I am currently enrolled in a PhD program in electrical engineering in Europe (not in my home country). When I enrolled to this program, I was a little concerned about the research group, since it has very few publications about the topic for which I applied (they are not expert in my field). Nevertheless, I applied since I believe the value of a phd is up to yourself, not the popularity of the supervisor.

However, after 1 year I am thinking about quitting. My supervisor is not so much involved in my project and I am followed most of the time by an assistant professor that wants me to follow a certain path according with the interest of the institute. I am trying to convince them that I want to follow an other path, since the topic studied at the institute does not fit well with my topic, but they are stack with this topic, which is also studied by few niche researchers.

I asked them also to send me abroad to a research group more specialized in my field, but they are not so much interested in international cooperations (except the ones related to their topic).

Besides this, I don´t like the environment inside the institute. I perceive lack of communication and everybody is studying the same topic, with not so much differentation. There are no international students except me and other 2 people and everybody is speaking the local language. Also the other students are not interested in mobility and the research group itself does not produce many publications.

Thus, for all these reasons, I was thinking about quitting. I would like to have some advice. I don´t know if this can be a valid move for my career. In the same time, I don´t want to spend 4 years without believing in the quality of my research, in which I am also losing motivation.

I would like to apply to an other PhD program in an other university/country, but I am worried about the references/recommendation letters, since if I quit I don´t think I can ask for recommendation letters from my current situation. Moreover, I am worried that other research groups would not accept me, because they may think that I am low on perseverance (I am not really, I am not of the type to quit something easily).

Thanks for any help!!

I want to specify that this institute advertised a position related to my field, so in principle my research interest and the one of the institute matched. I would have like if they have been more honest with me regarding the direction of the research.

  • 5
    I was a little concerned about the research group, since...they are not expert in my field. Nevertheless, I applied since I believe the value of a phd is up to yourself, not the popularity of the supervisor. — Note to others: DO NOT DO THIS.
    – JeffE
    Feb 26, 2017 at 4:12
  • @JeffE I dont understand your note? I think he is correct
    – SSimon
    Feb 27, 2017 at 12:36

2 Answers 2


The problems seems to me to have started here:

Nevertheless, I applied since I believe the value of a phd is up to yourself, not the popularity of the supervisor.

I think we can both agree that a research group in anthropology would also have very few publications related to your topic. But you can also see that doing an electrical engineering PhD in an anthropology group would be a horrible choice. They simply wouldn't have the expertise to help you and could offer no possibility to cooperate with your research.

To a lesser extent the same is true for different sub-fields of a large discipline like electrical engineering. If your topic of interest is far removed from the rest of the group, the rest of the group won't have the expertise to help you or the possibility to cooperate with you. This is a very bad thing.

One way to (partially) solve this problem is to modify your topic or switch topics to be more in line with the rest of the group. This seems to be what is proposed here to you.

Your proposed solution is to ask them to send you abroad and to continue with a topic that is not really related to their research. The question now is: why should they agree to this? They invested resources in you by either paying you or at least supporting you and spending time on you. In return you offer to do research at a different institution on a subject that doesn't really touch any of the research done at the group. That would mean that at the end of your PhD, the group would have spend (considerable) money into research they aren't interested in. That sounds like a very bad deal for the group.

If I were to summarize this: you applied and got a PhD at a group without looking at what that group does. After a year of doing a PhD there, you now realize what the group does and conclude that the group is a bad fit.

You have 2 options now as I see it: continuing with this group and focus your topic to be more in line with the research of the group. The other option is to quit now. In that last case the group would see (considerable) resources go to wast because you neglected to properly look into what the group does beforehand. This as you worried looks very bad, because why wouldn't something similar happen at a new group? If you quit, then I hope you can find a good answer to this question when applying to any future PhD.

As for the communication and language issues: I would find this a separate and smaller issue. Here an open and honest conversation about how you perceive the communication in the group and what problems you encounter could work wonders. The problems regarding research topics however is much more fundamental and more serious.

  • 1
    You are absolutely right in every words you said. Although They promoted a phd position in a certain topic that are not involved in: I think they should have been more honest with me during the interview at least. I was admitted to the program because I am the expert on this topic (I have done the master thesis on that) but I never thought that they would change the topic.
    – Joey
    Feb 24, 2017 at 16:09
  • 2
    Can you compromise, and make some progress on something they find worthwhile, with an agreement that you can spend half your time on your own project? (You might want to start by asking for 2/3 time for your project.) Even if you decide to transfer, it might still be helpful to follow a compromise path for a few months, as it might help you leave on good terms with strong recommendations. Feb 24, 2017 at 20:24

I am trying to convince them that I want to follow an other path, since the topic studied at the institute does not fit well with my topic, but they are stack with this topic, which is also studied by few niche researchers.

I wonder how you got the PhD admission in the first place. In most PhD ads I've seen, there is always a requirement for "common research interests". Some places even require PhD applicant to submit a research proposal.

The supervision you are receiving looks OK for most PhD students. The official advisor doesn't involve much, but the assistant professor is trying to work with you. You can't blame your colleague for lack of communication, since your interests are different from theirs.

In Italy and Denmark, PhD students are allowed to have 6 months internship abroad, and the trip is totally funded by the university. The majority of PhD students in other European countries do not have this luxury.

In short, there seems to be no problem in the PhD program at your group. The only problem is you don't fit them, you have different interests. Either you change yourself to fit them or you should leave. The latter option is much more difficult, and you know the grass is always greener.

  • They advertised a position in my topic, so in principle there was an interest on my topic even though they are not so expert. Now I have seen that they are shifting my topic to something more comfortable for them, that is normal I would say. However the combination between my topic and their is very unusual. And I don't want to spend 4 years trying to fit their topic with mine. I have to spend some period abroad as well, but for now the direction of my research and the one of the other top research groups expert in my topic are totally different.
    – Joey
    Feb 25, 2017 at 9:25
  • @Joey iff you are in EU, you should apply to go abroad, and find co advisor as soon as possible that can suit you, you are in possition to choose sicne whole project is payed!!!
    – SSimon
    Feb 25, 2017 at 10:45
  • @SSimon I am trying to do that! Since my project is well paid I want to spend time abroad as much as possible! Doing so I can have the possibility to collaborate with someone expert in my field. The problem is that I don´t know how happy my supervisor could be.
    – Joey
    Feb 27, 2017 at 8:35
  • 1
    @Joey if he will be included on paper, hw will be more than happy, iff you can bring strong collaboration, than yes!!! everyone will like it
    – SSimon
    Feb 27, 2017 at 12:34
  • I salute your initiative and this is right way you do
    – SSimon
    Feb 27, 2017 at 12:35

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