A long time ago, I had a very serious discussion with my PhD supervisor. I was depressed, I felt inadequate to the task of completing my PhD and I really just wanted out.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I wanted the PhD but I could no longer see the path to finishing it. So, I spoke the words that no supervisor wants to hear: “I’m thinking of quitting”.
His response really surprised me. He looked at me with a smile and said, “That’s great — 1 out of 3 is out of the way.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained that in his experience, a student will seriously consider leaving their PhD at least 3 times. This was my first time and we just needed to work through it.
I still felt like shit. However, when I think back to this moment I realise he gave me something very important. He normalised the idea of quitting for me and made me feel a tad less alone than I had before. I felt more supported.
I still wanted to quit.
The expectations suck
A PhD can feel like a jail term. You cannot just up and leave part way through your sentence. But why the hell not? What if a PhD is not for you? What if the vision for your future they sold you is not what you really desire? Why is a PhD treated so differently to other jobs?
I believe a big part of this is that your entire education has been building to this point — it’s been a rather straight line. One piece comes after another and if you want to be a professional in your field then this is the next step on the path. If you quit your PhD then the entire journey would come crashing down. What on earth would you do? The singular goal would be lost. Your chance of getting a job would be sweet FA.
Of course this is a line of bullshit that we have all been fed to keep us in our PhDs. In reality, by the time you have reached this level, you will have gained an enormous range of skills that are applicable to many different industries. Therefore, the idea that it has all been wasted if you quit, just does not hold water. If you have reached the level of PhD student you are already in the top few percent performance wise so will likely be highly adaptive to new types of work. The only real waste is the project work that you will have started in your PhD, but if you are going to change fields then why would you care?
Keep in mind that PhD students are the engine room for universities and research institutions. The drive to keep you in the house will be very strong. You are free and very skilled labour. If you finish there is an added cash incentive for institutions. It’s a win win for the institutions if you complete. To be fair, it costs an institution a lot of money for you to have the facilities to do your PhD, so completing on time allows them to get some of that expense back. It’s odd that most institutions ignore the mental health of PhD students given how much is at stake.
Unfortunately as a society we don’t match our training numbers with what the workforce actually needs — so in essence a few people quitting wouldn’t be a bad thing. You would be doing your colleagues a favour if you quit, as they would have less job competition when they finish.
Have I convinced you to quit yet?
Well let’s talk about what science is all about. That should do the trick.
Apologies if you are in another field, but it’s not difficult to draw parallels. When you enter a PhD you are told about the interesting areas you will get to explore. You will be told how you will push the boundaries of human knowledge and how fun and interesting this will be. You will get to publish, discover new things, travel the world……and the list goes on. Sounds bloody great. But hang on, did anyone actually tell you about how science actually progresses most of the time? I’m guessing not or you would not be reading this article.
In many ways, science is about failing. Unless you are doing incremental work, which in itself can be boring and only mildly useful, the majority of science involves failing a lot. If it was easy it would all have been done by now. If it was easy you would not be getting a PhD for doing the work. So if you are the sort of person who does not like to fail — and lets be honest, what kind of idiot actually likes to fail — then perhaps a PhD is not for you.
I think there are numerous reasons why you might be thinking about quitting. You might be in that rut where nothing new is coming out of your work — the classic scenario where your effort/reward ratio is seriously out of whack. You might be finding that your work is unfulfilling and you are struggling to find meaning. In reality, this is probably reasonable because early in your career the chances of your work being impactful are rather low. You might feel like an imposter (that’s another article I need to write!).
Perhaps you have an unsupportive supervisor. This can take many shapes and sizes. Some supervisors push too hard. Some not hard enough. Some try to clone themselves disregarding that different people work and are motivated in different ways. Some are just A-holes in general, and some lack the field expertise and innovative thought to provide inspirational projects to students. A supervisor can make or break a student regardless of the standard of the student. If you have one of these supervisors then you should give solid thought to getting the hell out of Dodge.
Before you quit…
I would like to propose that a PhD is not that much different to other jobs. It’s something that, if you cast off the centuries of cultural heritage from universities, should be seen as something to try and walk away from if it is not right. A PhD should never come at the cost of your mental health. Institutions almost never have systems in place to monitor and address the health of PhD students.
If at this point you have already decided you are definitely going to quit then don’t read on. If on the other hand you have not quite steeled yourself to withdraw, then here are a few words to help you endure what is still ahead of you.
Firstly, I suggest that you reset in your mind about what science is really about. A real scientist is not someone who wins every day in their work. It is someone who has the ability to notice something different when it comes along and recognise that difference for its potential. Sometimes we can wait 12 months or longer for this one day to occur. We need to be ready to grab hold of it when it happens. That’s what science is about, it’s not about success every single day and the best stuff is not about incrementalism. It’s easy to lose sight of this distinction especially in a system where innovative and risky thought is discouraged by funding agencies. Science is as much about eliminating the things that don’t work, as it is finding the ones that do. That’s not failure, that’s progress.
There will be times when it feels like certain things just won’t ever move forward. This is what discussions with your supervisor are for. They have more experience and given the opportunity, they should always be able to suggest a course of action. Sometimes that action will be to abandon the approach and move onto something else. These decisions should feel like a partnership between the supervisor and student. If they don’t then the supervisor is not doing their job.
The relationships you have in your PhD are very important. I encourage people to develop three types. The first is the supervisor relationship. This person is not your mentor. A mentor must have no personal gain involved in your work if they are to give you advice. The supervisor by contrast is there to guide your research journey and provide some career input. They need to know how you work best, how you like to get feedback, what sort of work you enjoy, what your weaknesses are. The more you give them the better they can help you navigate the difficult research path. Of course, you need to know the answers to these questions as well.
The second type of relationship that must be cultivated is the connection with others within your research group — especially those doing PhDs and postdocs who have recently completed. These are your support people and generally will all have experienced difficulties themselves. If they have not, they will at some stage, and the more open you are about the challenges the more these people can provide support. However, be clear about the sort of support you need.
I recall the group meetings we had when I was a student. We rarely talked about successes. We mainly talked about problems we were having and the group would rally to help solve them for the individual. It felt incredibly supportive and it prevented things from festering.
The third support group you will need is people from outside your discipline, even potentially outside your institution, but still doing PhDs themselves. People who can understand the challenges but are not necessarily within the political bubble of your lab.
Ultimately though a PhD can feel like a lonely enterprise. So what else can you do? For a start, it is important to keep a list of all the compliments you have received over the course of your time in the job. Whether written or oral, it can be very valuable to have these together in one place so you can reflect on them when feeling beaten. It doesn’t matter where they came from or how you keep them. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you are certainly capable even if the work is challenging. Don’t associate failure in the work with your failure — some research paths will simply not work.
No matter where you are in your PhD you will have made some progress. It’s important to remind yourself of where you were and what you knew 3 months ago, 6 months ago, a year ago. We all progress but we forget to give ourselves credit for that when things get tough. Typically, I find that people are closer to the end than the beginning, but the end seems far away.
What we don’t get taught prior to a PhD is that we need to learn to be exceptional project and time managers. A 3 to 4 year project is immense and it takes a lot of detailed planning. Most PhDs don’t have this and they certainly don’t have contingency plans when things don’t work out. Open discussion about these issues with supervisors and peers is necessary for all projects to be successful.
Most important though is maintenance of your health during a PhD. On occasion, this will take a team of GPs, psychologists, friends and family. Take prevention and treatment seriously. Compromised health reduces your ability to think effectively and you will see everything about your PhD progress through dark clouds. Always remember that the cost of a PhD must never be your health. Institutions will rarely have health support programs in place specifically for PhD students so you will need to address this yourself.
So before you quit, be sure to strip away the institutional attitude and pressures around quitting so you can make an informed and personal decision. A successful PhD depends on health, training, commitment, good supervision and supporting infrastructure. If any of these are lacking, the entire endeavour is unnecessarily harder.
Do not quit for these reasons:
1. Your experiments aren’t working
2. Your supervisor is an arsehole
3. Your supervisor is incompetent
4. You are finding the work too hard
5. You feel like an imposter
6. You don’t have the tools you need
7. You feel alone in your work
8. Everyone around you is having wins and you are not
9. You had some negative feedback
10. You are struggling to write
11. You have no publications
Consider quitting for these reasons:
1. You are trading your mental health to remain in the program (health must come first!)
2. You have learned what research is about and you no longer find it interesting or right for you
3. The longer you stay, the more you look towards other more interesting career paths
So please go ahead and quit your PhD, but make sure you are doing so for the right reasons so you can live with your decision 10 years from now. Don’t let others take this from you — you have worked too hard to get this far. If you leave, it needs to be a positive move, not a retreat.