PhD regrets ...


Hi! The forum is full of posts about people wanting to quit etc... I was just wondering, if anyone who has quit a PhD regrets their decision? Hopefully you are still on the forum or maybe you know someone who quit and really regrets it. What, if any, were the negative consequences (feel free to mention the positives too)? And for those with the urge to quit but do not - is it worth it? How do you cope? Do you also have regrets about hanging on? How do you know if your desire to leave it all behind is real - and not just due to certain circumstances but rather a part of PhD stress/depression (which is supposedly normal, although I have serious doubts about that)?


The right reasons for staying in a program will differ from person to person. Personally, I think the decision to continue should have something to do with passion for the subject, personal fulfillment, and the intellectual rigor of the experience. Like anything worthwhile in life, there will be rough patches and self-doubt, but in the end, it's the passion for learning that pulls you through.

A lot of people base big decisions in life - marriage, children, PhD, career, etc. - on image (prestige) or trying to please family. I'm not saying it's wrong to make others happy. What I mean is it's wrong to spend a huge part of your life doing something just because you're afraid of disappointing an academic supervisor, or relatives, or just for the "Doctor" title. If that's the case, you're not a person, you're a marionette.

There's also the self-confidence issue...At some point, most PhD students have doubts about their abilities, regardless of how well they've done in their academic careers. I think people forget that the PhD is a training exercise - similar to military Boot Camp, or sports training - where you're whipped into shape so that you're ready to take on the rigors of academic life. The experience is meant to make you emotionally and intellectually stronger, so to speak.

You questioned whether stress and depression are a normal part of the experience. In my opinion, the stress is normal. Most things that are challenging will be stressful at some point. As for depression, too many people use the word casually. There's a big difference between feeling a bit down in the mouth, and clinical depression. The latter is a medical condition, and in many cases isn't even triggered by adversity; a clinically depressed person can feel depressed for no apparent reason. I think people who suffer from clinical depression or bipolar should take steps to make sure they have professional support in place before beginning a PhD program. Most unis provide such services to grad students.

You also asked about regrets...The only thing I regret about my experience is that I think I should have taken a leave of absence during a period when I really needed to sort out some difficult issues in my personal life. My sup told me it would be difficult to get back into the program if I left, but in retrospect, I have doubts. I think if a student has very good reasons for requesting a leave of absence it's fine. If it's a flimsy excuse such as feeling tired, or trying to balance full-time work with studies, that's usually not acceptable.

Overall, I think you posed a very good question, because in many societies the idea of "quitting" is frowned upon, but there are times when it's pragmatic and sensible (Diana Nyad is a good example). If a student is letting himself off the hook due to lack of confidence, or fear of embarrassment, it's not a good reason to quit a PhD program. If a student is hanging on just to please others, it's not a good reason to pursue a PhD program either. It really boils down to being honest with yourself, and true to your convictions.


I haven't considered quitting, but that's due to my particular circumstances. A PhD is a long slog, and it's completely different to being an undergraduate. In some ways , it's amazing that I've kept on going as I've always had a problem knuckling down and finishing big projects. It helps that I find the project I've chosen fascinating.


Well I "quit" at the very start of my PhD. Half way through my masters I applied for a fully funded PhD and was offered the place and funding.

However when I was due to commence the PhD my head just wasn't in the right place, so I took a "temporary withdrawal." I got a real job and lived in the real world for a year and a half and realised that academia was where I wanted to be. I was VERY VERY lucky that they took me back. My department was fine about me returning, but the funding body played hard ball and it took me 3 months of meetings and emails for them to agree to restart my funding.

I'm now about to submit my thesis. I have worked harder for this than anything else in my life and will have written the thesis in 2.5 years.

I have almost caught up with the time I missed but it was that time out of academia that made me realise that this is what I should be doing.


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I quit a PhD once and I have no regrets. I'm now halfway through another and very happy with it.

In my case, there were several reasons for quitting. I had developed an interest in a different field which I had already decided I would move into in the future. My project wasn't going brilliantly and I didn't have much conviction in the direction in which I was being steered. I didn't enjoy the day to day tasks required for that particular project. And the environment I was in was, shall we say, less than supportive. So in the end I decided to cut my losses and leave, rather than battling through to the end of something that was making me miserable. Before doing so I sought advice from someone in the field that I wanted to move into, which ended up leading to a job, then a masters and now a PhD. I knew research was right for me, and I was right for research, but my first attempt was a case of wrong place, wrong time.

I think the important thing is to pinpoint why you want to quit and what you would do instead. It may be that whatever is making you think you want to quit is in fact fixable. If you quit, then would it be a barrier to whatever career you choose to pursue? In my case it hasn't held me back as people seem to view it on my CV as general research experience that has generic value - but if I'd wanted to stay in exactly the same field, I can see it might have been perceived as more of a problem. If you want to leave research/academia entirely, then you need to make sure that you can identify transferable skills that you can sell in job applications. Outside of academia, PhDs can be viewed with suspicion, so I'm not sure how half-finished PhDs are considered.

All jobs have their stresses - don't fall into the 'grass is greener' trap. As Dalmation says, stress is common, as there is a lot of learning to do. This can be positively channelled though - I re-read this essay on 'productive stupidity' frequently for reassurance! Depression is also not uncommon among PhD students, though one should be careful about inferring that the PhD is the cause. It need not be a barrier to carrying out a postgraduate study, but if the PhD is a trigger then obviously ways of handling that need to be found.

Ultimately it's a decision that you need to make for yourself, and with a good understanding of what your true reasons are. For me it felt like an enormous decision to make at the time, but a few years on (and having recovered from the damage done during my first attempt) it feels more like a blip in my career than a major life changing event.

Good luck with the thinking process.


A further point to add - when I first thought about quitting, I wondered whether some of the issues were down to me not giving the process a fair chance/not making enough effort. So I really threw myself back into my project, and really genuinely tried to make it work, but several months on everything was still the same and I decided, 'Enough is enough'. So it wasn't an overnight decision.


Thank you all for your posts. You have all raised things that need to be considered before making a decision. I have been obsessing about this for months now... wanting to leave etc. But when it comes down to it, I can't pull the plug and keep asking for time to reconsider. I really don't know what that means, except that I don't know my own mind because I am finding it hard to pull the plug on my alternative career option as well. @Hazyjane, I know what you mean about feeling like I haven't given it enough of a chance. I hate feeling like a quitter. @Dalmation, you touched on some issues that could be the problem - own self confidence issues - and this view about "quitters". I guess all of you decided to stay or start again and see it through.


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Firstly, I think the answer to the question will depend largely on how far into the PhD you are. I quit one PhD about 3 months into it and was fortunate enough to migrate to a another project in the same department. At that point there is little at stake in comparison to quitting in your 3rd year, which I seriously contemplated. At this point there is much more at stake as it adds a big black hole to your career. The prospect of quitting is very daunting at this stage

By the end of the 2nd year i felt like I hadn't achieved anything, I had no meaningful results despite the huge amount of work I put in. I felt like my relationship with my supervisors had gone downhill. As the 3rd year progressed and I was into my thesis writing, submission seemed to be less and less attainable. There was constantly , more work, more data analysis to do, more figures to generate, more rewrites. I had no pride in any of my work, it all seemed worthless. I felt like i was completely unsuited to a career in academia, This coupled with the fact my social life was completely irradiated, I was seeing very little of my partner, I was constantly stressed and anxious, unable to enjoy the little time I had to myself. I cried more in the final year of PhD than I had in the previous 10 years of my life! I couldn't see any end to it.

i really felt like I couldn't handle it any more and I had to quit, for the sake of my sanity, but nevertheless I stuck with is. I think a fear of joblessness and uncertainty about what I would do, kept me going. Eventually I submitted, I had a really good viva, my examiner was really impressed with my work and I finally realised how much I had achieved. I am now in a Post-doc position which I really enjoyo, in a really good department and a fantastic boss. Most importantly, I now have a much healthier relationship to my work.

So, despite all the tears, stress and anxiety, I don't regret sticking with the PhD. I think the problem is doing a PhD is so immersive for some people that that is all they can see and they cant past all the stress that the Phd puts on them. The result is feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and despair, and when you are in that world its hard to see recognise that this will get better. But things do get better!

Hope this helps!


Time and again, when I feel like quitting, I think of my family and their expectations of me. I do get tired. It's not easy to balance your time between work, studies and family. Sometimes, you would like to shout at the top of your voice but you just stop yourself. Sometimes, you can just dream of things and hope that everything will get better soon.

While I may have thought of quitting so many times, I still hang on. Earning that degree is something that no one else could take away from you, right? Good times, bad times, just focus. Difficulties come along the way, but they will become stepping stones once you are conferred with your PhD.

Good luck!


Hi people! Running a PhD programme on any field
is indeed, an up-hill task that requires tenacity because it's the height of
scholarship. There is no way one will not regret a decision to quit a PhD
programme. In as much as every individual may have some compelling reasons for
quitting, the negative consequences for quitting will always outweigh the
positive. Other than financial difficulties and lack of time to continue on
account of one's job, I will not advise anyone to quit a PhD programme already
started. Such a decision will never worth the while. The stress/trauma that
comes with it constitutes part of the academic discipline and refinement one
must undergo to join the League of PhD holders. PhD degree is a vision for every
scholarly-minded person. Please, don't quit. Persevere! The benefits for
enduring and achieving it are enormous.       


Dalmation has said it all. The academia is a battle field that require less of our physical strength but more of our cereberal capabilities.

Avatar for Mackem_Beefy

======= Date Modified 01 Sep 2012 13:31:54 =======
Dalmation just about says it all with what is an excellent post. If you're doing a PhD because it's expected of you rather than it being what you want to do then you shouldn't really be there. I will comment, however, that the stresses encountered during a PhD can lead to depression as the workload especially during write-up can be crucifying. Feeling a bit depressed can lead to something worse if you don't step back from time to time to take stock and rest, and the pressure can drag down some very bright, very level headed people with no clinical history of depression into the gutter if people let that happen. There are shades of grey. Also, Personal circumstances change and become reasons for needing to withdraw.

Setting aside extreme circumstances, I've observed that people who see the PhD through tend to be those who see the whole process as worthwhile, as a period of personal development when you learn to be and mature as a researcher and (if your chosen path is such) potential academic. That includes me who has ended up outside academia and I have no regrets over doing the PhD.

Conversely, those who drop out (or end up failing or getting an MPhil) might see the process as a waste of time and a loss of a year or two of their life. One complaint I hear is academic life is not fast enough paced for them (I see that often enough on here) or the PhD is irrelevant to the real world. That latter view I disagree with as I believe the PhD gives you the ability to critically analysie a situation or major project before rushing in (a major flaw of mine) and possibly makig a mess of it. That said, dropping out isn't the end of the world and I know of someone whose career is now going from strength to strength whilst those of us who stuck it out are in fairly mundane jobs in comparison. Also, if you've chosen your project incorrectly or have had supervisor problems, there's no harm in dropping out, taking stock and a couple of years later coming back in trying again.

I know LarryDavid and I have had our differences over a recent incident on here, but I find myself impressed by his answer. He dropped out, knew he'd made the wrong decision and came back to see the process through. If you've doubts, need time out to sort yourself out to come back later (for example knowing research is for you) then I see no harm in this.

I've said elsewhere that I never had doubts once I started that I would see the process through (though because I'd been offered two different, equally interesteing projects, I did doubt very briefly whether I'd selected the right one). I enjoyed the process and the work, however, I know from the lad who dropped out the process and a story about another lad who just wanted to fiddle with his motorbike rather than do the work, that you have to know you want to do a PhD for the right reasons. A third drifted out of his PhD and only came back to write up because he didn't like the thought of me being awarded a PhD and him not getting one.

It's not a walk in the park or an excuse to be a student for a few more years. It's not about getting a fancy title. It's 3 to 5 years of hard work that requires serious committment to your subject and work and not something you can just pop in and out of the University when you feel like it to do bits and pices here and there (i.e. the lad with the motorbike). You've got to want to do a major research project, with the view to critically analysing the the available literature and data you collect to produce an original contribution to knowledge in your field and be able to put in the work to get there.


This is a fabulous article on the subject of quitting a PhD, I think its been posted elsewhere on this site before:

I quit my first phd, then started another which I have now almost finished, and I think these were the right choices for me. That said, I don't think I could ever really "regret" any of these kinds of decisions, as I will never know what would have happened if I'd chosen differently. And difficult experiences can often be very valuable ones in the long run.


Plenty of regrets about hanging on here... I've been running on a grim sense of inertia for about two years now. I understand the idea of sunk costs, but there's a part of my brain that won't quite believe in it- or that irrationally finds the idea of carrying hopelessly on less terrifying than trying to get a job with next-to-zero experience and altogether too many years piled up.