On verge of quitting my PhD - I just don't know what to do


Hi, I'm in need of some advice.

I'm on the verge of quitting my PhD. I started about 6 months ago and I'm at a point where I feel I can't go on anymore. I decided to do a PhD because I love research - really really love research, from designing to analysing and this love came from doing my UG and Masters dissertations (and my fab sup), plus a small RA post I held a couple of years ago. On this basis I felt the PhD would be perfect - a chance to spend three years doing my own research and although I was a scared about what I was embarking on I decided to apply and was shocked when I was accepted.

However since starting my PhD I have felt the worst I have ever felt for many reasons. I decided to do my PhD at the same institution that I did my previous degrees but on a completely different research area in a different department which I knew nothing about. I knew it would be a challenge but I thought the research area would be really interesting. However I have come to doubt this decison since I started.

From the moment I started my PhD I have felt unsupported by my DoS. My first meeting with them last a few mins and I have only seen her a few times over the past 6 months, each for no longer than an hour. She has shown no interest in my PhD and doesn't seem to care about it or me. She 2nd supervises other PhD students in the department and from what they tell me they get along fine with her and she's a good supervisor which has led me to continually question over the past 6 months what's wrong with me. I just feel like I can't talk to her about anything and if I email her she never replies. Part of me knows she's busy but part of me wonders whether the problem is just me and whether she really wanted to take me on as a student at all.

So over the past six months I have felt all alone and to be honest I have chosen to hide and get on with things by myself. Due to this being a new research area it was really hard to know where to start and despite doing lots of reading I still feel like I know nothing - which is reinforced when I have actually seen by my DoS who fires loads of questions at me which I don't know. To top it off she's leaving for a year or so and I have just had my last meeting with her which went really bad. She tore apart everything I had done, questioned my rationale and my knowledge and whether my proposed plan really is enough for a PhD at all. My stand in DoS was also present and I felt like a fool - an imposter. It finished with me needing to submit a new plan by next week and my DoS stating that her and my stand it where going to discuss what they were going to do with me.

I just feel like I've failed and wasted my last 6 months. I feel I don't know anything and go to pieces when anyone starts asking me questions about my knowledge. I just can't see how I can go on and feel my only option is quitting. However I don't want to let my family down and I'm worried that I can't pay back my funding - I'm in such a mess

Avatar for sneaks

Firstly, well done for getting onto the PhD.

Secondly, you sound like every other PhD student in their first 6 months. I know this is EXACTLY how I felt! My sup was NEVER there. From what I've noticed though in my department, supervisors tend to ignore their supervisees until there is some tangible outputs. I'm in my 3rd year and getting together a publication and this is the first time where sup has shown any real interest. She is now excited by what I'm doing. So I think that maybe you need to go back to your sups and ask for a bullet point plan of what tangible outputs they want to see in the next few months e.g. lit review? data collection etc etc.

In terms of the plan you are doing, its always good to take a step back, try explaining it to someone who has no knowledge of the area. this might help you understand what the key issues are, what needs expanding and what doesn't. To see what kinds of things make a good PhD and the kind of detail and quanitity of work you need for a PhD have a search on ethos.bl.uk - its a database full of peoples theses, so you should be able to find ones relevant to your topic. this can really help you understand what you are aiming for at the end of the 3 years. I know this was one major factor in my first 2 years - I was never made aware of what the final thing should actually look like!

Of course there are always people on this forum who can help you out. IMO I think you should persist - it sounds like you love research, you've just hit a sticky patch.

Avatar for Batfink27

Hi Missscully

I just want to echo what Sneaks said really. It sounds like you've hit a difficult patch and I can see why it would be a hard position to find yourself in, but I think it's worth hanging in there, at least for a little while so you can see how things pan out when you shift over to this other supevisor. It may be that the new supervisor will give you a new start and a bit of input from fresh eyes will help.

The feeling of not knowing enough seems to affect everyone - I know I feel it, I'm only eight months in myself and I'm constantly worried that there's a whole load of literature out there that I haven't found, or a whole field of research, or some really obvious point that I'm just completely missing. I'm lucky with my supervisors, they're very hands-on and interested and meet me regularly, so I can only imagine that these feelings of self-doubt must be even worse if you don't have so much input from your supervisor.

I also think you shouldn't worry about letting people down. If starting this PhD genuinely was a mistake then people will undertsand if you decide to quit. But it does sound like you have the interest and motivation to do a PhD so even if you do eventually decide that this project was wrong for you, I hope you don't give up on the idea of a PhD altogether. But overall, I do think you should persevere for a while, try to get a little more guidance about what they'd like you to produce, have a chat with this new supervisor and see if that helps to clarify where you need to go with your research. But you're still at a really early stage, there's loads of time, and everyone feels the doubts you're feeling to some extent at some time or another, so really don't be too hard on yourself!

Good luck!


Hi Misscully

Don't be too hard on yourself!! It sounds like you've done your best in difficult circumstances. I don't think your supervisor sounds like she's a good sup at all - she sounds like a horror to me, and I think it's good she's going overseas and you'll get someone else. Start fresh with a new supervisor - maybe try and establish some guidelines and expectations for you both eg how often you'll meet, for how long, how often you'd be expected to hand in work etc. Don't do the thesis by yourself - a PhD only gets harder and harder, and you need good supervision to get thru - so don't hide, but meet with your new sup, develop a work plan, and don't be afraid to ask for help.

Don't quit! If you love research, don't quit! But is there any way you could change your topic to one you know a bit more about? And we all feel like imposters - it goes with the territory.  But seek more feedback, more help, and hopefully your next sup will be better. Good luck! And use this forum, stay in touch.


Hi There
I think we all go through something similar.  I am only 6 months in to a part-time PhD and have just submitted my proposal. I went through so many tears though that I was ready to quit - the feedback I had from my DoS was brutal and unhelpful (eg "Yuk" "Get rid" "improve").  I figured if I couldn't write a proposal how on earth could I do the thesis. But I got there.  I remembered that the worst mark I got for my MSc was my research proposal so I decided I just had to do somethign that was good enough. My supervisors have been pretty much hands off as well which from my perspective is not great - as I work full time in a different university if I don't have deadlines the PhD always gets pushed to one side in favour or lecture preparation or marking.

Hang in there - we are all here to support each other. Don't make a rash decision about quitting - if you still feel you want to quit then do it in a positive way.


======= Date Modified 14 May 2010 14:51:40 =======
Dear Missscully,

Don't give up - I was in exactly the same position a year ago and I managed to change things around.

Sneaks is absolutely right: when my supervisor ignores me, I've learnt to translate this as "I need to see some serious work done". I only saw my DoS three times over the course of 6 months, and he was generally not interested in chatting about things; he told me outright "We chat after I've seen some proper attempt at a first chapter; or a detailed outline of your thesis". Don't take your DoS reaction personally, and there is NOTHING wrong with you - we all have to cross that first threshold.

In addition to the difficulty I had formulating what I wanted to say, or where I could begin with the writing (which was in part just a normal process that most PhD students go through, and in part brought on by my having read too much and thought too little) I had the emotional change to deal with: I had come from a full time job where supervisors told me exactly what I need to do, how and when - my priorities and tasks were all laid out for me. I was now in a situation where I had to do all that for myself, and I had to get my head around the change. The first 6 months was definitely a lonely and painful time for me. But as soon as I started playing around with a few potential plans for my thesis, and got down to writing a draft of my first chapter, things didn't get better. After that (the 8th month), my supervisor was all smiles, so excited, treating me like I'm a valuable asset, and I felt that - finally - I'm excited about my work because I have a rough idea where I'm heading.

The online theses database Sneaks has suggested you look at is the first place to start (my DoS asked me, before anything else, to look at other passed PhDs so I know what I should aim at) - this will be of great help to you. You'll then have a clearer idea of what you're aiming out, and will be able to start a plan of how you need to get there. Follow this - as has Sneaks been suggested below - with a meeting with your DoS asking what you could do to help you with your plan, outputs and tasks you need to achieve, and ask politely what she would recommend you do.

I usually find my Supervisor far more responsive when I email him an agenda ahead of our meeting, stating exactly what I've done, and what I (in bullet points) need him to assist me with - in other words, what I hope I'll achieve from the one hour slot which he has assigned to me, amidst his very busy schedule.

Above all, don't give up. This happens to all of us. As I'm sure everyone on this forum will tell you, starting is sometimes the hardest part!

All the best! (up)


Miss! I sympathize with you that this(research studies) should not like a pack of wolves sitting in a circle and playing on the rules of 'survival of the fittest'. I went on a workshop in a automobiles factory during my A Levels. The role of the supervisor is to ensure production is timely, qualitative and with minimum resources. Same should be the role of Academic supervisor. It does not mean you catch mental illnesses, come back from 3 suicidal attempts, become isolated and despite all this survive from all the demons and go productive. Sometimes it could be too late to produce any quality work. It is the role of the supervisor to guide you from day 1. Otherwise he is not doing his job properly and is just interested in results. Benefiting from the work of other. A Selfish Attitude. You should complain to your department if this persists or ask for a research adviser.

Avatar for sneaks

I do see where you'r coming from Goodboy - but I think looking back, my sup was so hands off because it did force me to work stuff out for myself, being plunged into the deep end - I flailed for a long time, but eventuall started to tread water. I think if she had have supported me extensively during that time I wouldn't have half as much knowledge about my area. Although agree, there does have to be SOME guidance.


Hello Miscully
YOU have demonstrated great potential already by being accepted for a doctorate in a department other than where you did your masters degree. Many doctoral applicants don't achieve that. So well done!

YOUR enthusiasm and excitement for research is stronger and more resilient than the rude and trivialising supervisor that you described. YOU can rise above it and procede with the research that you want to do at the doctoral level.

YOU may be fed up with the behaviour of that supervisor, but ignore it by replacing your annoyance with the determination to plan your research, and then move gradually through it. No doubt you need to '''present''' draft text to your supervisor(s) for comment. Do it. If there are any specific issues of your work on which you would like to have advice, additional references, or help then list these for the attention of the supervisor(s). If you disagree fundamentally with any of their comments then ask for clarification and explanation ~ recognising that scholarship involves differences of opinion. Be creative and use any opposing views thay may offer ~ exploit those counter ideas by including them as a counter argument in your own argument! OK??

The University expects supervisors to respond to your draft text, as well as to any detailed request for help, and to be positively helpful to you as the candidate. That is what supervisors are required to provide to their doctoral candiates. It is inescapable.

YOU must keep a date-and-time diary of everything that you do, plus everything that the supervisors do. In addition to these things, make sure that you are totally familiar with the time schedule that the University has for full/part-time candidates ~ noting that the timetable for mid-term reviews, annual monitoring etc may differ for full and part-time registrations. Note the times and do meet those deadlines. By doing that you cannot be criticised by your supervisors ~ but if they miss them they can be criticised by their Head of Department or Dean of Faculty. Ha Ha Ha...

Dont give up. Remember, as you walk across the stage to receive YOUR doctorate fully gowned and wearing YOUR robes, that rudeness and ignorance by those supervisors did not prevent YOU completing YOUR doctorate successfully. We are all with you.

BYE vernontrafford(up)(up)(up)


The only difference I can see between an Academic Supervisor and an AssemblyLine Supervisor is that it is student's responsibility to construct a conveyor belt and the action needed at each phase. But the supervisor must correct this, propose an alternative methodology that should have come from their experiences otherwise they do not qualify for this job. If he/she is not doing that then it may be a 'Liability'. Such a person should not be an Academic anyway. But our bureaucratic system facilitates such culture, people tend to cover up to save their own .....

Avatar for sneaks

But, I think some supervisors do this deliberately i.e. ignore you at the beginning to make you think about things yourself, read around the subject, learn to work on your own, and then they will start to guide you towards the end of your first year.


It could be one reason but I think it happens mostly because

1 Supervisor do not want him/her to be held responsible for the failure of the student. No Advice no Blame.
2 A strongly linked reason to 1 is that 'he/she lacks confidence and knowledge'.
3 Culture. He takes you as a potential competitor, backfires from their own experience/tragedies during PhD.

These are just a few advices from a Novice, There are many experts sitting here who have more badges on their shoulders.


Hi everyone, thank you so much for all your encouraging responses, I cannot tell you how much better it has made me feel (and I'm not crying anymore so there's a bonus).

I agree that sups are 'hands-off' in some respects and the way I have justified it over the last few months was that it's going to make me a better researcher in the end, less dependent. However I always fall into the traps of comparison to others - I'm in a department with several other PhD students (of which without their support I wouldn't still be here) but I can't help at looking at the support and supervision they get and feel anguish and frustration that I don't receive what they get from their supervisors. Plus one of these students started the same time as me and that makes it tough - when she sees her sup on a regular basis and I never see mine.
Plus I'm frustrated because I can't help think that my sup has been like this because she has known since she took me on that she was going to be leaving and that she wouldn't be around during the substantial part of my PhD.

Why I was so upset is because in the two times I had seen her previous I had an idea - she then changed it, so I changed it back to what she wanted, spent the last 2 months working on it and produced a 20,000 word document based on it - only for her to tell me it was all wrong and that she wants it to be more like my original idea that she previously dismissed. I just can't help thinking that if she had 'properly' supervised me that I would have been guided over the past few months and not left questioning where I failed and what I have done wrong.

But hearing that I am not alone and that it seems to be normal has really helped. I am going to try and stick it out for a least a while with my new supervisor. She has already scheduled fortnightly meetings for the next 3 months so it's going to be better I hope. But when we were organising the meetings she said that she wanted to do it to keep tabs on me so I don't make this mistake again. I'm unsure whether I should explain how I am feeling to her and ask for some more help.

Thanks so much everyone who has taken the time to reply to me - I really appreciate it :-)

Avatar for sneaks

Quote From missscully:

Why I was so upset is because in the two times I had seen her previous I had an idea - she then changed it, so I changed it back to what she wanted, spent the last 2 months working on it and produced a 20,000 word document based on it - only for her to tell me it was all wrong and that she wants it to be more like my original idea that she previously dismissed. I just can't help thinking that if she had 'properly' supervised me that I would have been guided over the past few months and not left questioning where I failed and what I have done wrong.

I have had this done SO many times to me its untrue - just learn to ALWAYS keep the old versions, because inevitably, you will be giving them back to your sup after 6 months of them saying they wanted something different. The second time you give it to them they will think its the best idea ever! - its just the PhD way I think.

Don't compare yourselves to others though - other people will always come across as doing better, but they are most probably hiding something equally terrible about their own PhD, or they will come into problems later on, because they didn't have to think it through properly themselves as there was too much support - its swings and roundabouts.

If I were you, I would talk to your supervisor about  your fears and explain to her why you think you've been delayed with your work - don't blame the other sup, just suggest blame if that makes sense! And it would be good to find a mentor - preferably someone who is a year or 2 ahead on their PhD or a postdoc who can give you the kind of help that sups (or mine anyway) doesn't give. E.g. my sup will tell me to go and do analysis, but not tell me HOW to do the analysis, just to do it. So having someone to go to who can help with those things is great - obviously in exchange for you buying them coffee and proof reading or similar.



Hi Missscully,

I can totally relate to you. I am now nearly 10 months into my PhD since October 2016. I admit I get the feeling of quitting a lot. I have a supervisor who is such a big 'visionary' for the whole university, he is a 2nd supervisor for other students (they never ever see him, it has always baffled me?) but with me he doesnt care about what I do, as long as I magically come up with something. Having a supervisor like that, really magnifies the feeling of self-doubt, quitting, and injustice. The problem staff and the university never really bother about the injustice or what phd students think, as long as the guy is supported from higher up, and has money pumping-in (general money not attached to a project). I follow what my counsellor/therapist always says to always analyse any quitting thoughts based on evidence and a 5-part model. I have to replace any irrational thoughts with balanced thoughts based on evidence. I agree with goodboy, in an ideal world an academic supervisor should be like a factory assembly line supervisor, we should be guided from day 1 of the PhD. A fundamental future question for academia is 'Is it really asking too much, when students plead for at least a good basis for the first 3 months of the PhD/project guidance? I personally dont think it's too much, a PhD is how I view it, a training degree (a bit like an apprentice training in a certain skill like Joinery or plumbing or an electrician NVQ...etc). Why do academics always revert back to the 'independent work' lecture? It is pretty obvious, no one wants to be spoon fed or to cheat, as PhD students naturally we want to do own work. We don't need to listen to a bullshit (apologies for the language) lecture on independent work, we need supervisors who do the guidance job from day 1 and can suggest alternative methodologies and reduce any doubt by clearly identifying the resources available.