So, rewind exactly one year ago...

I was finishing my undergraduate at a top ranked state school in Mechanical Engineering and was trying to decide which grad school I was going to attend. My top choice was one of the most popular schools in the world, located in Europe - a total dream school for me. I got an interview with a professor that had a close research fit with me, and he told me immediately after the interview that he had a spot for me. Only one big problem: there would be no funding. Apparently, this is pretty common in Europe, but it was quite a deflating blow. At first, I was under the impression that a degree at this university would be worth any amount of money, so I was dead set on going. After MANY rough days of pondering, however, this became less and less practical for me.

Meanwhile, I had another interview with one of my other top choices... a very good, private school in the US. During this interview, we got on the topic of this "other" school, and the professor really ragged on the whole idea of a non-funded PhD. He proudly assured that every student in his lab was well compensated. He was smart, lively, and extremely convincing. His research didn't fit too well with mine; however, it was in the same realm, so I wasn't too worried that I could come up with something to work on. The next week, the offer came in, and I was faced with the toughest choice of my life:

1) dream school, adventures to be had on another continent, no funding

2) respected school, closer to home, funding.

This choice caused me to go through the most stressful months of my life (even more than my current predicament has me in). I went back and forth and got extremely close to denying each of them several times. It wasn't until the day I graduated (May, super late I know... extenuating circumstances) that I finally had to make a decision. I ultimately went for the safer, funded route. I actually ended up pretty happy with the decision, since I had been consistently playing thought experiments of being at least 100k in debt if I had chose the other option. Plus, I was invited to attend the other one as a visiting student for the summer term. The best of both worlds I thought.

The next week, I was on a plane across the pond; this would turn out to be a huge mistake... or potentially a blessing (only time will tell). As it played out, I fell in love with the place (hence, the mistake). We had an extremely productive summer academically, and it even led to a paper with that advisor. I had an overwhelming feeling of adventure; I was alive. It was an amazing few months. When fall rolled around, I didn't whine about leaving and took what was coming to me head on. I flew back, and started school in the states with an open-mind, and none-the-less determined. Everything was going great for about a month. I loved my new apartment, and I was satisfied with my courses and my advisor. However, once it was time to pick a research direction, things took a turn for the worse.

I was given only a few options to choose from, each of which was a continuation of another project. I wasn't a fan of that aspect, and I didn't particularly like any of the projects in general. I gulped and, trying to be agreeable, just chose the one I sort of liked the most. So much for getting to develop something original. I never saw that coming. I somewhat expressed my discontent; however I just thought I'd give it a chance.

Now it is current day, almost two semesters in. I can't seem to gather any interest for this topic, and it frustrates me pretty consistently. The only thing that is keeping me going, surprisingly, are my courses, which I am taking a large amount of. Anything that involves my research topic, I really do not enjoy. Its not that I don't like research, as I have had my fair share beforehand. It is just topic. I find myself always working on my old topic in my free time and am in constant communication with the summer advisor working on another paper.

Though I despise my topic, I have so much respect for my advisor, and I don't really know what to do. I desperately want to leave next year with a master's and go back to the other university (this time with an external fellowship), but I really don't want to let my advisor here down. I feel like I have given this topic a solid chance, and I also feel like I need to state my intentions early. I am not worried about getting readmitted to the other school, since the advisor at the other school always tells me I am welcome back any time. If it weren't for any of the ethical considerations about leaving a PhD with a Master's, I would have already made up my mind.

I am really not sure what to do, or when I should do it. Surely, this has happened to people before in some similar fashion. As of right now, something deep down is telling me that I should go back to my dream school, but my honor is telling me to do the opposite. For those of you that have made it to the end of this (sorry for the length), I would greatly appreciate your advice. I am using advice in the perspective of Erica Jong:

"Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t"


  • Have you explored changing your topic? It sounds like you went along with the options given a little too easily. What happens if you approach them about changing it to what you want to research?
    – Jeff
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:40

1 Answer 1


Sure, plenty of people leave with a Masters and then do the PhD elsewhere. Universities usually offer the option to people who leave after their quals but don't want to advance to candidacy or finish the PhD.

Since European PhDs are often research PhDs that require an Masters first anyway, its a reasonable solution to your predicament.

As long as you didn't plan this all along and acted in good faith when you enrolled in your PhD program, you are ethically and morally in the clear. Your soon to be former advisor may be pissed at you (depending on the circumstances), but they need to just suck it up. These things happen. Alternately, as a commentator notes, they may in fact be relieved you are seeking this option.

  • I agree with the general thrust of this answer, but not with the last paragraph. I suspect the advisor may be rather relieved if/when OP leaves. It is probably just as clear to the advisor as it is to the OP that it hasn't been a great fit. // I would characterize this situation as what I've heard described as "a good problem." Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 7:37

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .