Thoughts of leaving PhD...


I am in a complete quandry about whether to continue with my PhD. I started this October having come straight from an MSc and a BA and have not really enjoyed it so far. I think the main problems are that I hadn't had any experience of the kind of work I'd be doing when I applied and am now not enjoying research work as much as I thought I would. The second main issue is that I've never had a break from studying and am currently feeling burnt out and lacking in motivation. I've also moved a long way from home, was pretty ill for the first few months, and have gone through a break up so am currently feeling very low and lacking in enthusiasm for my studies.

I've been thinking about quitting for a while now but am prevented from doing it by the following reasons:
1. worry that I'll regret it, particularly as the start has not been smooth
2. fear of unemployment (I have an idea that I'd like to pursue a career in academic publishing but am aware that this is a notoriously difficult area to get into)
3.worry that I'm letting people down (mainly my lab)/wasting MRC money/wasting an amazing opportunity.
4.concern that I'll have to pay back the 3 montjhs' studentship that I've already received (I've tried looking through the research council's website and can't find anything).

Whilst I'm feeling like this I'm finding it very difficult to concentrate and feel it's not fair on anyone else in my lab that my motivation is so low. Is it possible to take a couple of months off to think things over? I'm worried that once I've broached the subject with my superviser it will ruin the relationship between us? Also, whilst my superviser is always pleasant and helpful, she is very distant and sometimes I don't see her for quite a few days.

If anyone's been in a similar situation, or has any ideas about what to do, I would love some advice as this situation is driving me insane!

Thanks in advance for your help!


I'm sorry to hear that you're finding things so tough just now. It sounds like you've been through a lot. I can understand why you feel like quitting, but maybe you should try and stick with it a bit longer to see if things improve? I'm sure it's very common to feel bewildered by the whole experience at the beginning of a PhD - I often wondered if I'd done the right thing, and the thought of my classmates out in the 'real world' with a proper pay packet was depressing.

Have you talked things over with your supervisor? Or if you don't feel comfortable speaking to her, could you explain your concerns in an email? Maybe there's someone else in your department (a second supervisor, another lecturer that you know) that you could speak to as well? I'm sure that your supervisor would be very understanding given what you've been through recently. You could ask her if it would be possible to have a few weeks/months off to recharge your batteries and consider your position - you might find that taking some time away from the Phd environment will help you to focus. I would hope that bringing this up with your supervisor wouldn't ruin your relationship - I'm sure she would admire you for being honest about your problems.

Don't worry about not having any experience in your research area - many students are in the same position, and if you keep at it, you'll soon be up to speed with what you need to know.

Best of luck! ;-)


I'd like to echo the last post. If you have a good supervisor then I'm sure they'd understand - its in their best interests to help you through this after all. Of course it never just rains, it pours, so a lot of things happen at once, especially on top of the big change that a PhD brings. On top of that, the start of a PhD is a bit wishy-washy, and you either feel lazy or a fraud for the first few months, as you're feeling around the edges until you really understand and get stuck into the topic. So I'd say stick at it for a while longer, but try and get some further support from your supervisor, a tutor or student services if you feel you need it. Chin up! :-)


Sorry to hear about your situation and totally understands the feeling low mindset. I'm at the last leg of PhD and its probably now that I finally got over it although not completely. First, I would agree with the other posts as you seem to have a fairly understanding supervisor and even if you don't see her few days at a time thats not at all bad. I sometimes dont see my super for months, but its just that would they be there when you really want to see them. You will need to slowly explain all this to the supervisor sooner than later. Believe me its better to ask for help from the suitable people (supervisor, student services, graduate school) than bottle it. Life goes on as well as the PhD, so things can happen that muddle each other's status. If you think your supervisor would understand just ask her for some time off and talk this situation through and also about the MRC money problem. Get help when you need it as some wounds needs the appropriate medicine to heal rather than time. :-)


I'd try to stick in there, find a sympathetic ear and some kind of student support. The reason I say this is I hated what I was doing at the beginning, then had a another wobble half way through but now in my final year I am LOVING it!!!
Hope you work through this x


I also started in Oct and have found the first term incredibly hard - not so much academically but emotionally and psychologically. The transition from the BA and masters to Phd is a tough one that I've found hard to cope with, I feel pretty directionless atm, but I'm sure that that will change. Talk to people, you've had a rough run, but I'd advise sticking it out for a bit longer and seeing if things change once you really get going and have a while feeling better physically.


Sorry to hear things haven't been going well for you. I have to say from the outset that my post is biased because of my own situation, so its just my experience and opinion talking!
I'm not sure how much it will help but here's what happened to me - the first few months of my PhD I was thrown into practical work that I wasn't prepared for because it needed to be done at that time for various reasons beyond my control. By February it became clear that the way my supervisor and I had envisaged the project going was really not going to work, so we sat down and talked it over and changed things a bit. I was really feeling like I wanted to quit at that point but decided to give it a year at least so I would know Id given it a fair chance. By the end of my first year, after lots of thought I still felt like it wasn't for me, so talked to my supervisor. I can go for 2 weeks without seeing her, but have always maintained a very cordial and honest relationship with her (ie not hiding away for weeks on end when things were going on). I was fortunate that she was very understanding of how I was feeling and did not take it personally at all (which it wasn't - the problems were mainly due to the actual work I was trying to do).
Anyway, I'm still working on the stuff that I did during the first year and trying to write that up so haven't cut my ties completely, but in my mind have come to accept that I probably wont finish the PhD. This was the hardest thing to get figured out due to family expectations, etc. etc. and took a lot of soul searching to realise I would be staying doing something I was miserable doing just to please other people. (potential fame and glory from my phd didnt really come into it, funnily enough!)
Now, looking back over the past year Im glad I stayed on a bit longer as I got various bits and pieces of experience that I wouldn't have got otherwise (conferences, teaching, presenting, etc.) I am also much happier in myself now that the big 'PhD cloud' isnt hanging over my head but am lucky that I can still round off the bits of research I already did.

In response to your reasons fornot quitting: There is always the possibility of starting another PhD at a time when you feel ready for it and perhaps have had some time away from education. The amazing opportunity is only amazing for the right person - if you're miserable then its not amazing. Better let someone else do it who will really love it. Unemployment - at this time with the economy etc its not very good for anyone, but you have a good education behind you already (I presume, or you wouldnt be doing a PhD) so that will stand to you. Academic publishing might be harder to get into without the qualification, but how much more are you guaranteed to get into it with the PhD? Letting people down - I guess family and friends would prefer you to be happy... And the grant, I've no idea about how that works Im afraid, though in my own situation I don't have to pay it back. The grant was for work done, and I did work while receiving it, so it would be like a boss asking for a salary back when you quit a job. I'll have to give my laptop back though :-(

Ok, so I guess from my experience I would say stick it out a bit longer, talk as openly as you can with your supervisor and family, and make a list of reasons why you want to leave, reasons why you want to stay, and the pros and cons of both. Think about taking a few weeks off - this should be no problem once you explain to your supervisor how you are feeling, and they will certainly see it as a better option than quitting altogether. This will give you a chance to step back from everything and clear your head before making any drastic decisions.
And all the very best of luck whatever you decide to do!


Sorry to know abt yr situation. I understand it is not easy at the beginning with all the difficulties. I also started in Oct and these last 3 months had not been easy due to several reasons. As PhD has been my long time dream and to get funding was another blessing to me, I would never ever think of leaving...

Good luck to you as well and hope everything will go smoothly soon.


Hi Amygdala (cool name - I assume you're a brain person too!)

This probably isn't going to be too helpful as I'm not the happiest PhD student you'll hear from at the moment. But I do know how you feel. I started October 2007 and was thrown straight into practical work with techniques I barely understood, I didn't have a masters, I'd changed topic from my undergrad research project, I'd had a couple of years out working and I moved to a new city! Yep, as you can imagine things were not exactly brill! I didn't understand the subject, was generally confused and was terrified of lab work for about the first 3 months after which I had a mini meltdown on my second supervisor. This was surprisingly useful and helped me to get some direction back and also forced a dialogue between me and my first supervisor about how pants I was feeling.

After xmas I came back and things were better, I think mainly because I was getting used to the lab work and that lifted a huge stress off my mind, also we got a new PhD student so I wasn't the new one anymore and things weren't automatically my fault when they went wrong and I got more trust.

However this summer I realised that I was just coasting along with my head in the sand doing loads of practical work with only a small amount of it relating directly to my PhD (we work collboratively in my lab). I got stuck into writing my transfer report wich was very stressful but got that done (3 months later am still waiting for the transfer viva to be arranged!). After this though, instead of it giving me direction which was what I was hoping, writing it pretty much demolished my confidence and I ignored my project as much as possible and just did lab work in the hope it would all be OK. At the start of December I started looking for jobs, no luck yet and in the current climate its terrifying. I had another meltdown on my second supervisor just before xmas and he (again) as very good, he spoke to my supervisor for me and there is an idea that my project may change slightly to try and improve it. My supervisor was really good about everything and he is very patient (at the moment) with me. Everyone at uni is doing everything they can to make this work for me and I feel guilty as secretly I just want it all to go away and just get a job.

At the moment I don't think I'll finish my PhD, it's just a question of getting a job. However if I don't have a job in 3 months then I'm half way through - who knows! I understand what you mean about guilt and I think my parents would love me to finish but at the moment my mum is more worried about my sanity to be honest.

Don't mean to sound depressing (and it does sound depressing having written it all out!). But I think there are a few key pieces of advice for you that I've learned:

- give it time, lots of people when they are in a new situation be it job or PhD have a major wobble in the first few months, if you keep plugging away one day you'll suddenly think - hey I can do this, it happened with me and lab work.

- speak to your supervisor, or if that's hard, your second supervisor in my first term I left it far too late to be totally honest with my supervisors and as a result spent 3 months bottling everything up and feeling pretty pants.

- Don't worry about letting people down, it's your life you have to do what's best for you. One person who gives me lots of advice and recommended me for my current studentship started telling me how bad it would look for my supervisor if I dropped out - tough, I am not going to spend the next 2 years crying down the phone to my mother and wondering whether antidepresants are the answer for how it makes my supervisor look. When I leave I can just give feedback to the relevent people saying he was incredibly helpful but this just isn't right for me.

A break might be a good thing, I'm sure you can broach it with y


Thank you all for your replies. It's good to hear that others have felt this bad about their PhD at some point but that things have improved. However, at the moment I'm so unmotivated by the prospect of getting a PhD that it's very difficult to keep going, or put anywhere near enough effort into my work.

Walrus-I am indeed a brain person! But stuck doing bioinformatics, which I'm finding soul-destroying. I spend almost a year working a lab before starting my PhD but didn't really enjoy lab work either (I applied for the PhD before this experience). I think part of the problem was that I just rushed into a PhD without really thinking about it, mainly because my tutors were so enthusiatic about it and having got funding, it seemed silly not to do it.

I think the ideal situation would be to take a few months out, just to think things through in a calmer way. The thought of trying to get a job in the current economic climate is absolutely terrifying, but I don't think this factor would be a good enough reason to stay doing work that's making me miserable for three years.

Has anyone managed to arrange taking a few months out?

Anyway, thanks again for all your really helpful comments and I hope everyone else's PhD dilemma's get sorted out.