Am I suited for a PhD?


Hi all,

I am currently in a situation where I am seriously considering quitting my PhD, either to go to industry or to find a different position. However, I have been unable to identify where/what things are wrong, and if there really is no hope of improvement. I hope that some of you may give me some valuable advice or insights into how I should continue from here.

My expectations of doing a PhD, and how things actually went were apparently far apart. My ideal scenario is precisely described by the following quote from findaphd:
‘in Year 1, your supervisor knows more about your project and its context than you do and should guide you in your first steps; Year 2, you'll be on par, exchanging ideas and debating results; and Year 3, you'll be the expert, with nobody but yourself, knowing more about your research’.

However, in my case I was handed 5 papers, and an example research proposal (the best description of my topic I had was from the advert, and contained about half a page at this point). My supervisor told me to start reading, maybe write a summary about what I read for my own use, and we would need a research proposal, ‘maybe around Christmas, maybe later’ (I started in August). After a few months I noticed that I was ‘wasting away’ quite a big part of my time, and I indicated that I wanted some more clear tasks. I was assigned to a programing exercise (which I did not like, and which was quickly ignored by me, especially since nobody seemed to care about this exercise anyway).

By Christmas, I was ‘wasting away’ around 50% of my time. I had made barely any progress on the research proposal, and realized things were going wrong. I indicated this to my supervisor, and we decided to have a meeting after Christmas to see where we were.


2 weeks ago, I had this discussion. It did not go well. My supervisor told me he was shocked that I did not have a research proposal yet. He had realized that I needed some more guidance, (something which I had heard before). The result of the discussion for me was as follows: either I change how I function, or I go somewhere else. My supervisor did not wish to change his approach, and give me more structured and concrete guidance. That same day, one of my colleges told me he had talked to my supervisor, and he had a different opinion. He felt that they (the group and this company where I am at) have some responsibility to help me settle in. We decided that he would guide me through a simple project, and we would see how things go from there.

This sounded good to me, however I find that things are still unclear; I don’t know what is expected of me (neither short term nor long term). I am given a lot of freedom in defining what I wish to do, but I don’t know what I want to do. This leads me to believe that I am really not suited to doing research, and maybe I should go to industry where things are at least more defined. I don't know. Anyway, thanks for reading.


Supervisors do vary a lot in how hands-on they are, but it's normal for a PhD project to be quite unstructured and for you to have to plan your own work and how to spend your time. Some students thrive on that freedom, but others can end up a bit aimless and unfocused. It sounds like this supervisor may not be a good fit for you - and maybe the project isn't either, if you're struggling to get anywhere with developing your proposal and coming up with ideas that interest you.

Maybe you would be better going for the industry job? You can always re-apply for a PhD later in your career if you feel the need, with the benefit of more experience and confidence.

Alternatively, there are some more structured PhD programs, e.g. those that start with a MSc/MRes year where you attend classes and have more organised activities together with the rest of your cohort, or the type where the first year involves doing several lab rotations with shorter, well-defined projects (this is good if you haven't yet figured out exactly what you want to do).


Hi ethrim, I don't know what field you're in but in that situation I would be looking at changing supervisors. It's nothing against your current one but as Ephiny noted above, it's a case of different strokes for different folks. All supervisors are different and the relationship you have with them is an important one. Their personality, temperament, approach to work etc. are all important factors - but it's not easy or a given that a perfect match will happen. There may well be someone you get on better with who aligns more to what you're looking for - more hands-on.

That said, the jump to PhD level IS big in large part because you're on your own - much of the responsibility really does lie with you to work out what needs to be done rather than be told to do it. On our first meeting, my supervisor suggested I write an essay about my chosen research methodology. I went off and duly sent him one within a few weeks. He replied - "Well keep going...that was just an exercise. Obviously i'm not going to mark it!" That was the first and last time in 6 years he ever gave me any sort of task/assignment with clear deadlines and boundaries. It was a rude awakening but you'll adapt if you want to and it can be exhilarating to be the one totally in charge.