should I withdraw?


I have been doing my PhD since 2016, and have a submission deadline in March 2022. I was funded for 4 years, but no longer receive any financial support for my studies. I worked in a field related to my thesis before starting the PhD and then last year went back into proper employment with the idea that I would finish writing up alongside work. I was also lucky enough to successfully pitch a book related to my research early in my PhD study, and that came out at the start of 2020.

I was enjoying my research, and had written maybe half of the thesis, before I re-entered the workplace in Feb 2020 (this was a few months before my grant was scheduled to end, but I had no savings and some debt, so had to start looking for work again just in case I didn't find anything for a while - money caused me a lot of worry at the time). When the pandemic hit, the job that would have been very manageable alongside final thesis work went haywire, as I work in an industry very badly affected by the pandemic. I had to preside over urgent cost-savings and a large staffing review, having only been in the job a short time, and the hours I had put aside every week to finish my thesis were completely eaten up by panicked damage limitation in the job I'd just taken on. The Board of Directors have been very supportive, offering additional annual leave to take later this year, but I honestly feel like their (very kind, very generous) offers are unrealistic. It will be years before the requirements of this job reduce enough to allow me to focus on the thesis again, and I am suffering from what feels like very real emotional and intellectual exhaustion.

Another consideration is that I have doubts about how much I actually believe in my project now, which is fairly utopian in outlook but now just feels silly and naive. Also, since my book came out, there's a part of me that feels like the significant achievement of the project has kind of already happened, even though it was only focused on a very small part of what my thesis would cover.

My supervisor is incredible and I do think that I would have already withdrawn if it wasn't for him. I'd feel dreadful about letting him down and asking him to accept a potential blemish on his record as a supervisor if I couldn't complete though. But, mentally and emotionally, I cannot imagine working any more on this right now.

I know I'm lucky to have a career outside academia, but will I look back with huge regret if I don't finish this project and get this qualification after so many years of work? I came to study late, and I remember being in my twenties having not yet been to university for my BA, and developing a real angsty chip on my shoulder about that. I'm more mature now, obviously, but don't want to feel like that about my PhD when I'm older still.

Does anyone have any advice?


I think what you need to do is *try* and answer the - generally impossible - question, where do you want to be 5 years from now?

A PhD is a passport to academia; it has weight in industry research roles, but it's not as absolute a barrier to progression or employment outside of a TA role as it is in academia by any measure.

It's not really about the PhD project, ultimately. It's whether it's useful to you in the longer term. If you like the idea of being a lecturer, or postdoc, it's worthwhile; if you shudder at the thought of teaching or having a rolling 2-3 year fixed term contract, think hard.

Do not factor the 'letting your supervisor down' thing in. It's easy to cloud your judgement with personal things, but to a supervisor it's ultimately a minor professional disappointment. Because the PhD is such a big thing (naturally) to you, it's very easy to assume it's a big thing to them; but - if they're remotely experienced - it's not. And it's far more of your time and money than theirs.

It sounds a bit like you're actually happy in industry, and may well do better focusing all your energy there. I can only answer off the limited information, but the logical thing to do if you are happy in the industry role would be to speak with your management and get their perspective on the value of the PhD. It may be you're in a niche industry where it is indeed extremely valuable; but it's unlikely.

I'd also think a bit for a few months as lockdown eases. A lot of academics, myself included, feel exhausted purely because it's blurred the work-life balance. This isn't necessarily a cause or solution, but it's important to appreciate the current working context isn't a 'normal', and while working from home *sounds* good, it's also a recipe for late nights and overwork on the back of a misplaced feeling of guilt for not working. Someone made a joke to me a while back that stuck - 'when you're in the office and don't answer the phone, people assume you're in a meeting; when you're working from home and don't answer the phone, people assume you're by the pool sipping Mojitos'. It's of course not true but it's kinda how we think we'll be appraised, and has led to a lot of lockdown burnout.

Avatar for rewt

Honestly, it sounds like you have the dream career. That is a massive achievement in this economy and the number of PhD students that fall at the hurdle of getting a job is significant. As abababa says, if you don't need a PhD in your career or for the rest of your life, you shouldn't worry. Yes, you have a put a significant amount of tine and effort in but you have got the end result already.

This might sound stupid but since you have a book already published could you just submit that as a thesis? It is obviously novel and a significant contribution but not in the correct formatting but you might find some examiners might just pass it. What I have learned recently is that some examiners will pass anyone with published work and that the thesis quality matters somewhat less than the published outputs.


Can you switch to a phd by publication instead?


Hello stident2021,

I have a very similar background as yours, started a BA in my late 20's, have some industry experience, I'm in my final year of a funded PhD (funding has already expired), etc.

My answers may sound contradictory, but one thing is that a PhD is just a qualification. If it is making you sick mentally or physically, there is no need to stick with it. On the other hand, if I were in your shoes, I will be utterly regretful if I left my PhD without completing it. It's all about my self-esteem and the sence of achievement in my life. Actually, this is the only reason why I am not leaving my PhD. I don't really care if having the degree matters for my fiture career etc.

How about taking a break from the study (if your uni allows taking an intermission), put some pressures off from your shoulders, then finish off the rest of chapters once your situation at work (hopefully) improves after this pandemic?
Meantime, whether it is realistic or not, I would accept your bosses' kind offer to take an annual leave later this year just to show my interest in their proposal and finishing the degree.


Thanks so much for these supportive replies. It has really helped me to reflect over recent days. I feel okay about leaving the PhD behind now, and will talk to my supervisor about the option of PhD by publication - I hadn't even realised that was an option. This is all hugely appreciated.


Quote From student2021:
Thanks so much for these supportive replies. It has really helped me to reflect over recent days. I feel okay about leaving the PhD behind now, and will talk to my supervisor about the option of PhD by publication - I hadn't even realised that was an option. This is all hugely appreciated.

Awesome! Let us know how it goes and well done for your achievements. I’m starting my phd in September and I hope I can do what you achieved because it’s amazing in itself. Not only the book but the fact that you are taking care of your mental health by walking away when necessary. I don’t want to hurt myself over a qualification