Seriously thinking about quitting


Hi all,

I'm one and a half years into a 4-year PhD in engineering. I did really well in my undergrad and thought I'd go for one more goal (the title of doctor!).

It started off well - I'm sponsored by a company and the folks are cool. I got handed a project, basically, and was on my way to start some design! But a year and a half later and I feel so low - 9 days out of ten I am just so negative.

Work in the company started to turn sour - nobody helping me out much (you always need a little direction!) or taking an interest which was demotivating. There's another PhD student who everybody loves - she has loads of experience and it seems I have to get everything past her before I can move on with anything which is very frustrating. Lately she's told my supervisor how her hints have helped my project out so much and has voiced concern to him over my progress and motivation! So last week I had a meeting to go over my progression for 3rd year - my supervisor starts out really negative asking if I'm motivated, he is concerned that I do not follow ideas through to conclusion, that things are up in the air - that the project might not have enough merit. I really got flustered.

My supervisor isn't there to see me often so I don't know how he can say these things - but in a way, he's right. Sometimes I don't follow things through to conclusion and my motivation really HAS been lacking. To be honest, I don't know if I enjoy this anymore (edit - I don't.). Engineering is so much hard work for very little reward. I am constantly stressed out and working way too many hours - I have actually started balding (fact!!). I look at the other guys who slog their guts out and think 'for what?'. I'd rather get paid less and leave at 5pm, have a life! I have done very well up to about a year ago - completed a bunch of extra courses and got lots of training.. but when if finish my PhD, I can't see myself staying in this line of work. I feel so depressed. If I quit I'd feel I'd let everybody down and proved them right - I KNOW I can do it, but it's whether I want to, and I don't!
There's also the financial aspect - I have meagre savings and a large student loan, a car to run etc... and now there's a recession. Who would want to hire somebody who quit a PhD!? Is there really so much stigma attached to this?? I could be unemployed for years..

I'm cheesed off with my supervisor. The guys at the company are great but I don't think the lifestyle/job is for me. I am seriously demotivated and it isn't likely to get better. If I do keep going, I will likely get a research paper and finish up, but what will it be for if I don't continue in this line of work - and if it will mean more stress and balding (serious, I'm concerned about this!). I'm just not cut out for this - I have no real interest in it. I don't feel I'm a good researcher - more of a worker, want to get home at night!

I am so down in the dumps it is unreal. I look forward to your comments :(


======= Date Modified 30 Apr 2009 18:43:30 =======
I might add - I cannot progress to third year now until remedial action is taken. This action includes showing my supervisor evidence of work carried out since he is not at the company often. This is due by next week - I am sorely tempted not to do it and 'hand in my notice'. Lack of money/employment scares me, though.

It may look like I just don't like the culture and the people - but it's more than that. It's the work - sitting in front of a screen all day doing abstract designs with little interaction - a tough job for the money when older - the pay doesn't reflect it. I'd feel so much happier doing something with more human interaction. I'd probably rather join the police!

My head's a mess right now. Has been for months.


Well! I am not surprised that you feel the way you do. I don't think anyone can/should tell you whether to quit or not because this not 'skipping dinner', however, if I may suggest something...I know it is difficult but could you please try to imagine, at least for a while, how would you feel if the situation was the opposite and that is: you are having support of your supervisor, you use 'her' presence and knowledge as an asset rather than the 'motivation killer', etc. What I'm trying to tell you is that it is very important for you to see if the idea of quitting is because you are simply unmotivated, because you don't get support etc. or is because you truly are no longer interested in the PhD, in the project, in what you do all together? It is very important to see this distinction! If you're able to see it then it will be much easier for you to take decision.

I can tell you that some time ago those 'giving up thoughts' were ringing loud in my head. I had to remind myself why am I doing my PhD and on the other hand imagine the situation and my steps if I gave up. Then I tried to understand why I was feeling that way. And I can tell you that it was many things such as: lack of expertise, lack of proper support from my supervisor, feeling that I am just left alone with all this and it is growing big, bigger than me (and trust me I'm not tiny :-) ), I was tired. When things get tough we tend to get even more depressed. We loose confidence, we feel we are not even capable of doing this etc. SO without boring you to death...try to makes that distinction and sort out the causes of why you feel the way you do, ask yourself what is it that you really want (job wise) etc. When we are in this kind of state fear becomes a good companion and its presence makes even slightest problems grow to extraordinary proportions.
There is a person who posted the 'coping mantra', have a look at it. You are not the only one that is facing these kind of thoughts, isn't it a positive thought it itself;-) Good luck!


MeMaggie - so what is the reason you yourself decided to stay in the PhD when you were struggling with quitting thoughts?


Thanks for your replies.
It's not just my supervisor or the project. It's academia in general, and the work. I'm miserable and I have to face it. I have a progression review Mon/Tue and right now I'm pretty damn sure that I'm going to drop out at that point. Try something else, get a job to keep me going until I can change career completely to do something I actually want to! That will make me happy! I don't want to become one of these hollow shells that goes on with the PhD because it's the done thing, or because I don't want to dissapoint anybody. You have to look out for number one sometimes. I feel almost elated already.


Propgand - the reasons why I didn't give up are: I love the topic I'm working on, I love the environment (our PhD room, students coming everyday and working together), I want to be a lecturer so PhD is a 'must' ( I already have tutorials with students and in October I'm going to do the course for Teachers in Higher Education).

Finally, thoughts can be changed. It is something we need to work on. It takes an effort to switch to positive thinking but its worth it. PhD is an experience through which you learn a lot about yourself, discover new strengths and weaknesses, discover that you can keep on going when you thought you couldn't do it anymore etc. The fact that I don't get enough support or rather proper support from my sup is not a reason to quit. I keep on searching, emailing, speaking to other scholars from areas which are relevant to my research and I read, read and read. To go through PhD with a great sup support is an ideal to me, but to go through the PhD without or little support, that's an amazing achievement! Finally, knowing what you want ,in long term, is what keeps you going :-)

Hope it helps even though written in a rush!

Good luck


PORGAND - not Propgand :-) Sorry!:-)


Guitarman, I think you should trust your instincts on this. Doing a PhD isn't for everyone and a year and a half sounds about the right amount of time to know whether it's for you or not, because you've tried it, to some extent. I'm at the end of mine (viva in the next week) and I'd never have got to this point if I hadn't really wanted to do it for it's own sake, because it's so damned hard at times. I work in a research department and we expect some students to drop out after a year or so because it's just not the right thing for them to be doing at that point in time. It doesn't mean they're incapable in any way, and neither is it anything personal in relation to their supervisors, but it's just not for them. Senior academics have also told me they'd never do a PhD because 'it's horrible' and their careers are doing fine without one, plus they get to have more of a life.

I think it's ok to chuck it in, as long as you're quite sure it's the right decision for you. Your life is far more important than passing fleetingly through a tiny part of academia. I don't think you should feel bad about letting people down either, it's quite likely that in the wider scheme of things, you will be one of many PhD students in that place, past and future, so unless you think you're going to permanently ruin anyone's career, do what suits you best.

Hope I'm not prodding you towards quitting if you just wanted people to tell you to stick with it, but only you know how much you can't stand it. It's not the same, but I had a vile job once that I hated so much that every day I fantasised about just walking out and never going back. The idea was lovely but not realistic, so I saved up money and did leave, albeit on very good terms with my employer, which was definitely the right move though not instantaneous. Funnily enough, the 'right move' for me was to do a PhD (!!), but I knew I'd come to the end of the road with that particular career and had to do something different.

Does the idea of never doing any of your current PhD stuff ever again seem blissfully tempting over a longish period of time, or do you have days when you think it's not too bad, just a temporary blip that you can stick with? Do you see jobs you could apply for, to test the possibilities of what's out there if you do quit the PhD? Maybe even applying or going for job interviews will help you to decide what to do, whether to stay or quit. Anyway, good luck deciding, it's a worn out old cliche, but life's too short to be miserable doing a PhD if you don't want to do it for it's own sake.


Excellent post, Rubyw. To answer your questions... the bad spells aren't blips - the good ones are, and they're very rare.

Also, the subject matter is something I'm just not into anymore. To be honest I was getting bored of it during my undergraduate studeies but I ended up doing it because a) I could and b) it pays ok. The lifestyle and the work just aren't suited to me - my plan for the last 6 months was to see this through to the end and use my savings to keep me going as I switched career. But I now know I can't just plod through this hating it every step of the way. I entered into this with high hopes, one more obstacle to overcome - I like to do well. But you're right - it isn't suited to everybody. And certainly not at this stage in my life. Perhaps if I was still interested in it, I would consider doing a PhD in future - I think actually that doing a PhD straight after uni is quite risky!

Now I am looking at alternate careers, most likely completely different from what I studied. It might mean less pay, but if I'm happy then that's all that matters. I prefer to work with people rather than keep up with the technology race so this will shape my decision.

I'm getting some negative vibes from people who want me to stick at it until I find something else, but I don't think I can last another second at it. I'll just have to eat away at savings (which I am loathe to do!). Perhaps something temporary in the short-term until I find something else.

I look at a lot of the PhDs at my uni and it's as if the life has been sapped from a lot of them - they have no social skills and live to work (not all, of course!). Now I know that's not for me - there are jobs out there that actually pay overtime, which don't require you to work extra hours after 5:30pm as it's the done thing to do, that actually pay what the work is worth. I wouldn't recommend engineering as a career to anybody, though I would still say it was a worthwhile degree.


It sounds like you've made your mind up then! Depends on how much you've got in savings to live off, but maybe it would be sensible to be mildly cautious if you're thinking of chucking it in before having a definite alternative to go to, because of the economic climate? Definitely work the financial stuff out properly though. It's the start of May now so could you give it till the end of the academic year so you can live off it a bit longer - ie how much do you hate it!! Or maybe that would give you till the new academic year to get a different job, then tell the uni... I think there were other posts a while back on how to write the skills you've acquired from a PhD you've dropped out of into your cv, maybe have a look elsewhere on this forum?

Obviously we're all different, but I felt so much better when I'd actually made a decision that I was going to leave my horrible job. I think being undecided made me more miserable, but after I'd decided what to do, I felt less trapped by my circumstances and was able to stick it out a bit longer. I knew that if I had really had enough I could give in my notice anytime and live off my savings, but knowing that made it easier to limp on with it for a bit longer and stash more money away. I think that decision made me distance myself mentally from all the job stuff that annoyed me or bored me witless, so that made it easier too. Having said that, changing career seems to be taking me ages, so it's a good thing I like what I'm doing as it makes juggling things and living on crap money worth it!


This is a very big step to take, so you do need to think carefully, and it may be worthwhile to get some paper and write down the pros and cons of leaving straight away. I agree that you should think about when to go, now isn't a good time to do anything really, with the summer on the horizon when everything including job opportunities slow down, and of course at this time you will be competing with a large number of recently qualified people - this may not be a problem, but may be worth considering. The thing is PhDs are different from other courses, and it takes a while to get used to the difference. You need to think why you feel this way, and if you can actually do anything about any of them, your supervisor can be 'trained' so that you get out of them what you need. The other person can be befriended and maybe able to help you (if she says she can help you, let her, you have nothing to lose and it might make your work environment less stressful. As for the workload, I have always found that you have to work extra hours sometimes, but if you can find something interesting in the job you are doing it makes it OK. If you feel the need to go, set a mental date, but don't burn your bridges so keep it to yourself, and then work to make the time you decide you have left as productive as possible, you will then be able to say that you worked on X and got it to Y, you may even find you get involved enough again to want to stay. :-)


======= Date Modified 03 May 2009 19:28:38 =======
This is the thing that's really getting to me. Possible unemployment - I'd hate to eat into my (again, meagre!) savings. Honestly, the two main reasons for me keeping on would be to keep everybody else happy (not me!) and to keep some money coming in.

Definitely a big decision. I don't want to throw away an entire career for nothing. What I could do with is a year doing something part-time, have a bit of a break (this is not an option).

I have to submit a progression report this Tuesday morning - if I don't, I wont be progressing. So far I haven't had the slightest inclination of doing so.


get that report in, motivate yourself to do it, this is important to give yourself some breathing space. don't brings things to a head until YOU are ready to make this decision, whatever you decide will be right for you, but you must give yourself the time you need to make sure you have explored all the angles and taken them into account, don't rush this process, you don't want to have any reason to regret what you have done. As I said before, write everything down, put it in the right columns and treat it like a piece of research it will help you look at the things objectively.


Well it's 8:30 now and I have my laptop open but nothing's coming out. It's just not happening. I might be having a meeting with my programme manager tomorrow so I guess that will be the decider.


So did inspiration strike at the last moment, so you got something written for your meeting and the PhD now seems nowhere near as bad as you thought? Or was it yet another nail in the PhD coffin, so to speak?