new, confused and alone = the PhD experience?


======= Date Modified 10 20 2009 03:20:55 =======
Hello Everyone

I dont know if you can give me advise, but I thought it would feel nice to write it down.
I have just started my PhD (5 weeks into it), and suddenly I find myself with no motivation, no life, nothing.

Five weeks ago , I packed my suitcases and travelled to the other side of the world , got of the plane and started my new life. Little did I know about what to expect.

I am expected to read and write in the first 4 months, till I hand in my proposal, but it feels like Im just walking in the dark. Im expected to do minimum 10 hours of this per day, and I am working on the side (only part time though).

I do not know anyone (its a new country), and there is noone in my department (to be precise, in the whole uni) - except my supervisor- who is in my field. Even worse, everyone considers me outragously young (I am a good 15-20 years younger than the average phd student in my department) and they treat me like a baby. I have no social support, my family, friends and partner are 20 000 kms away.

I havent given up getting another scholarship (only my tuition fees are paid now), but Im struggling socially, financially and emotionally. At least the academic part has been all right till now, but now my brain seems to refuse any further cooperation.

Im scared. Did I make the right decision? Is it normal to lose motivation just a few weeks into my phd? Did any of you felt like this at the beginning? A few weeks ago I thought Im gonna change the world and here I am all day sitting with my book and trying not to cry.

Ok. It did make me feel better. Hope you can give me some advice. Now back to my books.



Hi there,

I wanted to respond to this because it was like reading something I would have written 20 months ago. I am from the UK and moved to NZ to do my PhD knowing not a single soul in the country before I left. I remember feeling a lot of what you are describing.

“I packed my suitcases and travelled to the other side of the world , got of the plane and started my new life. Little did I know about what to expect. I am expected to read and write in the first 4 months, till I hand in my proposal, but it feels like Im just walking in the dark”

I went through this too. My only advice is just get your head down and jump through the hoops as soon as you can. I arrived in mid November and had my proposal finalised by mid February. At the time it was frustrating (I cried a few times) but by the time I submitted the final version I was really well placed to start my PhD. Try to make the most of this time if you can. Although I can remember feeling very distracted, with other pressing tasks like making friends other than the much older students in the department. I can relate to feeling like ‘the baby’.

That leads me to my second tip – do whatever you can to make friends outside of school. I tried, and tried, and tried to make friends with the others in my department, organising drinks etc on Friday nights and so on. Every time only about 3 would turn up and it was always he same people. Now I realise I was wasting my time because the majority are work obsessed or have family commitments. It is great to have a lot of friends outside anyway in the ‘real’ world, that way you don’t end up living and breathing PhD every moment. Join a club even if you are not that into what the club is about. You will still meet people and they will have social stuff going on. Do whatever you can to have as many good, supportive people around you as possible.
“Im expected to do minimum 10 hours of this per day, and I am working on the side (only part time though)”

Who told you this? In my Uni to be considered full time we have to working a minimum of 30 hours per week. I also work part time and volunteer too. Realistically I only work about 25 hours a week on my PhD taking into account procrastination time and I am still reasonably on track (just). You really don’t need to be working 10 hours per day, whoever said that is silly and needs a reality check.

“A few weeks ago I thought Im gonna change the world and here I am all day sitting with my book and trying not to cry”

Haha – sorry to laugh but that was totally me when I arrived. Don’t worry; you really need to give it some time. I was the same. It will take you a few months to settle so just try not to worry too much and focus as much as you can. It’s super stressful moving away so far to do a PhD but it is a huge achievement too, and even though you won’t change the world entirely, hold on to that.

“I havent given up getting another scholarship (only my tuition fees are paid now), but Im struggling socially, financially and emotionally”

I was in a similar situation although I do get a small stipend on top of my fees. I was not successful in winning a bigger scholarship as I had hoped but I have managed to get good part time jobs as the time has gone on and it has actually been ok. That said do not give up on getting more funding. Apply for every little bit of funding you are eligible for. I still apply for stuff and I am half way through. I have picked up little grants along the way that don’t sound like much but have been a major help.

I know it is hard but try to let go of what you have left behind and settle into life where you are. I can know how hard it is but just remember what an amazing opportunity this is, especially so young. If you still aren’t happy at all 6 months to a year down the track then maybe it’s not for you, but I think it’s still way to early days now. Good luck and I hope things improve for you soon.


It will get better! Don't give up - and don't cry!

It sounds like you've taken on a lot, and moving is always horrible, you know, one of the most stressful things in life, up there with divorce and public speaking. You will meet people. Work on your thesis on campus, talk to other students, go to seminars, even if they're not in your field. Check out your new city - I love finding out about new cities! Join some groups, take up a sport - put yourself out there! Take action, even making that first phone call to organise something new will make you feel better. And plan a trip home, put it in your diary, and work towards that.

You'll feel better once you get your proposal written, and hopefully, will be consumed with desire to get into it! And don't worry about working 10 hours a day (uni admin and supervisors all say we're supposed to do that much!). Work as much as you feel you can - it comes in waves. Some weeks I spend less time on my thesis and it doesn't go well, then other weeks it flows and I'm happy to do 10 hours a day. Don't put too much pressure on yourself.

Use this forum too. It's nice to think that all over the world, at any time of the day or night, there are PhD students similarly sitting alone, working. It's a hard life but does have the occasional bright spots.

Good luck!


======= Date Modified 10 Jul 2009 09:48:37 =======
Hi there,

Wont bore the others who have read my story many times, but yup, I joined my phD last year at 23, I gave up fully funded places/fellowships, have the best funding I could have been given, and still work part time to pay tuition (partly), and living. Am international so imagine the costs! Yes, i'm depressed half the time thinking of money :-(

Am the youngest in my dept (but that makes no diff, it's just fine), am also a rather solitary person (so dont really mind the rather unsocial life of PhDs), but am considering a hobby club (an ambition for a long time).

As far as your PhD goes, try working part time on a project or something. Something collaborative...something that's gonna get in some cash, go in your CV (i.e. not serving coffee) and that will introduce you to scholars/researchers from the field.

For your thesis, the first yr is meant to feel like that, with every piece of writing you are struggling to finally *get it*, the what, why and how of it all. That shan't happen of course, but keep writing. it all builds up!

PS: While you're reading the book (and crying!) don't forget to make a note of what you're reading. Do that with Endnote, realy helps to keep an eye on references when you need them.

And SMILE, it's going to get better :-)


I'll try and balance things.. I say keep at it for a while but if you're really not enjoying it - and make 100% sure you're not making the wrong decision, then I'd think about leaving and looking at what else there is. I was fine for the first half a year of my doctorate but the following year was a nightmare and I left. So, so, so much happier now - definitely the right decision for me. Do you want to go into academia? What are your motivations? Money? Acclaim? For me, the money aspect didn't make sense - my friends who left school at 18 get more than research fellows, and acclaim... it's so narrow-focused usually, the average Joe wont care. I found you can never really switch off with research and I didn't want that the rest of my life. I reckon you really, really have to have an absolute love for your subject - and if you do, then good luck :) It's amazing the number of questions online you get with regards to PhD and how the answers are always 'stay on, try this' - it's good to be positive, but I'd like to see a more balanced argument for those of us it really isn't cut out for. The negatives obviously aren't shouted from the rooftops by the institutions themselves as they want to boost their figures. There are a few choice articles out there, though.
Anyway, my point was - you only live once - there's no shame in looking at other avenues to maxmise your enjoyment of life - the economics of your life.. think about it :)
Must be hard with your partner 20 000kms away!! Hope that still works out for you :)


Dramagirl, I shan't contradict anybody's opinions, but all I shall say is that the starting bit of anything is difficult (especially if you have uprooted yourself socially, culturally, emotionally, financially). Teething problems, however severe, may not be the best indication of long term issues.

Anyway, I hardly think yours was a should I quit/should I stay question, and I would be unwilling to take this into that area. You are having teething troubles, you are feeling rightfully flustered, you cannot be expected to enjoy and smile from ear to ear at the first four months of something that is so new in so many not-so-nice ways.

Yours is a post that most of us could have written (will have written) at some point of time in their early days. As I said, I'm not going to take this into the quitting/not quitting area for this hardly looks like a post suited for that!


I dropped out of my PhD after 18 months. It is far too soon for you to be pondering whether to quit. You have just gone through a massive culture shock - I'd be very surprised if it hadn't hit you in some way. Give your project and your new environment time to settle before you start querying your future there. If you make any drastic decisions at this stage you may well look back on them with regret.

I would echo those who say 'get out there and meet people away from uni'. I think it's the most healthy thing for PhD students wherever they are to have stuff going on outside their academic department, be it hobbies, sports, family commitments, voluntary work or whatever. Even the most successful PhD will have dark days when you just need to escape into the 'real world' for a bit.

You've actually got a fabulous opportunity here to try new things and reinvent yourself if you so desire. Perhaps you are someone who thought 'I've always wanted to try flamenco/macrame/dry stone walling/learning the bassoon but I'm worried about what other people would think of me'. Here is your chance to try something entirely new without worrying about how it might change people's perceptions of you. You can be whoever you want to be. Perhaps try to come up with 2 extracurricular activities - one that you can pursue on your own for relaxation (e.g. knitting, art, creative writing, going to the gym) and one that gets you meeting people (an evening class, a sports club, a book group etc)

Keep going - I'm sure it will get easier over time.


Speaking of flamenco...I joined it just at the start of this year and loved it!
I totally know how you're feeling dramagirl, I've had all the same feelings although in a slightly different sense...I'm doing my PhD in the same uni as I did my undergrad, but when we finished our first degree, all my mates left the city the uni was in and went home, or went travelling or to another place to do masters etc. Although I stayed in the same city that I had been in for 5 years, I was totally alone in it and knew hardly anyone! It was like a total culture shock, I may as well have been on the other side of the world. My partner was also working away at the time so I only got to see him once a month if even that. After freaking out and teetering on the edge of depression for a while (I had some major problems and questions about the project too...) I decided the only way to get through it was to get out there and do stuff. I joined various classes and while I didn't immediatly make friends with everyone in them, it was good for my mind to get out and do something and enjoy myself for the hour or two that I was free. Over time I got to know people in my office and in other labs and now I've built up a pretty good network of friends here and I'm actually really enjoying myself!
The real eye-opener was when I met up with some family and friends who I'd not seen for a while and discovered that doing the PhD has really changed me as a person - I have a much wider circle of experience then many people I've grown up and spent 20-odd years of my life with, I've had some tough challenges both personally and academically, and although they can't relate to them exactly and can't understand what I've been through, realising that the past 2 years has affected me so much and in such a positive way has been great!
So I know that everyone handles situations differently, and only you can ever know how you really feel about things. But I will say think positive, don't be afraid to take a back seat and let friends come to you, get to be comfortable in your own company and you'll treasure the huge learning curve you've just started on :)

Good luck!(up)


You have so much on your plate right now, so many changes, so many challenges its hardly surprising you're feeling out of it. It will get better, those first few weeks are murder anyway, I'm still kind of trying to find my way and i'm nearly a year in now, I remember quite clearly only a few weeks in sitting and crying and thinking what the hell have I done and I had nowhere near as many changes to cope with as you do.

Don't worry about age, age is immaterial, but the others are right, make sure you try to build yourself a life off campus too - and what are those working hours about??? That is crazy, utter madness actually - you simply cannot read for 10 hours a day every day and take it in - I'm f/t and work about 30-40 hours a week - some weeks, sometimes more if I have a deadline, sometimes less. You don't say which country you are in now, but remember that the Phd is only a part of your life, not all of it (although we'll all agree it feels like that lol) - you must ensure that you build a whole life and make the very most of the wonderful opportunity you have now.

It will all work out in the long run and you'll look back on these early days and smile and realise how much you have changed and how much you have grown

Take care, and remember its good to cry, it lets out so much frustration and pent up emotion, don't worry about the crying bit, just make sure you pick yourself back up, brush yourself down and go and do this that you've worked so hard to achieve xxx


I would suggest that, without a support network, you are going to find the going difficult.
Can I recommend that you make sure that you keep a life.
You are only 5 weeks in, try not to be too hard on yourself.
Make sure that you keep some time for yourself -and build a network of friends.
Is there a post-grad support group at your uni ?
Are there any sports & solial groups you can join.
Get a web-cam so you can talk to your mates face-to-face on Skype.
Check out the university chaplain.
Even if you are not religious, they are a good shoulder to cry on.

Just suggestions that might help


Hi there I donot know who you are,few of things which i want to share with you are my two experience in this countrty. You are indeed very lucky to have phd opportunity. First of all make your mind what u want to do in your future would this phd be helpful to or want keep a degree in cuboard. It is hard to achieve phd degree without working thing is that there is nothing difficult in this world you can achieve every thing but you have focus on your goals in life. Nothing gone change by crying, it will result only hard to achieve your goal. In my point of view If you work seriously there is nothing difficult. It is life time opportunity please donot let this opportunity go from your hand ask for Help From GOD. God is always there to help his people. You could not imagine the happiness on your parents face when you will get phd degree at such young age they would be proud of you.
Take care donot leave hope.


Hi Dramagirl,

A while back I felt like quitting and actually posted online here for support. It does feel good to write about your fears and frustrations. I haven't left my support network, this time, but I have for previous degrees and can empathize with you. It will get better. Many of us cry and get scared. Heck, I've cried, gotten scared, and vented almost every term since I started my bloody PhD. It will get better.