIs in my field though, it seems common knowledge... Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:24
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    @ConfusedStudent007 This is the key sentence "I'm just starting grad school." Yes, you spend all your time reading in the beginning. Expanding. This goes on for about a year. You dabble and try during this time. In the second year, you consolidate, and then, around the third year, you really home in on the most promising targets. That's the caricature of a thesis. It is perfectly fine to be confused at the beginning. Try out everything that you find attractive and see what gets moving. Occasionally, but not typically supervisors will give you something concrete to try right at the beginning. Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 18:54

1 Answer 1


One of the points I see in the above message, is that these feelings are so far entirely with yourself. I can of course not know for sure, but it seems to me at the moment that you have not talked to him about this yet.

You say, for example, he points you in 100 directions. I can empathize with that, surely, but do you know if he is doing this on purpose? Is he aware of this? Have you spoken to him about this?

I would say that the best way of opening this discussion is to actually open the discussion by telling him about your feelings. Perhaps he is willing to do things differently, perhaps he is actually afraid to be guiding you too much. All these things are now uncertain.

In any way, if you discuss these things (respectfully, aimed at improving the situation for the both of you), he gets to know you are not quite happy. If you decide to leave he knows you were not happy.

Also, I would like to agree with 101010111100, in that doing something that makes you predictably unhappy is a huge red flag.

Good luck!

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    +1 Also, I've never heard of a project that leads absolutely nowhere. Even when a project fails, there are typically many things to take away. For example, parts of the project may be salvageable, or you may have learned what not to do, or you've developed some tools/techniques that could be used in other projects. And there's also no guarantee that you will be managed any better in industry, which seems like your biggest complain, OP. Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 14:17
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    Thank you for the suggestions. I will consider trying to talk to him first, but feel that I need to make a decision fast. About the job that I don't love though. I don't think this is uncommon to take on such a job. With be current job market in science, there is really a slim chance I'll be able to do what I love in the long term anyways. So the question becomes, do I take on a job I don't love now, or do I wait it out for a few years doing what I like, only to put myself on the job market struggling to find a job i might not like anyways? Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:25
  • @ConfusedStudent007 what is the job? If it is engineering/IT, then you can find a job like this all the time. I guess you should always have a backup plan outside PhD/postdoc by learning something like web programming(java, php, frameworks, etc), matlab, mathematica. There are plenty of companies which seek for someone all the time. Don't worry so much. Also, since you are in the begining, I guess you can switch PhD advisor or go into another group.
    – Nikey Mike
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 17:05

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