Hi everyone! So I'm 3 months into my PhD and I'm already thinking that I want to quit. I could really use some advice. Sorry that this is so long (6 parts!)
First a bit of background about me: I did a four-year integrated Masters degree in science at a very good UK university. I loved it. I graduated with a 1st, I won awards, I was a stellar student. I really enjoyed my Master’s project, I enjoyed manipulating data, I enjoyed writing up my short little dissertation and crafting a story. But I hated thinking about my future. Around this time last year it was coming to the scary job-application figure-out-what-to-do-with-your-life period, and I applied to a few jobs here and there and wasn’t successful. I should add that the job market in my subject area is very boom-or-bust, and it was very much in a downturn – everyone was really struggling. So I started to think – hey, maybe I could do a PhD, I’m bright, I enjoy research, I’m a good writer, I’d like to do a little teaching, why not? So I applied to a few that sounded interesting, I was accepted onto my first choice PhD, everything was great – life sorted for the next four years.
I know not being able to find a job is a terrible reason to apply for a PhD but I was terrified of graduating and having nothing to do, and although I had very good grades I never managed to get any internships or significant work experience, so I thought I had no chance of finding one.
So I’m 3 months into my PhD. Things were going OK, some days were fine, enjoyable even, some days I really didn’t like it. But I powered on. Then came the Christmas break. [1/5]
Christmas was wonderful, I had two weeks off, I spent them with my girlfriend and my family and I loved it. I did no work but that’s okay because nobody else in my year did either apparently. And then I came back, back to work. And since then, I’ve had this unshakeable feeling of sadness and lethargy. So let me list below a few reasons I think I want to quit my PhD:
1. I really miss my girlfriend. We’re in a long-distance relationship – a good few hours away. Since starting, we’d see each other for a weekend once every 3 weeks or so. It was tough but I thought it was doable. Having now spent a whole 2 weeks together, I really really miss her. I also realised that I want to move in together, perhaps even start a family in the not-too-distant future. But we can’t do that while I’m trapped in this other city. I worry that as I go on, I’ll have even less free time, fewer weekends where I’m free, more guilt and anxiety about having a day off and not doing any work, I feel like this will just build.
2. I don’t like the city I’m in, I have no friends here at all. I feel like I could make some decent friendships with people in the office, but there’s not the instant click there was when I was a first-year undergrad. I have no hobbies and I feel like an outsider being a PhD student, like I wouldn’t be welcome even if I did try to join a club/society because they’re filled with undergrads.
3. I feel like I have no direction. I find it difficult to define my project, what questions I want to answer, what kind of data I’d like to collect and how I’ll do that. It has already deviated from the project proposal – which I know is very common. [2/5]
3(cont) But I don’t fully understand many of the things my supervisor says, I think he thinks I know more than I do. It’s very different from my Masters project, it’s not a neat little project with a clear structure. I’m sceptical about much of what my supervisor is suggesting; I don’t want to waste lots of time collecting data for someone to say that my data is meaningless and my method was flawed, the idea terrifies me.
4. My supervisor. He is a very big cheese, he’s very busy and often away for extended periods of time – we currently meet every 3 weeks or so (which apparently is pretty good for him), I can see that becoming much more infrequent. He has lots and lots of ideas which he likes to discuss enthusiastically, but I find it difficult to identify what is worth looking into. He’ll tell me to do things that are very simple to him, but I don’t have the foggiest how to do them. Much of what I’m researching seems to be things he finds interesting but that I don’t think will be particularly applicable to the questions I want to answer.
5. I don’t want a career in academia. I’ve thought this even before beginning, and everything I’ve seen has just confirmed it. I hate the idea of being in a transient state of doing post-docs, moving every 2 years, desperately looking for a positions that are very few-and-far between. I want something stable.
6. Part of what attracted me to this specific project was the strong industry links (not industry funded I should add), I thought it would make me a shoe-in for a job in this industry when it’s back in a boom. I’ve since realised, for reasons I won’t divulge, that I don’t want to go into this industry. [3/5]
7. I’m finding everything difficult. Even the reading and doing a literature review – there seems to be an endless archive of papers that may or may not be relevant and it’s difficult to tell which ones are worth reading, I don’t fully understand lots of them, I feel like I forget everything as soon as I’ve read it. I have no idea how to, on top of this, keep up with new papers being released. Although this project is largely in the same area as my Masters project, it is also very different especially in regards to the techniques used and the background knowledge required (much of which wasn’t taught at my undergraduate university).
8. I don’t like the lack of structure. I find myself getting in later every morning. I procrastinate a lot. With no real deadlines as such, I find it hard to motivate myself to work hard. I know there are techniques to help with things like procrastination but with no real goal in mind I subconsciously feel like I don’t work hard because I don’t actually know what I’m doing.
9. I can tell things are going to get more difficult. Long days in the lab, working late/weekends, more responsibilities, everyone keeps warning me about it. Maybe I’ll keep up, maybe I’ll start to understand things a bit more, but regardless, all I hear is that things get harder.
10. If I’m going to quit I might as well do it before I’m in too deep. There’s less to lose, a smaller gap in my CV. If I’m this disheartened I might not even pass my yearly monitoring – it’s better to quit than to fail right?
Despite all of these reasons I’ve listed above, there’s one big thing holding me back. I’m terrified of quitting. I’m terrified of being unemployed, desperately applying for jobs, with no money because my living allowance has been cut. [4/5]
What would I write on my CV – would I even mention the PhD at all? If not, how do I explain the gap? I’m terrified of being asked why I had quit my PhD in a job interview. I could sneakily apply to jobs before I make it known that I wish to quit therefore keeping my funding, but I feel like that would be even harder to explain. Would my supervisor be angry at me? I’m guessing it would put him out of the question as a job reference. Who would employ me anyway? All of my professional experience is essentially research focussed, I have no real work experience. I don’t want to end up working in retail for the rest of my life, not after all the time and money invested in studying. Not to mention that if I do quit now I’ve already missed the yearly graduate recruitment window – I’d probably have to wait until autumn 2017 – that’s a 2 year gap in my CV compared to if I’d have landed a job as an undergraduate.
I don’t even know which sector I’d want to work in – I don’t feel I have enough specific skills to work in my field of study unless I were to go into the industry that I’ve already decided I don’t want to work in. I do honestly find science interesting, perhaps I could go into science communication, or work for the government on science policy – but how could I justify my passion for science if I drop out of a PhD that many people would kill to get?
It sounds silly but I kind of wish I’d never have applied for a PhD in the first place and that I’d kept applying for jobs – but now I’m doing one, I feel trapped! So there’s my dilemma. If anyone has any advice or thoughts please do let me know what you think. I’m sorry that this has turned out so long! Thanks [5/5]
Hi batangkilljoy... It sounds like you want to quit more than you want to continue? I would quit then if I were you. I don't think you would have to worry about explaining why you changed your mind about doing a PhD. Plenty of people change their mind, and the earlier on is probably the better.
About your reasons 2, 3, 7 & 8 (and maybe even 1 - after all, it isn't THAT long distance). If these are genuine reasons for wanting to quit (rather than just justifying/adding to the argument to quit), I can tell you that those things do get easier (they did for me at least). There is a massive learning curve / getting settled curve in starting the PhD. I'm now in the middle of my second year, and things have got easier in that sense not harder. The challenges are different now - they tend to be more methodological and more enjoyable.
But it all boils down to what you actually want! Do you want the PhD or not? Don't be scared of/worried about quitting if it isn't what you want. Less time wasted is better. But equally, rise to challenge and get determined about things if the PhD is what you want.
Hope this is a tiny bit helpful.
You sound like you are having doubts about your ability to do the PhD. Everyone I know who has done one / is doing one has these. Embrace the mess and confusion - that is how you become an independent thinker. A neat little project is not a PhD, and sounds like you would just be following someone else's thinking. The first year of a PhD is about finding out, exploring and trying things out. If your supervisor is not happy with what you produce, they will tell you. Although I did mine part-time over six years, I was lucky if I saw my supervisor two or three times a year. At the same time, you will soon find out what is relevant and what is not. I went into my topic way too deeply at the start and stressed whether I had managed to find every single piece of literature related to it. You need to find literature that will inform what you do, rather than the 'scattergun' approach that I did. It is easy in hindsight to say that now. I just think if you have invested this much emotional time in a PhD, there will be regrets about quitting.
It seems that you have a zillion reasons to quit and the only reason to stay is the fear of what comes next (or doesn't come next). Write in your CV that you started the PhD and realized that it is not for you. When you are just 3 months in this is very plausible and unlikely related to inadequacy or failure. Recruiters are just humans and can relate to something like that ;) However, if you wait and quit after 2 years, you will be probably asked why it took you so long to come to that conclusion. A friend of mine I went to the PhD interviews with quit her PhD this summer after 6 months. Sure, her boss wasn't happy about it, but there was no bad blood afterwards. Another PhD student in my department quit after a year and his boss was a non-tenure-track assistant professor at an early career stage, where losing one of your two PhD students after a year is really a throwback that costs a lot of time (new recruitment process, training of the new student and so on). There was also no bad blood in that case...even a farewell party! I would not be too worried about that. Things like that happen. Most bosses are professional enough to know that.
Think about what you really want (in career AND private life) and find the best compromise to achieve something that makes you happy. No need to suffer through 4 years of PhD only to avoid job search ;) Good luck!
Sounds like you're a bit home sick to me. Personally, I would give it a few more months, make a concerted effort though with the work and friendships, but do this whilst applying for jobs. The feelings may pass, plus you don't have many other options at the moment.
So I just wanted to share my thoughts on this as a PhD survivor.
1. I had doubts about whether I was fit to do a PhD from day1 to about 4 months before submission! I promise you I doubted myself probably every other day. Procrastination, guilt avoiding work all common.
2. I got married about 3 months into my PhD (which I was doing in the UK) and my husband was living in the US. So I know how hard it is to be in a long distance relationship over a stretch of time (4years). Both of us being students We couldn't really afford to visit each other more than once a year which made the PhD journey very lonely at times. We just about about managed with Skype.
3. I know everyone tells you it will only get harder and that you will reach a point where you will get so busy you forget to eat but the truth of the matter is that if you can function under pressure, it's never too late and you will get it done. I ended up writing up my massive thesis in 5months. I don't recommend that you do what I did but I just wanted you to know that it is doable (this is coming from a person that does not speak English as a mother tongue, my British friend on the other hand does and managed to write hers in 3months)
4. I think you should give yourself a couple of more months before you make your final decision. In these two months try to write a draft chapter/proposal/ plan for your lit review anything. It doesn't have to be perfect but it is a start and send it to your supervisor to discuss with you. It might just be the one thing that will motivate to hang in there and keep going.
5. If you do decide to quit, I think that it is very important that you know many of people do so. Don't be to hard on yourself.
It is 1000% normal to have no real direction in year one - also 1000% normal to find the thumb-twiddling aspect of early PhD-dom annoying as all hell. I think the folly is assuming PhDs are similar to undergraduate degrees, where everything is laid out and you just simply have to tick boxes X, Y, and Z to pass. I've definitely felt frustrated because things were moving at a snails pace and I had nothing to show for my time - but, again, that's normal. It's more about building a solid foundation for research than doing actual research.
...which leads onto my next point. It's also normal to not 100% understand everything in your field yet! As far as I'm aware, nobody really expects a first year to have a full handle on everything. When your supervisor asks you to do something you don't understand, have you tried asking for clarification? I get nobody likes asking for help, but any supervisor worth their salt would rather have a student who admits when they are struggling than one who suffers in silence. At the very least, I think you owe it to yourself to proactively address the issue of not understanding stuff before quitting.
I don't know if this helps, but my technique with papers is to skim read and then ask myself how the paper fits into what I'm currently doing. Honestly, 95% of the time, the answer is a big fat "I have no idea" and I move on, making a mental note the paper exists, but also not worrying about understanding it in depth - and that's not a bad thing, because then I'm focusing my efforts on absorbing the 5% of papers which are relevant. Again, literature searching is a skill you will develop with practice, and when your research does take shape, you will have a far, far better feel for which papers are worth focusing on.
That said, if you really are unhappy, no shame in quitting.
You've laid out a lot of reasons why you don't want to be there, and I can't see anything there that is positive. You are also totally right that you are early enough in it is fine.
However I would give some serious thought to your next step first, and even then start applying for it (presumably a job?) whilst you have funding and don't have to worry about rent etc (assuming you have funding).
At the very least sit down with a piece of paper divided in two, and think about what happens with quit and not quit, and see which side you are happier with. It doesn't sound like your heard is in the PhD however, and it is a long and hard process, so if you are not sure now, how will you be 3 years in when it is very tough and the initial excitement is long gone?
It also isn't a failing to quit something - you are opening yourself up to new opportunities, and saying yes to them
Highly relevant is the feakonomics link. Anyway good luck, and let us know what yu do!
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