Should you quit your PhD?

There are plenty of reasons to quit your PhD, especially if you don’t want to carry on in academia. Why put yourself through hell if you’re stressed to the point of depression, your supervisor is treating you like crap, you’ve lost all motivation and you wake up dreading going in to work…?

Reasons to quit your PhD…

You can earn more money elsewhere. You can escape the constant feeling of uncertainty, the stress and the outdated academic system.

You can stop worrying about funding and where the next contract will come from. You can go and work somewhere you feel valued, with adequate support and resources, clear goals, decent career progression…

You can get your life back, spend time with your family or go back to doing the things you love to do.

If you hate every day, if you have lost all interest in the subject and nothing you do seems to work out, then maybe you would be happier if quit your PhD.

There are plenty of reasons to quit your PhD, especially if you don’t want to carry on in academia. Why put yourself through hell if you’re stressed to the point of depression, your supervisor is treating you like crap, you’ve lost all motivation and you wake up dreading going in to work…?

Drifting…

Whatever the logic, you probably don’t feel like you should quit. Whether it’s through pride (or shame), there are emotions which stop you leaving.

It takes confidence to quit, but your confidence is low because your PhD is going badly, then you can end up just drifting… not feeling motivated to continue, not feeling confident that it’s even possible to finish, but not having the confidence to quit either. Putting in hour after hour, day after day, but not really getting anywhere. Unable to work to the best of your ability, unable to walk away.

Breaking the deadlock…

If you’re drifting, you need to seriously consider the option of quitting in order to break the deadlock. Imagine what it would be like if you did quit your PhD…

  • How would your life be different?
  • How would you feel?
  • What could you do with the freedom?
There is nothing wrong with leaving. Maybe doing a PhD just isn’t right for you. But make the decision yourself rather than avoiding the problem, drifting on towards failure and deciding by not deciding.

Here’s the key…

To fully commit to your PhD, you must consider quitting, acknowledge that the option exists and give it considered thought. Only then can you fully reject the option (or accept it).

Otherwise the vague feeling of unease, that you shouldn’t be here or you aren’t good enough will sit in the back of your mind.

Reasons not to quit your PhD…

If you’ve found this post by searching for “reasons to quit your PhD”, then things probably aren’t going so well right now. But many, if not most  PhD students go through tough times and still make it through to graduate successfully. And success tastes sweeter when you’ve had to fight for it than when it comes easily.

So should you fight on? If you have already invested huge amounts of time (and/or money) then you should at least give yourself a chance to succeed.

But if you do decide to keep going, then something has to change. (Click here to read what I did when on the verge of quitting my PhD)

Things to try…

  1. Take more breaks, get away from the computer and give yourself time to think
  2. Get more sleep
  3. Talk honestly to your supervisor and other students
  4. Simplify; focus on one thing at a time and don’t worry about the rest
  5. Focus on the short term. What can you do right now?
  6. Try not to worry about the end result (passing/failing) and just focus on doing everything to the best of your ability

Working harder?

Just working harder doesn’t always help because there are limits to how much you can physically do in a day. And often, working harder can make things worse.

Doing a PhD is mentally demanding, and if you are exhausted, you have a reduced capacity to think.

So take more breaks (away from the computer) and make sure you get enough sleep- it makes more difference than you think!

So…

Take some time to seriously consider your options.

Is there anything you can change in your approach? Are you taking enough time to think? Are you exhausted?

The worst thing to do is just drift. If you are unhappy, and if you really feel you have tried everything you can and that there are no options left, then it’s OK to quit your PhD knowing you’ve done all you could.

But if you decide to keep going to the finish, do so with the absolute certainty that this is what you want to do. Only then can you make the decisions you need to make and attack the problems of PhD completion with all the energy, determination and inventiveness at your disposal.

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Comments

  1. Mahdi says

    I am writing my master degree
    and I found what you say here is really to the point and encouraging . What made my think again about my situation is the situation that you were in before .

    I watched your YouTube videos and I can’t believe that you were about to quit !

    Thanks for dealing with such a topic, the life of an academic writer.

    Many Thanks !
    Mahdi

  2. esvps says

    Should I quit my PhD?
    I had just completed my Master’s degree. Excited with how it all went right from the start and eventually ending with a prestigious prize for the best performance, I was determined more than ever to pursue a career in research. After a few initial rejections (for reasons I may never know), I had two offers. After a visit to one of the graduate schools, I turned down the other. Then the unexpected happened. I undid all the hard work I had previously done!
    I certainly knew that interest and motivation should be the key factor in the choice of a PhD lab or research theme. How I went against my knowledge remains a mystery to me. Maybe it’s not after all: I chose based on fear rather than flair; fear of missing out on a PhD place made me choose a project that I was not certain that I would like in the long run, a lab that I found out offered no competition (where in fact I was ranked in the top 5 after the interviews, an information not available to me until I had made my choice).
    Maybe I never truly knew what I wanted, maybe a PhD was never meant for me and I could be doing something else, maybe I should have taken a break after my master’s degree to make a well-informed choice. Several maybes cannot change the truth that I am in the wrong place right now. I have tried several methods to ignite my interest (which was never existent), all ending in futility.
    Now I am considering my options:
    i. Stick with it for the remaining three-plus years and get a PhD; the consequence being that I may have lost all interest in scientific research as a whole. How one completes a 4-year research successfully without interest and conviction in what he/she does is what I cannot understand right now.
    ii. Find another lab; who will be willing to take me up? How do I tell my supervisor that I want to leave? What do I tell my prospective supervisor as my reason for changing labs? How do I explain my initial choice of my lab in the first place? What if no one wants to take me up due to solidarity with my boss? How do I convince my prospective boss that I’m truly interested in their work and will not grow cold over time?
    iii. Switch to another PhD program. This means I have to go through the pages of applications, dreaded motivation letters, and explain to previous referees why I need new recommendations from them less than barely a year. How do I justify the one-year gap in my education? What effect will knowing that I dropped out of a PhD program have on future applications?
    iv. Leave the PhD altogether. But this does not seem to be much of an options since I love scientific research, I really do.
    More questions than answers, the earlier and more accurately I provide answers, the better for my life now and in the future

  3. JamesB says

    I appreciate your post. I am 1 year in to my PhD and am likely going to quit. The perseverance of many of those commenting is inspiring, I can particularly identify with the analogy to sporting achievements and the immense pride associated with achieving a goal. Where I get hung up is the reality that despite this momentous achievement, the thought of struggling to find work, floating between postdoc positions, sessional teaching for little pay etc after such a struggle would be overwhelmingly disappointing. Sure there are industry jobs that come up, but a masters plus 4-5 years experience must come close to fulfilling those RnD roles in terms of contributions and salary. Anyways, these are my thoughts. I look forward to feedback.

  4. Joey says

    I have a situation that I’d hope somebody may have had experience with. I’ve recently been thinking about quitting my PhD. I’m 7 months in and feel like I’ve lost a lot of motivation and self-esteem. Part of my issues, I think, are related to the fact that I CAN’T concentrate on the short-term, or one thing at once, because I’m planning to spending up to a year doing field work and this is stressful as I’m now not sure if I want to leave home, family and my boyfriend for so long. I realise I can change my methodology and make a shorter field trip but this would change the outlook of my research (as I’m aiming at ethnographic research in a developing country). I’ve also been worrying because I’m questioning how the career path I’m on (field trips, maybe having to move for jobs etc) will affect my personal life in the future, and I admit my boyfriend and family think about this too. I also find it hard dealing with negative feedback on work as I have received recently – it makes me feel inadequate, more demotivated to do more work and so feels like a cycle! I was very passionate about my subject, but wanted to get into research to ‘make a change’ and a lot of the academic pressures, such as getting published, are confusing me. I’m interested in research in the development sector, and so jobs are very hard to come by. Sorry if that sounds like a lot of moaning, I just wonder if anybody has got any advice on how to deal with worries like this? Would talking to a supervisor help or just make me more confused?

    Thanks.

  5. lela says

    Thanks everybody for your comments, a lot to learn from you!
    I have another question, if you quit the PhD, do you have to turn the money back (salary that you have earn from university?)

  6. lindel says

    I quit. Too many years into it. Regrets? Definitely some.

    My content was fine but psycologically I was stranded. I wasn’t able to make any progress, and after 10 years in and around academia (obvs. not all in phd mode!) I decided I no longer wanted to be there.

    Quitting isn’t necessarily easier (I have a big job ahead establishing a post-phd identity/career/life/confidence), but it can be the right decision for some. Publicaly I have used the excuse ‘taking a break for a while’ even though I knew deep down I was quitting. It can be a good way to explain and ‘try on’ the new phase.

    I am soooooo much happier. I have my life and my family back (I was close to losing my husband and child). Time will tell whether I can get a satisfying career on track or if I wil always be explaining my failed PhD attempt/large CV gap.

    Pros: Life, weekends, sunshine, freedom, my brain now sparkles again!
    Cons: explaining the ‘gap’, restablishing confidence, figuring out what next.

    Good luck whichever path is chosen.

  7. Wojtek says

    Free mind, free evenings, time for my family, my dog, time for reading books, time for my friends (!),time for running, free weekends, time for going to the theatre, cinema, restaurants – without thinking what I should be doing for my PhD. Time for living. Ehh…I don’t want to work at academia. I really don’t like the system there, talking behind each others back I am not interested in my faculty reearches, I don’t like attitude of people who works there – “Do it fast, don’t waste time for lit review, don’t consider working on interesting things if they are complicated, Why do you want to go somwhere abroad?”. I think, that in fact I don’t like my topic. I used to but after so many “do nots” and lack of good supervisor with appropriate knowledge (that’s why I wanted to go abroad, to meet with a specialist…) I am sick of it. So WHY am I still trying to achive PhD? I think I am scared of failure and I don’t want to regret my decision. I am afraid of what other people will think. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am. There are only few of my Phd fellowship with true PASSION. These guys are doing great job and it is fun for them. They are in right place. I am not. So, what is the problem? Why I can’t just quit? Such decisions requires courage…

    • jameshayton says

      If you really hate it, then it might be the right decision, but it is a tough one to take. Maybe try telling just one person you trust, and see how they react and how it feels to say it. You can always change your mind before telling more people!

  8. says

    After 5 years of hard effort, I have just printed the copies of my work that need to go to the examiners – submitting on Monday! Yes, I too seriously thought of giving it all away at, as it turns out, the half-way point. I have been working full-time while doing my Doctor of Education part-time, so it’s not been easy. Although I was able to take 6 weeks off work last year to do my analysis and some of the writing, apart from that I wrote on weekends mostly, and Fridays when I could arrnge to compress my 40 hours of work into the other 4 days. I found that doing serious writng in the evenings was just not effective after a long and demanding day at work – so evenings were spent doing searches for new references. Anyway, at 21/2 years in, having collected at least half my data, I felt I was not doing justice to either my work or to my doctorate. I spoke to a few people and realsied that I was probably setting the bar too high – that is, what I was doing for work and my EdD was actually OK. That, in combination with the thought of being seen as a failure, spurred me on. Oh, and I was really interestd in my research topic! I decided at Christmas 2011 I would do everything I could to complete by the end of 2012 – which had been my original goal. This required a lot of organistion, focus and determination, as well as the 6 weeks off work! One complication was that my second supervisor became terminally ill at the start of 2012, and I greatly missed the intellectual rigour that she brought. I had hoped to finish in time for her to see the final work – unfortunately this was not to be. Naturally I could not have done what I have without a lot of support – my husband and (adult) kids taking on the cooking and most of the housework, my friends and fellow students who have provided regular meetings for support and accountability, and my Girl Guide district who understood that I could not do my usual leadership role in 2012. And, of course, my primary supervisor who provided guidance and always seemed to have faith in what I was doing, and who was an ideal fit for my style.

  9. says

    I completely agree with you about actively making a decision rather than waiting for a decision to happen to you. It’s great to see a post which addresses a question that seems to be surrounded by guilt. People don’t think about this question because it seems too terrible, but not thinking about it can be worse.

    I’d highly recommend step 4 (Simplify, and focus on one thing at a time). I love short-term goals, and will work non-stop to achieve them, but longer-term ones are a huge challenge. As such, I’m trying to make my PhD more like a video game by making short, management goals! I’ve written about it a little bit on my blog (https://ecspaeth.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/phd-or-rpg-the-game-of-self-directed-study/) and plan to write more if I figure out any exciting techniques!

  10. Deena says

    Thanks James. I suspect everyone has to hit the point where they seriously consider quitting at some time during their PhD, even if just for a moment. Anyway, no time to think about it now – I have another chapter to write. I’ll give it more thought after I’ve submitted (which is when I plan to do everything). Please keep the posts coming – they really help me, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in that.

  11. Rubia says

    Well, after reading all the posts I still feel very confused.
    I am currently doing a Ph.D. which I kind of fell into without too much of a though. I eventually love the technologies and techniques I learnt and use currently, and obviously learnt about a new interesting subject (which doesn’t necessarily blow my mind off).

    Anyhow, my main problem with it is that I am aware I give 200% of myself in matters of time and quality work, but on the other hand my tutor keeps asking for more. I have a really non-smooth relationship with my tutor, I don’t feel I am being heard and I don’t manage to connect with the tutor at any human level or manage to feel we are team-working.

    Relations with tutors can be considered as an “enough” reason to quit a Ph.D.?
    I am looking for opinions since I feel very tired and confused after almost 3 years…
    Thank you all!

    • jameshayton says

      First thing to do is give yourself some time to think. If you’re working at 200% then of course you are feeling tired. There comes a point where more effort actually becomes counter-productive because you’ll start making stupid mistakes if you are exhausted. Get a good night’s sleep before anything else.

      I don’t know from your comment what you have tried to say to your supervisor, but it might be worth calling a meeting and just get everything out in the open. Some supervisors are unpleasant individuals, but some just miscommunicate what they want you to do.

      They might be giving you to-do lists without knowing how long things take, or they might just be throwing ideas at you and expecting you to decide what to choose to do. If they are giving you a huge amount to do, just say, “OK, there’s a lot here, what do you think I should prioritise?”

      It depends what your SV means by “more”. If you think it’s impossible, say so. If you think there’s something useful, go do it, and if there are just too many things at once, pick the most important and focus on that.

  12. blackwidow says

    I’m thinking about setting up a website where I shall present several reasons why people should not waste their time upon a PhD. Have you done with your Master’s degree, my dear? [provided that most universities won’t accept you for the PhD degree unless you have obtained a master;s first). You need not go any further. That’s ENOUGH.

    A number of responses above have raised the issue of determination or being somehow frustrated over the possibility of dropping out of a PhD program. Oh, yes, I very well remember myself, especially during the last phase of the PhD, when I was determined that this is a matter of life and death, and that I should do whatever it takes to get it done – exactly as my supervisor expects it to be. Words fail to describe the pain and sacrifice I went through in order to complete this almost 5 year project – and it contained special difficulties not ordinarily found in usual PhDs. Let me read your thoughts: ‘you could have found an ordinary job instead of working for the PhD, and you would not be searching for jobs now, next to people 10 years younger than you!’.

    This is not the end of the story. In fact, the real tragedy begins as soon as you manage to finish your PhD. I can’t speak about all disciplines, but it is unlikely that you will ever find a job just because you have a doctorate. You may want to become an academic: given the present circumstances, you have to be really proficient and proactive and highly competitive, if you want to have any chance. Otherwise, chances are that you will end up walking around with your PhD degree in your hands. The choice is yours.

  13. Gift Clumsywarrior says

    Thanks for the post..
    I am feeling soooo unmotivated.. I remember seriously was gonna quit.. then it really reignited me .. “i quitted, now what?” Then I realize that i didn’t wanna quit. I wanna give it a shot.

    But now I am back to where I was again— wanting to quit..
    hmmmmmmmm

    • Gift Clumsywarrior says

      So, just an update. After I got through that hump of wanting to quit, now I am back to enjoying PhD again. I think I struggle because I did not like the system, and paralyzed by the uncertainty (well research is high-risk by nature). Now that I work through all those issues–to be content with where I am, grateful for the lifestyle PhD provides me (not much money but lots of flexibility), and more willing to learn– I don’t mind PhD at all. The trick is to enjoy the journey and realize that ups and downs are nature.

  14. Kimmy says

    I am so happy I found this website! I have Googled ‘when to quit your PhD’ many times over the past few months. (And I haven’t quit yet). I keep thinking about quitting, but the amount of time and effort I’ve put into this emotional rollercoaster makes me think I would just resent myself if I quit altogether. The tips listed above are the most helpful I’ve seen yet. Somehow I keep getting back on the roller coaster, only I keep going ‘off-track.’ I have to remind myself that the whole experience was my own choice… the challenge to myself to see if I could do it. I guess there is something in it about whether you would regret quitting? I suppose this motivates me sometimes.

  15. says

    I avoided reading this post for a while (how could I possibly consider quitting?) but you make an excellent point — seriously imagining what it would be like to quit, instead of being discouraging, really energized / motivated me to re-imagine what I can / must do to finish. Thanks!

  16. determined says

    Quitting is not an option. People around me are dropping already. I want truly this, and will do everything I can to get to the end and succeed.

    Never give up. Never never give up

    • Katherine says

      Quitting yes. I have thought of it. My engine has run dry, the years have slipped by and I am in my fourth year with three more chapters to go. I was on the verge of withdrawing and told my supervisors about 2 months ago. They were astounded and shocked at the thought. “You’re nearly there. Your work will be a significant contribution to the field and its such a strong doctorate!”
      I had no idea they were impressed with my work….and they had no idea how close I was to giving up.

      Life does get in the way of a doctorate and a doctorate gets in the way of life.
      Having survived cancer myself, now caring for my mother in her final stages of cancer, having a partner diagnosed with a genetic liver disorder, a son going through HSC, having quartered my income to do the thesis, sick of spending 6 -12 hours a day writing on my days off and before and after work, re writing, rethinking YEH HELL YEH I considered quitting. It’s not that we really want to stop because we wouldn’t have started this journey if we didn’t really want it. We just want the pain, the frustration, the holding of ideas in your head, the aching fingers, the tired eyes, missing out on family / friends time to stop. Who wouldn’t? You only have to read the acknowledgements in completed theses to see who is involved and what people go through to finish these monsters!

      I suppose what has pushed me to keep going is that my doctoral cup is more than half full and I am nearly there. I just think about all the work I have done and how the sacrifice wouldn’t be worth it if I just stopped now. It’s not quitting if you choose a different path for yourself so don’t be too tough when you have valid reasons and a different direction in life that says “no more”. Life is too short for it and stopping is not always ‘quitting’. It is therefore an option for some.

      In saying that, the only person I have heard of who found a doctorate easy to get was Kylie Minogue and she was given an honorary doctorate. It is HARD LONG work. Do marathon runners think of quitting while they are running the race? I am sure they do. But when they finish, as we will, and they hold up their arms as they cross the finish line – imagine the relief.

      Keep going! We will get there. Here’s to all the personal best marathon runners.
      Thank James for helping us see how we can get there AND do it!

      PS> One of my colleagues just submitted her doctorate after 7 years. The pride and respect I have for her is difficult to verbalise. But the joy she has in her accomplishment is astounding. Keep going all. It will be worth it.

        • Loupy says

          What if you have developed generalised anxiety disorder? And can’t face another day without panicking. I don’t enjoy the subject, I did at first but I don’t enjoy the topic or experiments- i haven’t done for a long time. I have some ‘good data’ and even that isn’t motivating me. I can’t even focus when I try to do one thing at a time.

          I know I can only make my own decision but this isn’t the first time I felt like quitting, and I think I need time to consider all my options before I do. Would you recommend a pause in studies (which means a pause in funding) to get better, deal with the route of my anxiety (which may well run deeper than the thesis) and look at options.

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