Thinking of leaving - what do I do?


I'm part way through my second year and I'm thinking of leaving. My research isn't progressing, I'm feeling very down and I'm wondering if this is for me. My parents have told me I'd be stupid to quit and that in the current economic climate I stand next to no chance of finding work. They say I'm daydreaming if I expect any job to be without its problems. But I don't think I do expect that. I think I want something fulfilling which doesn't mean no problems but does mean that I don't feel this anxious, aimless, and generally fed up.
Am I going to be making a big mistake? Will I be a social and economic pariah if I take an MPhil instead? :-(


You have my sympathies. I left my PhD just short of two years in, so I can imagine how you feel right now.

You need to spend a lot of time thinking about this and considering your options. Here are specific things you need to answer for yourself:
1. What exactly is it that you don't like about what you're doing?
2. If there are problems with your project, are the insurmountable? Are you sure you couldn't sort them out?
3. What sort of thing would you rather be doing instead (assuming no external restrictions)
4. How likely is it to be able to pursue the alternative in the current climate
5. What are your long term career goals and how might this impact upon them?

In my case, my project had major problems and was seriously behind schedule. I had lost interest in the work and in fact had identified a different field I wanted to work in. The relationship with one of my supervisors was terrible (I look back on it as the most miserable working environment I've ever been in). The idea of spending another two years there just filled me with dread.

I'd had a bit of a wobble a few months earlier and thought about leaving. But then I'd decided to keep going for a bit longer, with the plan to get the PhD finished and then change fields. I threw myself into the project, but the problems remained. So when a second major wobble came along, I figured it was time to go and stop enduring this highly negative experience, and pursue something different. Although this made the process more protracted, it did mean that second time around I was as sure as I could be that this was really what I had wanted, as I had given it a seriously good try. I would recommend this approach e.g. carry on your work as normal but spend a week/month/whatever with the mindset of 'I'm leaving' and then spend an equal period with the mindset of 'I'm staying and will finish this' - then see how you feel about each period.

Do talk to people. Unless you have problems with your supervisor(s), do consider raising it with them, and/or a graduate tutor. Talk to other PhD students - you may 'just' have the fairly common 'second year blues'. And if you do plan to move on, get some decent, realistic careers advice. Before I told my supervisor I wanted to leave, I went to see I guy I knew who worked in the field I wanted to move into. He gave me a lot of reassurance that I wouldn't, in this case, be an academic pariah, and a few days later offered me the opportunity to work for him. So leaving my PhD wasn't a leap into the unknown as I already had something else lined up.

All the best with your decision


PS. For the record, I haven't regretted it for a second.


Well done, HazyJane! If you were a man, I'll say "You're the man with balls!" Assuming you are a lady, I say "You're the woman with balls".
Best wishes.


Hazyjane has covered all the bases with respect to making up your mind about going or staying, but I'd just add that your parents are very right to mention about the economic climate. The job market is terrible at the moment, and you have to consider that in the time it takes to find a decent job you may have actually got your PhD finished. Don't underestimate just how bad it is to find a job at the moment (particularly if you're not coming from a top 20, or even top 10 university now). It may be very wise to stay put until you find a job.

Last year I decided I no longer wanted to pursue an academic career, but now it looks like it's the only route available to me, as the corporate sector is drying up. In this respect, you may find a PhD is a very valuable tool to have in the next 5 years with respect to finding employment.


I'd disagree a little about the benefit of a PhD in a non-academic job. Whilst things aren't the best, there are jobs out there. It is low-skilled people who are hit the worst not people with degrees. And outside of academia I wouldn't say a PhD is much of an asset - people can actually be scared of people with PhDs; they don't want someone who knows it all and will challenge them. BAs, MAs etc, sure they just show you are qualified. But a PhD outside of academia also points you out as being a little odd and no-one knows what an MPhil means in relation to a PhD. Obviously depends on the employer etc etc, but....

Other than that - I like the mindset advice someone else gave.


i agree with hazyjane- i'm actually following a similar method. I too had a highly negative experience which resulted in a two year break from it all. Am back at uni now and giving it my all- as hazyjane says, if it all falls apart again then at least i will know i gave it another shot. For the moment i am 'ok', just plodding along. And Alice, your message made me feel a whole lot better:-)


I agree with Missspacey. Take my word for it, the job market is HORRENDOUS at the moment and I know this seems like a really bad reason to keep doing a PhD that you're unhappy with but it is so utterly demoralizing looking for a job in this climate that feeling down already will not help. And I have to disagree with Alice's comments. Actually, if this recession is indicating any sort of pattern it is that the people with degrees (especially Master's) are suffering enormously, the big bankers, CEOs, all senior level people are being hit as hard as the low-skilled workers. At the moment you can find work in ASDA, but not a well-paid job requiring a degree, and companies are cutting off the top people in favour of lower paid workers who are, obviously, cheaper. I speak from experience. I just started my PhD last month, after 6 months of job searching after which I was feeling ready to give up and go and buy a camel and become a nomadic goat herder. Think really carefully about what sort of world you'll be entering outside of the ivory tower!


Actually the smart thing for all of us to do is stick in academia for the next 3-4 years using existing funding that can't be taken away from PIs. And then when the academic sector starts to suffer (e.g. Wellcome have slashed their research budget by £30m) in terms of future grants, we'll all have to decamp to the private sector, which will hopefully have recovered by then. :(


For what it's worth, if you're funded, I think you should stick with it until you get a job (if you really think you can't complete). I know the money's not great but it's much better than being unemployed and I'm speaking from experience.

It really is very tough out there at present.

I hope it all works out for you.


In direct reply to Frankie- I am in a similar position as you. I've been feeling confused: I really don't think the PhD is for me, but have no idea how my other options will play out in the current economic situation. I've been thinking about becoming a teacher in a private school, working in a library or entering HE admin. However, I'm not sure how easy it will be to enter these professions at the mo. My parents are supportive, and like yours they think I should stick it out, and go into those professions after my PhD when things will have hopefully brightened up. If it's any consolation, I know two recently finished PhD students who have completely fallen out of love with academia and landed excellent jobs (one of my friends was offered a job work almost £40,000p.a. in HE sector!)

I think the economic storm is psychologically difficult for everyone (even for those in the so-called ivory tower): we've been bought up in a world of vast employment opportunities! Now those prospects are shrinking and it is devastating. In some ways, I think it is harder for us in the pressure cooker of academic life, where you are constantly reminded of your lack of knowledge. So, our confidence knocked, the economy in shock, it's not surprising that we feel trapped!!

Like you I've been feeling anxious and fed-up quite a lot of the time, but I'm going to stick it out. I think I'm capable.

However, I think if your health is starting to suffer then maybe you should consider your other options. Maybe talk to a counsellor and a careers adviser.
Or, maybe ask your doctor to issue a certificate for a few months off. Maybe you just need a break?!


hi Frankie,

I have to admit, I know how you feel. I posted a few months ago and I'm still wondering if this is for me. I have tried to persuade my supervisor of a change of direction with this PhD and although he seems to have agreed, I have to say, I don't feel much better for it. The problem is, is that the discipline I am in isn't entirely the best area to be for the research I think I am doing!! I suppose you learn things whilst doing the PhD about what you like and don't like or more importantly, where your skills/career objectives may be more applicable and may suit you better. I also am concerned about the economic climate - mortgage, debts to pay etc. but I'm starting to think that being miserable and self confidence erroding is probably worse and definitely so in the long term.
I've decided to give myself to April and in the meantime, pursue information about the area I want to get into more, with gusto. I feel as if I need to talk to as many people as possible so that I can make the decision to leave or not.
It is hard. Best to try to keep open minded about other possibilities and if it is making you miserable be truthful with yourself and try to find an area which you would be contented with (after all, for most people they work to live, not the other way around) and be more suited to. Good luck.;-)