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My problem is a bit unusual and I would love to get some advice…

I'm a first year PhD student in social-sciences and I already got my proposal approved. I moved back to my home country (where I am currently doing a PhD) after completing an undergraduate and an MSc. I am very unhappy here.

I would like to have a future as an academic. The only reason I decided to a PhD in my home country and not abroad was because I was determined to try, stay, and make it work here, but recently I been thinking it was a mistake. I am thinking more and more about discontinuing my program here and applying for doctoral studies in the UK, as a new student (after a bit of online research I found that they rarely accept a transfer and it is best to start as a new student).

I would love to get your thoughts regarding my situation,

  1. I am considering sending an email to a potential supervisor but I am not sure how to explain why I want to drop-out of my current PhD program without talking my university down? How do you suggest I do that?

  2. Did anyone had a similar experience or have some advice?

  • Can you clarify what types of problems you mean in your statement "no one to turn to in case of a problem"? I assume you have a PhD advisor. Also, can you clarify how far along you are in your research (i.e., halfway through data collection, analysis begun, analysis complete, dissertation half complete, etc.)? – eykanal Mar 12 '13 at 17:06
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    if you feel that the program does not satisfy your expectations, do not waste your time. We only live once. Good years of PhD studentship is memorable, don't ignore and miss it. – Googlebot Mar 12 '13 at 17:14
  • Hi Eykanal. Yes, I do have a supervisor but that is it... When I said 'no one to turn to', I meant that, in case you have difficulty with your supervisor, there is no one you can talk to. The program is not really organised at my uni and the only thing you got is a supervisor... Currently I am collecting data and will be halfway through my data collection in, I believe, 6 months or less. I did not start the analysis or any writing. – Observe Mar 12 '13 at 19:13
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    This is, in my experience, quite common. Of course you will want to make sure you get good letters, so think about where those will come from. You don't want to say "I hate my current program" in your personal statement, so instead be sure to learn appealing, specific aspects of the programs you apply to, and describe them instead. – Anonymous Mar 12 '13 at 20:13
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    "Don't run, walk". You have a position now, that albeit bad, is not abusing you. Don't throw it away unless you have something better. – Davidmh May 18 '14 at 9:59
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It happens that people change their PhD programs (I know a few.)

Basically what you lose is:

  • Time (usually you need to start from the scratch),
  • Relationship with advisor (the latter is not always the case).

If, for any reason, the first year was bad, it is rather unlikely that the next ones will be better (I have never met anyone who is enjoying PhD more and more with each year...). Moreover, if you don't like it, maybe your advisor does not like it either and eventually you won't be able to finish at all.

But beware - "grass is greener...". You can experience the same problems in other places. So here are the most important things:

  • What is not working?
  • Do you have any reasonable argument that in the target place such thing is better?

(Anyway - if you are very unhappy after one year (of 3-5 more years to come), then just change it to another PhD or to something different (don't disregard other careers). It's better to end up with "wasted" years or a "suboptimal" career than hanging on a tree.)

HOW to do that is a different question (or questions - because it involves both application to a new program and quitting your current one). See e.g.:

  • I enjoyed my PhD more and more with each year (or at least, the first year was the worst and I tried to leave at that point, then it got better.) – Flounderer May 7 '15 at 4:58
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  1. PhD without challenge is meaningless,

  2. Most of us don't know what is PhD until we are broken in like a baseball glove,

  3. You will never escape politics in academia, in your household, and elsewhere.

You should re-evaluate if spending the next 4+ years of your life pursuing your studies is worth the effort; and if you have an actual desire to pursue your studies. There aren't many benefits, and the major contributing factor should be your interest in the subject matter, field/area, or potential position as faculty or other.

I think one year is not enough time to have an opinion, and by the time you are able to have one it will be too late to change!! Last thing you want to do is upset your PI, and odds are they will make you pay in the short or long run.

With that said, many frequently change labs due to advisors departure or other reason. You can certainly find a lab, but I think anyone would be concerned your jumping ship to their own, and want to bring your baggage too! There is such a thing as integrity, and it is uncommon for another advisor to pick up someone's project out of the blue as they are mostly concerned on their own.

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    +1 for clear points, but about your third item. There is a significant difference between academia affected or controlled by politics. – Googlebot Mar 13 '13 at 4:50
  • Everything is controlled by politics, personally I don't have to look outside my household to see that prevalent truth.. it's just a matter how you adapt and contribute to a slow change in a better direction. – aug2uag Mar 13 '13 at 4:52
  • Thank you for your answer. It is not my intention to have someone else pick up the same project. Rather, I intend to change the project but use some of the field work. Also, I understand that politics is everywhere and I can deal with that, but small change can't happen if your are forced to think somebody else's thoughts... Politics is different in closed societies and I might be able to foster more change if I'll have the support of an outside source (another university in another country), while researching my own country. – Observe Mar 13 '13 at 5:06
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    It seems you are coming out of the gates screaming that you disagree in the efforts of your PI. If so, it may be a good opportunity to stay (call me a sadist) or you should not have joined the lab vis a vis reading prior publications. I would not expect then for it to be ok to take your work from that PI, which belongs to s/he, and use it elsewhere. You may, however, do the research again if the new PI agrees it would be worthwhile. Maybe you can find a reason to move home, and justify you cannot stay away, and then proceed to apply to a new program, and careful to temper expectations. – aug2uag Mar 13 '13 at 5:14
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    -1 as the first two points advertise a long-term masochism (which is dangerous to one's psychical health). Sure, PhD is challenging and will contain a lot of frustration (unless someone a not-so-ambitiuous project), but if after one year someone is very unhappy, it may be devastating to proceed further, with life-long consequences (regardless whether finding another PhD is an option). Other points (e.g. 3.) are fine, though. – Piotr Migdal Mar 18 '13 at 13:15
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There are many reasons one might not want to do one's PhD studies in one's home country, especially if that country is in the third world. It might have to do with a low level of academic rigor. It might have to do with the culture shock one gets upon returning to one's native land after living abroad for some time. It might have to do with feeling stifled by family, religion or culture. It might have to do with violence and/or corruption. I'm sure I left some possible reasons out.

Could you send out some feelers to a couple of universities that interest you, to start with?

I agree that you don't want to say anything insulting about your present institution (in writing). You can get a lot across by writing with delicacy. For example you could talk about seeking greater academic rigor, or looking for an institution where independent thought is highly valued.

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    +1 For seeking greater academic rigor, or looking for an institution where independent thought is highly valued. I think that's what the OP was looking for (without talking my university down). – scaaahu May 7 '15 at 6:08
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I think the other answers here are really good and speak directly to the question, but I want to add one other relevant comment. If you want to have an academic career in the USA, then do your PhD in the USA. For an explanation why, see my comments on this previous question.

Edit

To my surprise, there's a lot of objections being raised against my view here. I'm surprised because I've expressed similar view at least two other times on different questions here: one two and both answers currently (1:30 EST, 18 May 2014) have positive votes.

The explanation for the discrepancy seems to be this. When the remark is something more like: "If you want a job in the USA, do the PhD in America," then it gets up voted. On the other hand, if it's the generalization: "Do the PhD where you want to get a job" (the original, unedited formulation I originally gave above) it tends to get down voted/mixed reception, and most of the negative comments seem to come from folks in continental europe. This suggests that I am inappropriately generalizing from my experience (I'm American), and the advice may be different in (among others) Australia and Continental Europe.

Therefore, I've amended the advice above and suggest you take it with a grain of salt.

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    That answer has a net 0 score, while a comment disagreeing with it has 6 upvotes. The advice is no better here. If you want a career in academia, you usually need experience from more than one place, and I see no arguments here for why doing your PhD in the country you want your career in is in any way an advantage. – Tobias Kildetoft May 17 '14 at 17:17
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    So I see. I'm honestly a bit surprised at that, since I've also expressed similar thoughts at least twice on other questions on the site and have +4 on both as of the moment. – shane May 17 '14 at 17:25
  • The other answers are less emphatic than your claim here. Even constrained to the US, your claim is overstated, unless perhaps you think of Canada as part of the US. (My US department includes both faculty with European PhDs and alumni with European faculty positions.) – JeffE May 17 '14 at 21:40
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    @JeffE, your department has ~60 faculty. I was able to identify where about half of them did their PhDs. Only 4 of those did the PhD outside the US (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Zaragosa, Madras, Hebrew Union). Assume that there are 4 more who also did PhDs outside the states, but just didn't list the information. So let's call it an 8:52 ratio of those who did their PhDs elsewhere to those who did them in the USA. Other things being equal, if you want a job in CS at UIUC you should go to a university in the States rather than abroad. – shane May 17 '14 at 22:01
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    @shane Possibly there is an 8:52 ratio among current faculty of those who did PhDs abroad, but what is the ratio among applicants for faculty jobs? Your count of current faculty does not show if you want a job in CS at UIUC you should go to a university in the States – ff524 May 18 '14 at 2:30
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If you are unhappy in the first year itself then you should change it. It is not rare these days. You should not see it as a bad move on your part. However when you go to another place, and if you keep the same attitude and complain again then it will be bad on your part. One advice, if you have already decided to change your PhD, then it would remove red flags if you could ask your referees and get a couple of lines in support of your decision written in your letter of recommendation.

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