I opted for a PhD at the same university where I did a two years master’s (I'm an international student). The master’s level was remarkable, but the PhD isn't that good. It feels like an extended version of the same master's. Since I’m not receiving the training I expected or being exposed to the challenging problems that could put me at the forefront of my field, I have certainty I must leave this PhD for the well-being of my career. I have talked to the students' counselor, voiced my concern about the prospect of my training to my direct supervisor, asked authorization to reshape my project (no professor has experience in the theoretical direction I want to take it) or to go abroad as visiting student in another institution (my funding is very strict in terms of leaving for extended periods) and reached the conclusion that the possibilities of improvement are slim. Nonetheless, I have tried to keep the tension low and not sound menacing ("either you let me do this or I'm out").

I’ve identified other PhDs (or even jobs) in which I could achieve goals more in line with my expectations. But there is a problem. All my relevant academic network was built during the masters and is therefore in the same department I’m planning to abandon. Although they've addressed my concerns in an attentive manner and encouraged me to continue, I'm sure they won’t be happy to let me go and some may even take my decision as an insult to the department and a PhD program the university is very proud of. But I heavily depend on them too. I’ll need their letters of recommendation to apply to graduate school elsewhere or get a job. Has anyone secured a letter of recommendation from a supervisor you parted midway your PhD? How to voice this type of decisions in a non-confrontational way? How to deflect the conflict and leave the PhD without shooting myself on the foot?

Full-disclaimer: I’m not angry, lonely, depressed, burned-out, in debt, amid a fight with faculty, etc. I’m just dissatisfied with the quality of my PhD, which, true be told, could be very good for other students; it’s just that I already got this training during my master’s!

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    I'm not saying you shouldn't quit. But have you shared these frustrations/concerns with your advisor(s)? They may not even be aware of your frustration -- and if they were, they might be able to help you find a new topic/research direction.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 13:57
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    So the faculty have responded to your request for a more interesting problem. You are at a position in your graduate school development arc where you must take more personal responsibility to execute your project. You don't want to do the 'self training' that is required to develop further as a researcher. Why will it be different somewhere else?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 14:34
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    Fair enough. So, is there a chance to work through your advisors to connect to other people at other places to collaborate with? This could even involve you spending time at the other institution, broadening your horizons. Still, before jumping, you should evaluate deeper what is bothering you or else you risk it happening again. Many people dread the leap from being a student taking courses (like you have been doing for years) to the seemingly empty void of research.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 14:47
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    Just because no professor has experience in the direction of your interest, that doesn't mean you can't pursue your direction of research at your current site. If you don't see a path forward, it means that you've been unable to establish a plan to do so. Many profs would be pleased to have you as a resource that will help them expand in new and exciting directions. Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 15:59
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    You'll need to be a minimalist in your communications, and stick to a consistent line: you wish to change programs to seek a better fit. Better fit. Better fit. No more, no less. Practice until you can say it in your sleep. Better fit. Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 4:17

1 Answer 1


Note that I have exhausted all the logical possibilities

It doesn't sound like you have, though. You need to explain, in very clear terms, that you are unhappy enough to leave the program and apply somewhere else.*

Don't hold back, but I would avoid using vulgar language (you know, like in your titular question), and would otherwise strive to be professional about it.

Now, most academics are sane, understanding people. If your advisor comes up with some potential solutions that, after reflecting on them, you decide are not satisfactory, then you should make your decision to leave the program and ask your advisor for a strong letter of recommendation. (I would encourage you to be patient when working through the potential solutions with your advisor, though, as there may need to be some iteration.)

The key here is to really, really, really make every attempt to find some common ground with your advisor that works for both parties before deciding to "jump ship." I don't see how a sane, understanding advisor could possibly hold against you wanting to put yourself in a better situation, so long as you make every possible attempt to make things work out where you currently are first.

* I don't mean to be rude, but from the comments below your question, you seem to have an answer for everything, so I want to minimize that type of interaction here. My impression is that you are beating around the bush with your advisor, and not really giving them the "full scoop." Just basically tell them what you have told us here, but in a professional manner.

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