Quitting PhD Advice


I am writing this post in the small hope of receiving some helpful advice and also just to get all of this off my chest as it has been weighing me down lately. I also think I’ve read every post on quitting a PhD on the internet ever so this seemed like the next logical step (hah). I would like to say thank you now if you read this all the way through (I currently don’t know how long this might be but I’ve a feeling it won’t be short, sorry!).
So…I am fairly certain I am going to quit my PhD but I am worried about the consequences. I might as well start at the beginning: I was an A-grade student in high school, especially in science. I then graduated with a masters from a Russell group university with a 2:2 (physics). Probably one of the worst days of my life, I never thought I’d get a 2:2 and I’ve never been particularly confident so this crushed me. After a year or so I got my shit together and got on a postgraduate masters (engineering/science based) from another Russell group university. I enjoyed this, worked hard, and left with a distinction, so at this point things were looking up and I was feeling good about life/myself. I then applied for a PhD…

I am now a year and a half in and after initially being unsure about the whole thing, this uneasiness has slowly turned into being miserable about everything all the time. I feel like this PhD has slowly chipped away at any confidence I had gained and left me feeling like a depressed, isolated mess of a human being. I thought about quitting about 6 months ago but refrained and told myself I would give it another while before I decide for sure. Well a while has passed, I’m still miserable and need to decide what to do with my life. [1/5]


The reasons I want to leave are as follows:
-My research question: I don’t really have one (ish). After investigating the initial research question/topic, it became clear there was very little scope for me to do a PhD on it. I have since spent time pursuing various different routes within a broad topic, all of which feel unimportant and have all led to nothing so far. As a consequence I’ve not even presented any work yet (not even a poster presentation) and probably have less than 1% of the content needed for a thesis. I feel like I am constantly trying to find a problem for me to solve rather than actually working on a problem. This brings me onto my next reason…
-My supervisor. First of all, I get on well with my supervisor, he’s a nice guy and is very supportive. I just don’t think he’s the right type of supervisor for me. Unlike other research groups where the PI has certain ideas/things he would like their students to work on, I could probably suggest anything to investigate and I would get the green light. I imagine this would be amazing for some other whizz kid student with numerous brilliant research ideas, but I’m afraid that’s not me (which makes me think I shouldn’t be doing this). I have had some ideas but after working on them a bit it’s clear they’re not great and it’s back to square one. My research area is cross-discipline and hence my ideas usually trip up on an area I’m not overly familiar with. Another thing is my supervisor comes from a slightly different (overlapping) background from that to the topics I’m studying. This means he can offer very little help with the theoretical side of things (and I mean at quite a fundamental level) which is where I feel the good ideas for worthwhile research lie. [2/5]


Another point, and I don’t know if this is a fair point to judge my supervisor on, but it has me a bit worried; his previous student received major corrections and I know of another student who has ran out of funding and is struggling...would this worry other people? There has been a couple of things my supervisor has asked me to work on but the content is so far away from what I wanted/thought I’d be doing that I have no passion for it. Aaaannd my third reason…
-Passion. Or rather the lack of it. I no longer have any passion for what I am doing. Each day I struggle to find any sort of shits to give. Often zero shits is how many I end up finding. Pretty sure this PhD has given me existential depression and can’t really see any light at the end of the tunnel at the moment (fucked if I leave and fucked if I stay is what it feels like).
-Mini-viva. I’m ashamed to say it but for the last few months I’ve all but given up. I would go to university and come back and have achieved exactly the sqrt[fuckall]. So at this point even if I did decide to stick with it I have my doubts about being able to pass my oral exam to progress to the next year.
-I hate the system. Rather than really understand something (i.e. results, a process, a particular bit of theory) it seems to be the norm to understand it to a point where it is good enough to publish (i.e. sounds good) and stop there. I hate this.
-Lastly, I don’t want to stay in academia. I know this for sure. I feel like this strengthens the argument for leaving.
Reasons that are holding me back:
-I’m lucky to be doing a funded PhD. [3/5]


I know people who have a 2:2 are not usually considered so I know I am very lucky (which makes me feel like an even shittier human being).
-I think I could be good at research. At this point I think it’s clear I’m not some genius science boffin (obviously hah!), but I would like to think I am also not a complete dumbass. I know I have a better grasp of some things compared to other people in my group and have had good feedback for the few things I have done. I feel like if I had a clear research question in something I have some passion for that I could be a decent researcher and possibly gain a PhD.
-I’m worried the effect of quitting would have on applying for jobs.
-Shitty jobs. I have worked part-time in various places since high school, through out university, and up until starting my PhD. I really really dread having to go back to these sort of jobs and becoming stuck there.
-Not knowing what to do. I don’t know exactly what career I want to go into if I quit. Annoyingly the sorts of jobs that interest me when I am looking are research based industry jobs, nearly all of which state a PhD as a requirement  These are not the only jobs however, I just don’t have an exact role/career pinned down. [4/5]


So the questions I have to any of you kind people out there willing to offer my moany ass advice are as follows:
-Has anybody been/is going through anything similar to this?
-If I quit now and considering my university grades, what chance would I have of starting a different PhD in the future?
-With my academic background and quitting a PhD, I am worried I will struggle to land a job. Any advice for someone with my grades for landing a job?
-For research based jobs which state a PhD as a requirement, is there routes into these jobs which don’t require getting a PhD (I realise this sounds really stupid but I’m asking anyway)?
-Would anyone recommend a leave of absence over straight out quitting considering what I’ve written above?
-Has anyone quit a PhD without anything lined up? I feel like the logical thing would be to look for something before quitting but I just want out tbh.

Once again, if you read all of that then I’d like to give you a BIG thank you! It is really appreciated! [5/5]


-Has anybody been/is going through anything similar to this? Not me, but there's probably a few on here that have

-If I quit now and considering my university grades, what chance would I have of starting a different PhD in the future? This will be very difficult because people will worry that if you have quit one PhD you may quit another.

-With my academic background and quitting a PhD, I am worried I will struggle to land a job. Any advice for someone with my grades for landing a job? Finding a job will be ok - you have a degree. Plus read the posts on here - a PhD is no job guarantee and in some cases can make it harder to find a job as you are viewed as over-qualified.

-For research based jobs which state a PhD as a requirement, is there routes into these jobs which don’t require getting a PhD (I realise this sounds really stupid but I’m asking anyway)? Not to my knowledge. If you did get such a job, it might be under the requirement that you do a PhD part time.

-Would anyone recommend a leave of absence over straight out quitting considering what I’ve written above?
Yes, gives you time to change your mind.

-Has anyone quit a PhD without anything lined up? I feel like the logical thing would be to look for something before quitting but I just want out tbh. Always best to have something lined up first. I would quit my job right now if I could (postdoc) but I'm applying for new jobs first.


Hi QuittyMcQuitface,

I don't usually post on here, but your post compelled me to setup an account so I could reply. First off, sorry to hear you've been having a rough time of it since starting the PhD. It's certainly not easy, and there are a lot of things about doing one that I think they should include as mandatory reading before someone decides to embark on this career path.

I could have written the exact same post as you, everything from not having a well thought out research question to supervisor struggles in terms of no concrete direction to take the research question in. If I am managing to turn things around with a view of completion, you definitely can too (If you choose to... if not, that's perfectly ok too).

My two cents: I think a lot of your problems at the moment (based on personal experience) are intertwined... Not having a research question will kill your passion, without the passion you go to your uni and achieve the sqrt[f***-all] every day, achieving nothing every day will chip away at any passion you have left, and so the cycle continues. Eventually you've broken down to a point where you say "F***-it, academia is not for me, the system is sh*t anyway, I'm out of here", and this is the point where you need to figure out whether it's the situation you hate (the root of which appears to stem from a badly designed project) or whether academia truly isn't for you, which is pretty damn hard to figure out in the given situation. To top it all off, there's intense shame about wanting to leave, intense fear of failing if you stay and usually intense isolation from having nobody to talk to any of this about. All of these things only act to make things worse.

Running out of space here, so I will continue with advice below...


I can't give you any advice on the consequences of quitting, but hopefully I can give you some in terms of deciding what the right action is for you.

You need to speak to your supervisor, as soon as possible. If you really are this close to quitting you have nothing to lose anyway. The best thing to do is calmly explain that you're very worried about your lack of research question and hence lack of progress, and it's beginning to make you reconsider continuing with the program. Explain that you are willing to give your best shot but that can only happen if you redefine the research question to include clear cut goals and objectives. It *should* be in their best interests to get you back on track. Do you have some sort of graduate committee in your department? If your supervisor is unable or unwilling to help you make changes you may need to talk to another trusted academic about this, and that is usually the purpose for the existence of such committees. A PhD is supposed to be akin to a research apprenticeship, not a case of throwing someone into the deep end and seeing if they can figure out a way to not drown.

Meanwhile, and probably more importantly giving that you are generally feeling overwhelmed, let down and miserable by the whole PhD process I would find out what support services your university offers, such as counselling, and book in for a few sessions to try and help figure out what you really want the outcome to be. Before making any final decision, if you're leaning towards quitting, perhaps take a few weeks (minimum 3) holidays/leave to do stuff that you enjoy but to also think about the pros and cons of quitting vs staying without having to go in to work and get on with things at the same time.

I hope you start to feel better soon...


I'm with the others, try to get your supervisor to agree to giving you an extended break. Student support services can offer counselling services as well if you want to be able to talk to someone who knows what they're on about but won't judge you the way you might feel a supervisor will.

Too often it can feel like the system is imposing a 'can't be seen to break' mentality on students which will keep you doing all kinds of unhealthy things if you don't deal with them in good time.

Perhaps even during the break while not worrying about your research in the immediate you'll come up with a new direction with an open mind. Someone in my research group changed her research focus four times in the first 12-18 months because one didn't work out, then a supervisor tried to drive them in another direction and eventually she was able to come up with something that she really wanted to do on her own.


Hi there.
Your post resonates very much with me. In fact, I have written a very similar thread (that is currently pending approval).
I am constantly fighting an inner battle of quitting and 'finally getting started', as the clock is ticking. People who themselves want to push through will give you compelling advice to push through. People who themselves lean on quitting will convince you that's the right choice. Let me argue for quitting, just for the sake of argument:

Finding a job you like is going to be hard either way. The search for a job however is a temporary state. If you know what you want, you will simply keep working towards that. After you got there, most of your lifetime will be spent working your dream job (or something close). How you got there, and the fact that you once quit a PhD will merely be your personal history. The PhD may or may not make the search easier, but if it makes you UNHAPPY over an extended period of time, it's not worth it.
To make it sound scientific: Just maximize the integral of happiness over time. Alternatively, here's an extremely easy flowchart for life decisions: 1. Are you happy right now? Yes: continue. No: change something; goto 1.
Sure, sometimes we have to bite our teeth and defer happiness. It's just a matter of quantification and extrapolation.

I have come up with this plan for myself: "Unhappiness-boxing" (akin to timeboxing). Limit the number of unhappy days you are willing to spend from now on. I have picked 150. Each day I feel unsatisfied I cross out one day, on better days I don't. You may also cross out fractions of a day. The day I reach 0 is the day I will quit no matter what. You can also plot how you use up that unhappiness-tolerance over time. No idea if this works for you, but this concept helps me cope.

Best regards!


First of all let me apolgise for the delay with my reply (been trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life haha).

Secondly, a really big thank you to you all for taking the time to read my post and for replying! I really do appreciate it and the advice/support given helps more than you probably realise. So again, thank you.

TreeofLife: thank you for answering my questions! I can't promise not to quit without having something lined up and I'm not quite as confident about finding a job easily (I have friends with 1st class engineering degrees who are struggling) but I do appreciate your advice and honest answers!

Seegi: First of all, thank you for your thoughtful reply! I don't like to hear that someone else is having/had similar problems to me but I have to say there is some solace in knowing I am not the only one going through them.I think your two cents are pretty spot on to be honest. Working on something which a) I don't enjoy (is quite a distance from what I thought I would be doing) and b) can't see leading anywhere/seems insignificant within (or outside) the field has drained any original passion I had.
I definitely do need to figure out if it's just this PhD project I am hating or if it would be ANY PhD project...something I'm still struggling with I'm afraid :/

Seegi/HuntAnthem: I plan on meeting my supervisor next week. This is something I've known I should do tbh and have just been putting it off as I'm kind of dreading it. My supervisor is a nice guy but I still don't know how he's going to take it. My plan is to ask for a leave of absence, I'm thinking at least 6 months for me to decide what to do i.e. come up with a proper research question or quit. Cont...


I know I should probably go and speak to some form of student support services...I'm not the sort of guy who likes talking about this stuff however so I might just stick to this forum in the mean time. Annoyingly the "go to" postgraduate adviser knows my supervisor so I wouldn't feel comfortable talking to him. Maybe I should stop being a tit and go talk to a councilor but I'll have to work on that.
HuntAnthem, it gives me some hope that someone else has changed their project that many times! In my positive moments I hope I can come up with a well structured research question with enough scope for a PhD...I just have to decide if the whole PhD route is the correct one for me first.

PhDReallyRight124: I'm sorry to hear you're going through some similar stuff. I will make sure to read your post and will try my best to offer any useful advice!
I feel exactly the same wrt " quitting and 'finally getting started'". As I said in my post, I feel like I've achieved ~1% of the content needed for a PhD and I feel like if I don't get my research question sorted soon then it'll be too late (that or it'll take me like 6 years to complete which I don't fancy doing). That's assuming I'll actually enjoy doing the PhD even with a solid research question :/ Your view on finding a job is quite motivational and makes me feel a bit more hopeful about things if I do quit. I somewhat agree on the "counting the happy days" strategy...I do feel however, that even if I had more shitty days than good ones, if the end product felt like it was going to be worth it then I'd stick it out. Atm I think a big part of them problem is feeling like what I'm doing is no use to anyone and at the same time having not passion for it.


Again thanks for the replies! I forgot to say this earlier but I hope things are looking up for those of you also having a bit of a hard time! I find just talking about it here and receiving advice/support has lifted the gloom somewhat and helped me sort out my thoughts :)


Just out of interest, did you stay or leave? I am finding myself in a similar position and have found myself trawling the internet for advice.


here is the same situation.. into the similiar situation after more than 2 years of my reseach.
Got into Internet for finding some advice. Don't know what to do. In dilemma .. :(
Did you people leave or did you continue ?