Should you quit your PhD? There wasn’t a day that went by during my PhD when I didn’t think about quitting at least once. I’d ask myself why I was putting myself through the roller coaster, and whether I had made a mistake.
It’s comforting – or perhaps also a little worrying – to know that these feelings are largely normal. For many PhD students, working to overcome this inner voice is part of the challenge of completing a PhD.
PhDs are hard, there’s no escaping that, and at times stressful, but they shouldn’t be unbearable, at least not for any continued length of time. But there’s a danger that we risk telling students to ‘suck it up’ and in the process normalise suffering and genuine feelings of dissatisfaction. For many, quitting a PhD is the wrong decision. For those students, sure, they need to ‘suck it up’. But for others, quitting is the right decision. For those, sucking it up is the worst possible advice.
This article speaks to those who are thinking of quitting their PhDs, and instead of telling you to suck it up, it talks frankly about why you might want to and how to navigate such a decision. It is my hope that you might understand whether the feelings of dissatisfaction and overwhelm you might have for your PhD are normal, or whether you really are better off doing something else.
Deciding to quit anything, not least a PhD, is often laden with emotional weight, uncertainty, and implications for your future. Even the term quitting is so laden with negative connotations that it’s almost a slur. I almost contemplated avoiding the word entirely in this article. Quitting implies failure, rejection, not having what it takes. But whilst there’s a lot to be said for sticking with adversity, the emotional and cultural baggage around the very idea of quitting can be unhelpful for those who are ill-suited to academia, or those who are really having a horrid time. The stigma around quitting a PhD is naive, when you consider how many people actually do. In the US, for example, around 50% of people drop out of PhD programmes.
The decision to quit your PhD or stick with it is yours and yours alone. It’s not up to me or anyone else to tell you you should or shouldn’t quit. The difficulty in such a decision is understanding – truly understanding – whether any sense of dissatisfaction you’re feeling with your PhD journey is on the ‘normal’ end of the spectrum, or whether it’s on the problematic end. In other words, whether you should suck it up or move on to other things.
What can be helpful in working out where on that spectrum you are is to understand the reasons why other people decide to drop out.
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Common Reasons for Wanting to Quit a PhD
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of academic research around this topic. In an extensive review of the literature on this topic, Sverdlik, Hall, McAlpine & Hubbard (2018) categorised the factors that influenced this decision as external or internal to the student.
The most influential force in the doctoral experience is the supervisory relationship. When it is open, supportive and communicative, you can assume that students feel more successful and satisfied. Compatibility, whether in terms of research interests or working style, between the student and the supervisor, is also important. When these are missing, and when the supervisory relationship itself turns into a source of stress and anxiety, it’s not uncommon for students to feel a great deal of dissatisfaction.
Departmental structures and organisation
From the students we speak to, particularly those in our writing group, we know how important it is to feel connected and to feel as though you’re part of something bigger. Departments have a huge role to play in addressing this need, and when this type of support and integration is missing it can damage our feelings of belonging and overall morale.
There are two dimensions at play here. On a formal level, departments can do a lot to integrate and socialise students into departmental life, through things like funding opportunities, sharing information, teaching opportunities, and clear communication. On an informal level, there’s much they can do to make you feel welcome, such as socialising you into the departmental culture and making you feel as though you’re a valuable member of the department.
Where there is a mismatch between you and your department, whether informally or formally, it can be very easy to feel isolated and make the decision to leave the programme easier. This of course has not been helped by the pandemic. During the pandemic, and particularly lock-down, this isolation was particularly acute, for obvious reasons. But from our experience working with students since the pandemic, often things never really returned to the way they were before. There’s more time alone, more time on Zoom, less time in the department and less time interacting in the real world with peers. The ability to feel part of something bigger and supported by department structures is now more strained as a result.
It is perhaps unsurprising that whether or not funding opportunities are available can have a huge impact on your overall sense of worth and well-being, and can be a major driver in deciding whether or not to quit the PhD programme. For many, the years doing a PhD are years that could be spent in industry starting a career (and getting paid accordingly). As the years on the PhD programme go by, a fear of missing out kicks in, and you may start to question your financial acumen in deciding to go down this path. I certainly did; my stipend was around £12,000 per year, which was far, far less than I could have earned elsewhere, and well below minimum wage when taking into consideration the number of hours I was spending on the PhD. I was grateful to receive it of course, but fully aware of the opportunity cost of the PhD on any alternative careers or income.
On a more pragmatic level, the issue isn’t so much what you could be earning elsewhere, rather the more immediate concern of not having enough money in the first place. Academia is an elite institution, with too few students from working class and marginalised backgrounds. When me and other PhD students I worked with – all comfortable in our middle class lives – complained of having no money, what most of us really meant was ‘not having as much as we’d like’.
For many on our programme and many elsewhere though, not having enough money means just that. It means having to hold down one or more part-time jobs, and miss out on conferences, events, and other things crucial both to professional and personal wellbeing. For some, the decision to drop out can be a purely financial one, or one borne out of the stress and exhaustion that comes from simply staying afloat.
Another significant factor affecting a decision to stay in the programme is what happens after you graduate. For many disciplines and in many countries, the academic job market is poor, with little promise of job security or salaries to match the expertise and experience you have. Where there are limited job options or poor salary prospects, the decision to quit a PhD can become easier.
A common reason for quitting a PhD is a lack of motivation. The unstructured nature of PhD work, and the fact that you have to self-regulate and self-manage, means that motivation can be difficult to conjure up.
There is obviously a close relationship between the other factors I’ve discussed elsewhere and this one. Motivation might wane where there is a poor supervisor relationship, for example, or once you realise that there are poor job prospects. But it can also be influenced by why you decided to do a PhD in the first place. Broadly, we can break down a student’s motivations for starting a PhD into two spheres: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic reasons are a passion or interest for the subject. Extrinsic reasons are things like boosting your CV. Students who pursue a PhD for intrinsic reasons – because they’re passionate about a topic – are more likely to stick with it and feel more satisfied.
Self-worth and efficacy
At the heart of many PhD students’ struggles is a sense of not being ‘worthy’ of a PhD, or not having what it takes. Countering this prevailing self-depreciation is a big part of what we try to do here, because such self-critique is more often than not based on a faulty assessment of our own abilities and skills. When we think we’re worthless, the cost of quitting decreases significantly.
Personal and social lives
PhDs require a huge amount of physical and emotional energy. The often extensive demands of both formal and informal doctoral work means that health, wellbeing and social lives can go out of the window. It is when we fail to manage our well-being and maintain a holistic personal life beyond the PhD that we experience burnout, depression and low well-being. And when they rear their heads, you’re far more likely to want to leave.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the PhD will demand a huge amount of your time. But there’s absolutely no need to feel guilty about taking time away from it and focusing on your own health and your own personal life instead. Indeed, work-life balance is the strongest predictor of psychological distress in PhD students.
Your PhD Thesis.
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Assessing Your Situation
Whilst the research above looks at why students have dropped out, what it doesn’t look at is whether they’re the ‘right’ decision to drop out. I use the word ‘right’ here cautiously. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ reason for dropping out. Rather, there is just ‘a’ decision to drop out. What we might think of instead is whether the struggles and strains are on the normal, to-be-expected end of the PhD spectrum or whether life really is miserable and you really are better off leaving.
But how can you know on what end of the spectrum you lie?
It’s entirely normal in a PhD to feel like you’re not making any progress and to feel completely out of your depth. Research is an exercise in failing, over and over again. In order to work out what the correct path is, you need to go down all the wrong paths, find the dead ends, and retrace your steps to find another path to take. Eventually, you get to the end, perhaps without ever noticing when you finally made it onto the right path.
This trial-and-error approach, informed of course by an intelligent reading of the literature and your data, is, counterintuitively, how we make progress in research. We throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Further aggrevating that though is the fact that you’ve never really done any of this stuff before. You’re in at the very deepest end, learning on the job and, as we’ve seen, continually making mistakes.
It can be easy to see these mistakes as your failure, as something innate to your abilities (or perceived lack of them). But they’re not. Failure is progress, after all. And all that work is just plain hard. And isolating. If a PhD was easy, everyone would have one. But they’re not, so they don’t.
All this is to suggest that perhaps you shouldn’t quit a PhD if you feel like an imposter, or you feel like you’re making too many mistakes and haven’t got what it takes. Or if you find the work too hard (everyone does, and it gets easier).
But perhaps you should quit a PhD if you’ve traded your health (particularly your mental health) to stay on the journey. Or, because the more you go down the path the more you lost interest in the subject or the more you see that the career that lies ahead isn’t for you.
Consequences of Quitting
But as much as it is a personal decision, there are real-world, often external consequences. This step will have ramifications for your career, your sense of self, and possibly even your social circle. Before deciding to leave your programme, it’s important to know what you’re really signing up for.
Choosing to step away from a PhD might feel like veering off an established career path. Within academia, the finished thesis is the route to a research or teaching position. But outside the academic walls, the reality is different. Many industries and sectors deeply value the skills you’ve acquired during your PhD journey—skills like in-depth research capabilities, critical thinking, and proficient project management. Even without that final thesis, and no matter how far through you end up, you come armed with a unique set of competencies that can be invaluable in various roles and settings.
Irrespective of your decision about the PhD, the journey itself offers invaluable lessons about personal growth. Throughout this experience, you’ll discover more about yourself: the environments in which you flourish, the challenges you willingly embrace, and the aspects of work you truly value. Deciding whether to continue or step back isn’t just about the degree; it’s an extended exercise in self-awareness and in understanding your priorities. Whether you proceed or drop out, these insights into your character and preferences will guide many of your future choices.
The financial dimension of quitting a PhD is complex. You need to be mindful of existing funding agreements, scholarships, and any potential repayment obligations. Beyond that, consider the financial landscape of transitioning into a new field or profession. While the initial phase might come with financial challenges, especially if you’re retraining or shifting sectors, remember that many industries might value the unique skills and perspectives you bring from your PhD experience. Balancing immediate financial concerns with long-term prospects can help you make an informed decision.
Making the decision about your PhD is deeply personal, but its ripple effects touch the people around you. You might find yourself on the receiving end of a spectrum of reactions from peers, mentors, family, and friends. While some might stand firmly by your side, understanding and supporting your choice, others might struggle to grasp the reasons behind your decision. During such times, it’s crucial to lean on a supportive network. Engaging in open conversations and seeking understanding can be cathartic. Surrounding yourself with empathetic individuals who respect your choices, even if they don’t fully understand them, can make this transition smoother and more reassuring. But above all, remember that is your choice alone to make, and you don’t need to justify it to anyone.
The Emotional Weight of Considering Quitting
Quitting your PhD is not a simple binary decision, and the weight of the decision is not just academic but emotional, affecting not just your work, but your sense of self and your future.
A key part of the challenge is that it can feel as though your entire education has led to you doing a PhD. That your entire identity is wrapped up in being an academic, and being smart, and the PhD is the final piece of the puzzle that is so tantalising close and worth risking everything for. This is largely nonsense. You will still be smart if you drop out. You will still have all the skills and experience you’ve gained in your education so far, and plenty of non-academic employers would love to hire you for them.
Quitting a PhD should therefore be seen as a positive. It’s you taking control over your well-being and changing something that wasn’t working for you. It’s you taking a risk, putting yourself first, and refusing to put up with something that you know isn’t good for you.
But nonetheless, you’re likely to go on an emotional rollercoaster in the run up and aftermath to leaving your programme.
Guilt and Shame
It’s entirely natural for you to grapple with feelings of guilt and shame when thinking about leaving a PhD behind. Societal norms, combined with personal expectations, can paint a picture where deviating from the path feels like a defeat. The weight of the world and your own aspirations can press heavily, making you feel like you’re not measuring up or that you’re letting yourself and others down. The idea of quitting is often shrouded in taboo, further intensified by the sunk cost fallacy – the notion that you’ve already invested so much time, energy, and perhaps finances, that turning back feels wasteful. However, it’s vital for you to remember that your journey is unique, and measuring your decisions against societal standards or past investments might not always reflect what’s best for your current and future well-being.
Contemplating the idea of stepping away from the PhD might initially be fraught with hesitations and doubts. However, as you delve deeper into the thought, you might find a palpable sense of relief washing over you. This emotional response can be enlightening. If merely considering a different path brings such a strong sense of relief, it might be an indication that redirecting your journey could indeed be the right choice for your well-being and future goals. Listening to this inner emotional compass can be crucial in making decisions that resonate with your true desires and needs.
Fear of the Unknown
Stepping into an uncertain future, especially when it deviates from a long-held plan like completing a PhD, can be incredibly daunting for you. The questions might swirl in your mind: What opportunities await without that coveted doctoral degree? How will the professional landscape perceive you? The ambiguity of not knowing can sometimes overshadow the reasons that led you to consider a different path. But remember, every significant life decision comes with its share of uncertainties. Embracing them, rather than fearing them, can open doors to opportunities you hadn’t previously imagined.
Embarking on a PhD is often a decision driven by your passion, curiosity, and aspirations for the future. But as the journey progresses, you might find a growing disconnect between the academic path and your evolving personal and professional goals. Recognising this misalignment isn’t a sign of failure but rather an act of self-validation. Understanding that the path you once felt was perfect might not align with your current aspirations is empowering, and a sign of a deeper understanding of your own needs and desires. This realisation isn’t about admitting defeat, but rather about acknowledging your evolving self-awareness and priorities. By doing so, you’re not only giving yourself the permission to seek out paths that resonate more with your current goals but also embracing an authentic commitment to your personal growth and future.
Alternatives to Quitting
Remember that quitting is not your only option, even when it feels like it. Whether it’s considering a leave of absence, consulting with mental health professionals, or even shifting your research focus, there are ways to make your PhD journey more bearable. Yes, you read it right—you don’t have to face the monumental task of single-handedly revolutionising your field. It’s your apprenticeship into academia, not a Nobel Prize race.
Considering a Leave of Absence
Before making a final decision, remember that many institutions provide an option to take a break. Opting for a leave of absence might offer you the breathing room you need, allowing you to step back, recharge, and assess your choices with a clearer mind. This pause can be instrumental in reevaluating your commitment to the program, granting you the time to contemplate whether your struggles are temporary setbacks or indicative of a deeper misalignment.
Reassessing Supervisory and Project Dynamics
If the crux of your unease stems from challenges with your supervisor or the nature of your research project, there’s a potential remedy. Consider discussing a switch in supervision or even pivoting your research direction. Sometimes, reshuffling these foundational elements can reignite your passion and satisfaction with the PhD journey, altering the course of your experience.
Weighing the Part-time PhD Option
The rigours of a full-time PhD can be overwhelming, especially if you’re juggling other life responsibilities or commitments. Some universities accommodate by offering a part-time PhD track. This could be a balanced middle-ground, allowing you to continue your academic pursuits at a more manageable pace while also engaging with other aspects of your life.
Turning to Counseling or Therapy
The emotional and mental strains of a PhD can be taxing. Engaging in counseling or therapy sessions can provide you with a space to articulate and process your feelings. A professional can offer insights, coping mechanisms, and strategies to manage stress, potentially equipping you with the tools to navigate the challenges of the doctoral journey.
Steps to Take If You Decide to Quit
If, after thorough reflection, you decide that leaving is the best course of action, there are official routes and less formal pathways out of your PhD. Exit degrees, other academic pursuits, or a pivot into industry could all be next steps in your post-PhD life.
Engaging with Your Supervisor and Department
Your decision impacts not just you but also your academic ecosystem. Open dialogue with your supervisor and department is crucial. These discussions offer clarity, ensure all parties understand the reasons behind your choice, and can sometimes open doors to alternative solutions you might not have considered.
Understanding the Withdrawal Process
Deciding to leave is more than just an emotional choice; there’s an administrative aspect to it. Familiarize yourself with the withdrawal process of your institution. Be clear on any obligations, potential repercussions, or financial considerations associated with your decision.
Leveraging Career Counseling
Your skills and experiences acquired during your PhD journey are valuable and transferrable. Career counseling can guide you in identifying these strengths and navigating job markets, ensuring you’re positioned favorably for roles outside of academia that resonate with your aspirations.
Maintaining Academic and Professional Connections
Exiting a PhD program doesn’t necessitate severing ties with the academic world. The relationships, networks, and bonds you’ve forged can continue to serve you well in various capacities. Maintain these connections; they can be sources of references, collaborations, or even job opportunities.
Wholeheartedly Embracing Your Decision
Whatever your choice, remember it’s grounded in your well-being and aspirations. It’s an act of courage and self-awareness. Celebrate this bravery and move forward with optimism and confidence, knowing you’re aligned with a path that resonates with your current and future goals.
Choosing to quit your PhD is an intensely personal decision that comes with its own set of complexities. Just like when you’re wrestling with your day-to-day PhD challenges, it’s crucial to be realistic about what you can and cannot do. If you decide to leave your PhD programme, know that it’s a decision that should be made with the utmost care, with due consideration given to both your present circumstances and your future prospects. But know that only you can make the decision, and being able to make it in good faith depends on whether you’re able to fully understand the feelings that you have and the relationship you have with your PhD. Is what you’re feeling a ‘normal’ part of the journey, or a cause for concern? It is my hope that this article has helped you to undersatnd the answer to this question a bit more clearly. Feel free to share your experience in the comments, or if you want to work on on one with me to work through pain points or struggles, learn more about my coaching programme.