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I joined a phD program in my home country (third world) earlier this year, after finishing a Ms in a top-5 university in the US. My country's government required me to come back to my country after the Master's, so I didn't even consider applying for a phD outside.

The situation now is as follows: my research received zero funding so far, mostly due to my research field being non-existent in my current university, even though it's the field I listed in my phD application. I spent the last 7 months on a personal project and managed to publish a paper, however my relationship with my adviser deteriorated once he "found out" that I didn't list him as co-author (it didn't even cross my mind since I've met him less than a dozen times during the whole year and he didn't know what the project was about). I also had to use my own money to do such project.

I'm now decided to quit the phD and apply for a top-5 university in US. I've read that a strong recommendation letter from my original adviser is almost a requirement to change phD programs - not having that would make the department I'm applying to to see me as a quitter. Obviously I don't think I can get such letter.

Is there any way for me to save my academic career? I got straight A's (GPA 4.0) during my Master's, the last thing I want is to bury my academic career now.

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    Can you get a letter from your MS advisor? – Davidmh Nov 8 '16 at 16:19
  • I've met him just once in person, so I don't think so. I did TA 3 courses though, and I think any of the professors would write me a letter. – malloc sizeof Nov 8 '16 at 16:36
  • I've met him just once in person — How is that even possible, especially at "a top-5 university"? – JeffE Nov 8 '16 at 17:17
  • I have no idea either. No students that had him as advisor got to meet him frequently. Maybe Columbia isn't as good as I thought? – malloc sizeof Nov 8 '16 at 17:23
  • Was it a research or a course based master degree? – user8001 Nov 8 '16 at 18:01
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Normally, yes, moving between PhD programs normally requires a strong letter from your advisor, but your situation looks like an exception. From what you describe, it sounds like a letter from your advisor would be useless even if your relationship hadn't soured, because they can't say anything substantive about your research.

Yes, you're quitting, but you're quitting because your current department is a bad fit for your research agenda. I think you can reasonably describe the constraints imposed by your MS fellowship, the lack of funding and other support in your country, and the mismatch between your research interests and the interests/expertise of your advisor and others in your department, without in any way incriminating your current advisor or department.

That said, if you want to be admitted to a top-5 PhD program, you really do need letters that discuss your potential as a researcher, and in particular the quality/importance/novelty of your recent published research, in specific and credible detail. Not having a letter from either your former MS advisor or your current PhD advisor is likely to be a red flag, but strong well-informed letters about your amazing research can counteract that.

Also, you do need to be careful to follow the terms of your MS fellowship or visa. In particular, if your fellowship or visa requires you to return to your home country for a certain number of years, then you either have stay in your home country for that many years, or you have to find a way to have that requirement waived. For example, J-1 student visas in the US require the student to spend two years in their home country before returning to the US, and some graduate fellowships from the Thai government require a multi-year civil-service commitment.

  • Well, things don't look good then. I've done research during undergrad, but again that was 3-4 years ago. I can ask for a letter from one of my undergrad professors but they certainly won't remember details of the research project. As I mentioned above, I didn't do research during my Master's, only courses. I was a TA 3 times but that's it. – malloc sizeof Nov 8 '16 at 18:09

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