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I want to quit my PhD because it's making me miserable

(33 Posts)
coralpig Thu 12-Jan-17 11:26:44

My PhD funding runs out in October I've been here coming on 3 years.

I've managed to scrape through my progression points but I am deeply unhappy- have been on anti depressants almost a year and had a breakdown about 6 months ago where the terms of my studentship meant I couldn't take sick leave. My supervisors have been pretty absent and I have no direction. I've had lots of counselling and can see this is the source of a lot of unhappiness for me.I desperately want to quit and apply for a more fulfilling job. AIBU?

I'm concerned that I would be quitting late in the program and I have already collected my data. I would be letting down my supervisors and I can't imagine my funders would be happy. However I have been thinking about this for months so it's not a rash decision. I've found a few job opportunities that sound appealing and which I would like to apply for.

Areyoufree Thu 12-Jan-17 11:35:36

You are not alone. If you Google "mental health" and "PhD", you'll see this is a big problem. It is extremely stressful, especially with inadequate supervision.
Yes, you can leave. People do. First step is to give yourself permission to leave. You don't have to stay. But maybe look at a few other options first.
1. Can you go part time? This could take some of the pressure off.
2.Could you take a break? Defer for a few months? Obviously this is tricky financially, but there may be a way around it.
At the end of the day, your university should want to be flexible and help you find a way to finish. I would take a few days off, don't look at your work, think about your work or even think about what you want to do. Then, talk to your university. Not your supervisors, but whatever office manages PhD students. This is not an unusual situation, and they should have some suggestions.
But at the end of the day, if you decide to leave, then that's fine too! I'm sorry you are going through this - it's an awful place to be in.

dorothymichaels Thu 12-Jan-17 11:39:41

Hi coral pig
My PhD funding runs out around the same time, so in the same boat as you in terms of writing up. No one will judge you if you don't finish, but are there funders to consider? In practical terms, would you need to pay back any fees?

Firstly, if you haven't seen it already, this might be useful

The supervision aspect is what stands out to me in your post. At this point you really need quality supervision and direction to help you finish. Can you raise this with your head of department? They should be helping you to finish, and they should know how you are feeling.

Would you be able to apply for the job and finish part-time?

LaurieMarlow Thu 12-Jan-17 11:42:58

If it helps, I stuck it out to the bitter, bitter end and looking back, I'm not sure that was the right thing to do. I have a great career outside of academia and having the PhD was not necessary for that at all.

I put myself and my loved ones through a lot of pain, during the final write up in particular. At this point, I can't see the benefit, other than a fancy title and a piece of paper.

LaurieMarlow Thu 12-Jan-17 11:43:34

My supervision was terrible too. That makes a huge difference to your prospects and your state of mind.

ScottishProf Thu 12-Jan-17 11:50:18

YANBU. Areyoufree's advice is spot on. Since you aren't out of funding yet, it's worth talking to someone about whether there's a better option than simply leaving, but it's important not to fall foul of the Sunk Cost Fallacy! If you have the data, quite likely you could write it up and get the PhD at some future date, and if you couldn't, well, if the PhD were going to be very important to your future you probably wouldn't have hated it, so no matter. One thing I'd suggest you do, after the few days off, is write for yourself a couple of paragraphs about all the things you learned in the course of the PhD study (both technical things and transferable skills type things and "that I am the sort of person who" type things) so that you have a positive narrative about the time. Good luck!

dorothymichaels Thu 12-Jan-17 11:52:21

I have lots of PhD friends - both online (PhD parents Facebook group is fantastic) and in real life and the quality of supervision is what gets discussed over and over again. I think I have very good supervision and have been really well supported through the PhD. As a result I believe I can finish and feel driven to do so. Although i've had my moments when I wonder why I'm putting myself and my family through this. Especially when I think about jobs...

ScottishProf Thu 12-Jan-17 12:12:34

This may be an unpopular view given that PhD students and former students naturally outnumber supervisors here, but I think the "terrible supervision" angle can be overdone. A PhD is done, not taught. The quality of supervision is emergent from the combination of student and supervisor, not something the supervisor determines alone. Looking back at more years than I like to remember of annual meetings discussing the progress of all a department's students, I can see patterns, but not supervisors from whom good or bad supervision always emerged. Doing a PhD is just like adolescence: the student has to grow into independence, and the supervisor can't make that happen. Not saying it's the case for any individual here, because of course I don't know, but often what the student thinks of as "bad supervision" comes from a supervisor putting in just as much thoughtful effort as they did into their student who describes them as great; often the problem is with expectations or abilities of the student. There, now shoot me.

Sniv Thu 12-Jan-17 12:22:06

Just for security, I would not quit the PhD unless you have a firm job lined up to go to. It may be worth applying for these jobs and seeing what happens.

Although you have had a bloody tough three years by the sound of it, if you've now got your data, then you are on track (or would be in my field, three years is the norm for data collection) and this phase of your PhD, the one that has been making you unhappy, is over.

The writing up/submission/viva part is stressful in its own way, but is different to the data collection phase, and might be something you find you can do. If you have the data, it would be worth at least seeing if writing up is feasible - but if you are really unhappy and suffering, there is no need to write it up now unless you are under very strict funding conditions or you anticipate having do do additional work or corrections that would require access to equipment or resources that will become unavailable to you if you pospone.

If there's a decent chunk of time before you absolutely have to submit, I would keep that door open while I took some quality time off (sounds like you deserve some) and then got other work (again, in my field it is perfectly normal to do other work while writing up). Once you're settled in a new job, you may find yourself able to write up your data.

There is also the possibility that if you are unable to complete a full thesis, you may be able to submit your data for another qualification. Check with your uni/research institute.

Good luck flowers

StarlingMurderation Thu 12-Jan-17 12:27:39

My supervision wasn't great and one of the only things that stopped me quitting was the thought I'd have to pay back my finding - I hadn't actually looked into it and later found this wasn't the case (but that was 10 years ago). If you were just a few months or even a couple of years in, I would agree with the PP who mentioned the Sunk Cost Fallacy, but on the other hand, I'm really glad I completed mine now. I don't really use it for work - I left academia to move into a related field and though it might have helped me with my original application, it doesn't help me with my job. But I think I'd really feel like I wasted my 20s if I hadn't actually finished the PhD I wasted spent all that time on.

I'd actually never advise anyone thinking of doing a PhD to do one, especially in an Arts or Humanities field, unless they were 100% sure that they couldn't be happy doing ANYTHING else, and they couldn't imagine a career other than in academia. But once you're so near the finish line, I'd say, try to stick it out.

I second the PPs who've said talk to the admin office for doctoral students. With my university admin's support, I took three months off due to depression, and my funding was suspended during this time. I had to get a temp office job to support myself instead, but the pressure was so different that I found this easy to do (don't know how easy it would be for you to find temp work these days though). It made the difference to tackling my PhD - without these three months off, I think I would have dropped out.

Sniv Thu 12-Jan-17 12:36:02

ScottishProf not sure why you thought a thread where someone is desperately unhappy and struggling and is asking for advice/support was the time or place to make that general point.

lovelearning Thu 12-Jan-17 12:38:13

A PhD is done, not taught.


What is the point of a PhD?

To come up with something new?

Or to simply prove oneself as a researcher?

Oblomova Thu 12-Jan-17 12:39:16

I agree to an extent with ScottishProf, and I say that as someone who had genuinely terrible DPhil supervision by an academic who shortly after had a catastrophic mental breakdown and retired in his 50s. I had the inevitable nervous breakdown myself - which is hardly surprising when my supervisor was continually attacking my work as not good enough, yet wasn't capable of telling me what I needed to do differently - went on anti-depressants, saw counsellors etc etc. So I'm sympathetic, I really am.

But yes, your doctorate is your baby, and you need to take ownership of that. I was determined to finish, so I went through a lot of hassle and embarrassment to change supervisors just after my funding had finished, even though the new one was in fact a poor fit in terms of specialisms,and I was largely on my own, but at least with encouraging feedback.

I suppose it comes down to what you want to do afterwards. Do you need a doctorate for what you want to do professionally or not? Can you submit for a lesser degree, not a doctorate, so there isn't a CV hole of several years ending in no degree? Can you grin and bear it and stick it out a bit longer and write up? How long will that take? Can you suport yourself while doing it? The first thing should be that you need to clarify your situation with your department/supervision team, and get as much information as possible about your options,

Good luck.

AcademicNerd Thu 12-Jan-17 12:45:18

dorothymichaels That Fb group sounds like just the sort of thing I need! What's the exact name of it, I'd quite like to join. Also, your username is excellent.

MargaretCavendish Thu 12-Jan-17 12:46:57

I would agree with all the other advice - talk to people (but be very aware that it will always be in the university's best interest for you to finish, especially since at the moment you would look on track to finish within four years, so you won't necessarily get objective advice on what's best for you); see whether you can take a break; double-check the situation with funding (though I think it would be pretty difficult for them to force you to pay it back, and I've certainly never heard of it happening to anyone). Part of me wants to tell you to stick it out for just a bit longer, but then I think of one of my best friends. He quit at the end of his fourth year (he did have a job to go to, though). He had a (really unrealistic) idea that he might still write up in his spare time: that fell completely by the wayside but it doesn't matter at all: a few years on, he's happy in a job he finds stimulating and challenging but not as emotionally demanding as the PhD. I was shocked when he left his PhD after so long, but almost as soon as he did it was like a massive weight lifted from him. I'm not sure any of us had realised quite how unhappy he had been until he left, including him. He agonised so much over that decision, but if he could go back now I think the only thing he'd change is leaving sooner.

MargaretCavendish Thu 12-Jan-17 12:49:03

Not saying it's the case for any individual here, because of course I don't know, but often what the student thinks of as "bad supervision" comes from a supervisor putting in just as much thoughtful effort as they did into their student who describes them as great; often the problem is with expectations or abilities of the student. There, now shoot me.

I'm not going to shoot you, but I am going to ask you what good you think your post will have done the OP?

Marynary Thu 12-Jan-17 12:53:06

I think that doing a PhD can be incredibly stressful and a lot of supervisors are really awful. Considering that you have come so far though I think it would be a real shame to give up now. I know people who have done this and they do regret if even if they didn't really need it in their future careers. I don't, strictly speaking, need it for my job but the fact that I am "Dr" does seem to impress some people and I think it helps me get work. It perhaps depends on your field though.

Carrados Thu 12-Jan-17 12:57:36

I quit my PhD after 3 years and it was one of the best decisions of my life.

It made me miserable and I pushed and pushed to make it work but I couldn't cope with lack of human interaction and things like short and long term projects, having a line manager and colleagues to work with. I felt so alone and every day felt so empty and desperate. I reached out for help to my supervisors saying I couldn't cope and one really did try but by then I think it was too late because I'd already been quite damaged by the experience.

I remember the day I quit and threw all my papers in the garbage. It was tough. I had been out the job market for 3 years and had little work experience being in my mid twenties at the time.

I applied for an entry level job in my sector that had maybe 20% of what I was interested in, built my skills and experience in that 20% and used it to get to the next level. It took 5 years and 3 jobs at the bottom of the pile to get the job I wanted that was 100% in the field I wanted to work.

Now's the time to take time to work out whether you want a career in academia, whether you want to finish (please please take all of the negative connotations about quitting out of the equation. I really continued longer with it because I was told over and over again that I might as well just finish it or I'll get there or it'll be worth it - I mean wtf is it with academia that it's almost a ritual you have to get through to get in the community!!). Really reach deep down, take all the pressures away and think of you, only you. I wish you all the best and happy to discuss my experiences further.

CrystalQueen Thu 12-Jan-17 12:58:46

Have you exhausted all support options at your uni? It will look bad for your department if you drop out now, so they should be pulling out all the stops to get you to the end. Have you tried your supervisor's line manager? However writing my thesis was the hardest thing I ever did, so if you feel this way now then dropping out may be the best option.

There certainly are bad supervisors - there are several in my department. It may not be obvious to external observers (even within the same department) that students often complete PhDs despite their supervisor, not because of their help. Research groups that are too large to properly manage, projects that are really outwith the supervisor's expertise, not to mention that frankly some people are just arrogant bastards and ignore their students or have favourites - and I work at an institution where PhD progression is closely monitored!

ScottishProf Thu 12-Jan-17 13:03:17

I think the questions to me may be rhetorical, but let me assume not.

I first posted supportively to the OP. By the time of my second post, three people had written things that, directly or obliquely, deliberately or accidentally, might have been read as encouraging the OP to build a narrative in which she would have completed her PhD successfully and continued on an academic path, if only it hadn't been for that wicked supervisor who let her down. I hope she would not have built such a narrative, but if she had done so, I think that might well have been poisonous to her going forward. As I wrote in my first post, I think it's important to build a positive narrative about what one has learned. That's the good I think it will have done the OP; and if it helps other posters too, good.

Besides, I think it's the truth, and as an academic, I naturally think speaking truth matters. For most people a PhD is not the right thing to do, and it is extraordinarily difficult for anyone, including the student, to tell for sure whether it is before you start, so inevitably, people and organisations make mistakes; it's a risk we all have to take, and there's no shame in it. The important thing is to get the most value one can out of what's been done, and go forwards.

Carrados Thu 12-Jan-17 13:04:01

Yes to what MargaretCavendish said. I felt like myself again rather than this shadowy droop of a character!!

I had a fully funded scholarship. I didn't have to pay it back but my quitting led to better supervision guidelines for students (seriously I didn't hear from my supervisors for 9 months if I hadn't pushed) and better provision for mental health at the institution. The institution now offers more structured PhDs, weekly or bi-weekly meetings and a much more structured workload/line management supervision.

dorothymichaels Thu 12-Jan-17 13:05:00

AcademicNerd, glad you like the name. Tootsie is my fav film.

The group is called PhD and early career researcher parents. I actually left fb for a bit yesterday to get writing done so cant introduce you to moderators I'm afraid. If you search and contact admins with a link that proves you are genuine and a bit about yourself they will add you. They are a really supportive lot.

When I first started my supervisor told me, 'the only person that will drive this forward is you.' This is very true, and PhDs are so isolating. I have had the benefit of other clinical and teaching work. This added to stress levels but also gave me human contact and kept me sane.

Definitely take some time. Question your motivations. Remind yourself why you started. If it is still worth you pushing to the finish, seek all the help you can get.

Morphene Thu 12-Jan-17 13:05:01

As a supervisor of PhD students I would like to say the obvious: Nothing is more important than your mental health.

So it just becomes a matter of what is better for your mental health? Is it really the PhD dragging you down, or is something else in your life triggering the depression and the PhD is just something you are happening to be doing at the point your mental health collapsed?

It would be a terrible shame to stop if it isn't actually the cause of your problems.

So my advice is to get to the bottom of why you are depressed first, then make a decision.

If you think it is the PhD making you unhappy, then what about it specifically is making you unhappy? I have seen many MANY students who are unhappy because they think they aren't achieving enough. They are almost all wrong about that!

dorothymichaels Thu 12-Jan-17 13:10:49

I agree that the student supervision relationship is highly important and not a one sided thing. But supervisors who fail to respond to emails, don't look at work, or in some cases leave post without telling the student(!) are not the best!

For balance, the wonderful (if a bit scary) Tara Brabazon.

Carrados Thu 12-Jan-17 13:22:58

I once asked my supervisor for help because I was struggling. He told me to 'be confident'. That was it.

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