"I hate my PhD..."

August 4, 2013

When I was first offered a place on a PhD program, it felt great.

Just being accepted to study for a PhD felt like a success, like some kind of validation that I was good enough to do it. What I didn't realise was that it is much, much easier to get onto a PhD program than to complete one.

It was tough, and there were times when I felt like the whole thing was pointless... that I would fail and there was nothing I could do about it. There were times when I hated my PhD and there were times when I just wanted to quit.

I hate my PhD

This is a common feeling, but what makes it worse is that it is easy to end up trapped by your PhD.

If you have a job you hate, then you look for another one. There is no stigma attached to quitting a job, and it is the obvious thing to do if you are truly unhappy.

But with a PhD, even if you hate every day and wake up dreading going to the lab or library, it is very hard to leave.

Why it is so difficult to leave a PhD

Unlike a job, a PhD has a defined aim which you either achieve or you don't; to graduate. So leaving can feel like failure, because you haven't achieved what you set out to do.

How, then, do you explain to a potential employer that 5 year gap on your CV? How do you explain to your family and friends? How will you feel years from now when you look back on that incomplete goal?

As long as you stay, there is still maybe some hope... perhaps if you work harder or longer hours then things will change.... But they never do, because if you are unhappy and lacking confidence, it is impossible to fully apply yourself and work to the best of your ability.

So people stay, month after month, year after year; unable to make progress, too scared to leave.

What can you do?

You have 3 options

  1. Just carry on and hope for the best
  2. Quit
  3. Make fundamental changes to the way you work

Of these, the first option is by far the worst. If you are unhappy, stressed or depressed, then it is a signal that something needs to change. It is easier to stay in the relative safety of the familiar (no matter how unpleasant) than to walk away and into the unknown, but this is just a way of avoiding responsibility for your own happiness and wellbeing.

If you quit, you are at least making your own decision and taking back control of your own life. Although scary, it can open up an entire world of possibilities... By letting go of the PhD, you can create the space in your life to do whatever you want to. You could;

  • Fly to Iceland and look at volcanoes
  • Learn to dance
  • Write a novel
  • Run an ultramarathon
  • Start a business and change the world

Life is what you make of it. The only limitations are the ones you place on yourself, and a PhD is not the only challenge out there.

Making changes to the way you work

It is possible to turn things around, but you need to not only change the way you work, but also the way you think about the work.

Being more organised and working harder are not solutions in themselves. Any burst of willpower or new time-management technique will work for a few days, but lasting change can only come from a fundamental change in your mindset.

For me, the change happened when I relaxed, and stopped worrying about the end result, and just focused on doing things carefully. I told myself, "I don't care if this works or not, but I'm going to do it to the best of my ability anyway".

I couldn't control the end result, because I was doing experiments which only worked maybe 5% of the time. But I could control the care and attention I gave to whatever task I took on.

Pass or fail, trust in your ability to cope

There was a real possibility I would fail my PhD, but I told myself that if I did fail, I would be OK. It would not be the worst thing that would happen in my life, and although it wouldn't be nice, I would cope.I would find a job somehow. I didn't know how, and I had no plan, but I trusted in my own ability to cope with whatever happened.

True confidence is not having certainty over exactly how things will work out, because that is impossible. True confidence, whether you quit your PhD or continue, comes from not knowing how things will work out, but doing it anyway.

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