Giving up hope


Dear All,
I'm a 2nd yr Humanities PhD student in the UK, and I'm giving up all hope of actually doing this. My topic has changes so many times and now I'm at a complete loss. I don't know what I'm doing and I don't have a topic. I'm more than a year in and have nothing to show for, apart from scrappy bits of writing on different things. I'm so stressed out I can't even think straight let alone come with great ideas for something to research. So now I'm thinking about packing it all in, because I can't see a way out of this. I was wondering if anyone else has been in this situation? If so did you stick with it? Or did you realise that you weren't cut out for it?


have you spoken to your supervisor about how you are feeling about it all? It sounds like you need some support at the moment.


I have been there yes. I stuck with it and am still struggling (I'm in my write up year) but I'm fairly confident I will at least finish this.

Have you considered going part time? At one point that was recommended to me as I was working at such a slow pace. Or you could request a break, how long could be discussed between you and your supervisor, to have a think about whether this is what you really want to do.

Try not to think about it in terms of whether you are cut out for it or not. The fact you have reached PhD level, and have passed the first year, shows that you are intelligent, diligent, and determined. Unfortunately life, timing, clash with supervisors, can get in the way of things. If you decide not to continue now does not mean you cannot go back at some time in the future.

As the above poster said, you really need to talk to your supervisor. If they are not being supportive then go to your second supervisor, you should have been given one. If not, contact your department's admin and ask them who you can turn to for academic advice. Most of all, don't keep this all to yourself. Speak to people, you've done nothing wrong and have nothing to be ashamed of. xxx


My supervisor has been very supportive, and they have told me not to go back to them until I have some great ideas. This is why I'm so stressed out about it all, and I feel like I'm letting them down, because I can't think of anything. My original topic, which I got accepted to do a PhD, had book published on it the month I started the PhD. Since then I've been trying different topics on the suggestion of my supervisor, and I either run into to problems or get steered away by my supervisor because they can foresee problems. I don't want to give up, but I think it's reached the stage where I will have to.


Agree with both the previous posters. I frequently feel like this and I wonder if I'm good enough to do it, but a couple of things have helped. For one, as both the previous posters have stated, you need to talk to someone, ideally your supervisor. It may well also help if you have a break now for a couple of weeks then come back to it in the new year and see how you feel then. Do you have aims and objectives for your research? What was it that you initially wanted to study? What kind of research have you been doing?

Don't worry if the picture looks different from the idea that you initially started out with - it is very common to start a PhD with the intention to study x, then end with a study on y instead. My research has changed numerous times, even since carrying out my fieldwork, but this is normal! As you become more experienced, your focus will change.

At the end of my first year (feel free to look up my old posts!) I seriously wanted to quit. I was stressed, fed up, and looking for jobs. I took a break from my studies then came back to it with a fresh pair of eyes and now I am determined to finish this thing, if only for the participants who have taken part in my study! But you can do it, they wouldn't have accepted you if you weren't capable! Talk to someone at uni, have a break over Christmas and see how you feel in the new year. And keep coming back here! I can't say enough for the lovely folk on this forum, it always helps to know there are people in the same boat as you, as a PhD can be incredibly isolating.


Sorry, we were posting at the same time! Is there no way you can skew a new angle on what you were originally looking at? I know it's frustrating (to say the least) but I think it is getting harder and harder to have a completely original piece of work these days, you have to try and make it original through your methods or your approach or something else like that. Don't give up, it sounds like your sup is really supportive, go back and tell them you're struggling and see what they say. I've ranted and raved at mine and she always comes back with something helpful!


I think the 'I'm not good enough' feelings happen to most of us so you're not alone there. It can be frustrating to find a topic when the one you planned on is no longer available. But it is through a lot of reading, thinking and discussions with others that we find gaps in the literature.

It sounds like you've been coming up with lots of ideas but none of these have flourished into suitable topics. Maybe you could go back to the sup and have a healthy discussion about ideas and/or ask for them to share some views on the area? Maybe this will help you to think through other possibilities?

Good luck!

Avatar for Batfink27

I agree with Skig about the feelings of not being good enough - I'd be surprised if there were any PhD students out there who hadn't felt that at some point. So, relax about that - the problem here is not that you're not capable of this.

It does sound like you're getting very stressed, which is understandable, but of course it does lead to a vicious circle where the stress constricts thinking and then results in more stress. I think it may be time to step away for a short break and clear your mind a little - and this is a good time of year for that. Take a two week Christmas break, and don't think about the work at all. The distance you can get from such a break really can be invaluable, both for working out what you personally want to do, and also for seeing your research with fresh eyes.

Are there any mini conferences or seminars in your area that you can sign up to in January or February? I've often found that listening to people's talking about their own research helps to fire up my enthusiasm for my own, and also helps me to see links and new angles on the topics that interest me that could lead to new research topics. Or there may be people you meet who spark off new ideas. I think having an open discussion with your supervisors might also be very useful - maybe a kind of brainstorming session with a big sheet of paper, to see if something emerges that way? There are lots of things like that which might be helpful.

Good luck with it - but the main thing is, try to relax. If you can relax, that will help you to make decisions about what you want to do, and also will help with thinking about the research when you come back with a fresh mind.


Thank you for the supportive comments. I'm going to try to calm down and relax over Christmas, and then maybe I can will be able to think straight. Hopefully then I will be more productive so when I see my supervisor after the holidays I can actually have some ideas.


Really sorry to hear you're feeling like this, Louise, but as the other posters have all said - everyone feels this way. I'm a 1st year student, 7.5 months in and I have been feeling lost, scrabbling around from one topic to another and feeling like I'm going sideways a lot and never forwards!! And of course, the stress makes everything so much worse because its much harder to come up with ideas when you are under pressure (unless you're one of those lucky people who thrive on it!).

I have been really worried about my progress, right up until the last couple of weeks when two things happened which made me reflect a bit more on the whole thing. Firstly, I attended a really great personal and professinal development course designed for first year PhD students. One of the things we talked about was expectations, and feeling like we didn't know what we were doing. The ladies running the course had both done PhDs themselves, and they really got us talking honestly about how we felt and our fears and anxieties. When you're in an office full of busy people, you often feel like you must be the only one who doesn't feel confident in what they're doing. At this course, it was amazing to find that literally everyone in the room felt exactly the same - confused, lacking in self-confidence, that they had some how snuck in under the radar and actually weren't intelligent enough to be there. The ladies running explained that this was so completely normal. It is really important to remember that a PhD is in essence training for research. Yes, you are expected to produce some research while doing it, but you are also supposed to learn and make mistakes along the way.

Two of the main things people worried about were that they didn't know what they were doing, and that they weren't making progress. The Drs said that it was rare for anyone to completely have nailed down their research questions until around 18 months. People often make a lot of progress without thinking they are, and aims and goals are changed to fit in with the kind of things the data is showing. With regards to progress and supervisor expectations they said that it is often a problem that supervisors kind of bury their heads in the sand, and won't say if they think a candidate is struggling. Well, that has to be stopped because they are supposed to be training you! They gave us a list of really good, blunt questions to ask our supervisor. Things like 'What milestones should I be reaching in 1, 3, 6, etc months?', 'Do you think this topic is appropriate for a PhD?', 'Am I on track for the 1st year transition?'. If the answer is not favourable, ask them why. They are there to help you reach those goals, but often they won't offer advice until asked for it. Remember your supervisors have done PhDs too. You may find that they have felt the exact same way at some point.

The other thing that made me think was that I got an e-mail from my supervisor wishing me a happy Christmas and saying that I'd made great progress so far. I was really stunned by this as we (perhaps not wisely) had not talked about my progress, and I had been really really certain that I was making no progress, behind, slow, stupid in my ideas for research, etc. I too had been feeling like I was giving my supervisor a bunch of ideas at every meeting and that none of them were good enough. What I had forgotten was one of the first things my supervisor said to me, 'I am here to support you, but also to challenge you.'. I had also forgotten that I wanted to be academically challenged. I think even at an undergrad level you get used to seeing good feedback on your work and pretty high marks which let you know you are doing fine. As a PhD student, your supervisor won't tell you 'Hey, well done, that's a great thought!'; they will think of something you haven't thought of and challe


Quote From Rhienne1:

They gave us a list of really good, blunt questions to ask our supervisor. Things like 'What milestones should I be reaching in 1, 3, 6, etc months?', 'Do you think this topic is appropriate for a PhD?', 'Am I on track for the 1st year transition?'. If the answer is not favourable, ask them why. They are there to help you reach those goals, but often they won't offer advice until asked for it.
Thanks for sharing the questions (and great post overall
:-)), I am definitely going to start asking more questions. That was very nice of your supervisor to send you a Christmas email (with the added present of some piece of mind regarding your progress).

Louise, just to add to what everyone else is saying, unfortunately it is a slow and painful process. If only we could view our achievements linearly, but unfortunately we don't realise quite how much progress IS being made until long after it has happened. Keep on fighting. (up)


Hi Not got much else to add in addition to what
the others have said really, but just want to add I really have (and still do)
feel the same. I have had a leave of absence and changed from full time to part
time during my PhD. PhDs are hard! and like you my original proposal was
scrapped and I spent at least the first year with no real topic (once I fixed on
a topic things did become better and I realised what I thought had become a
complete waste some of it was useful). In reality I will complete much
later than some of my colleagues but I will the end the decision
is yours, but just be kind to yourself whatever the outcome...