So having started in a PhD as an enthusiastic and confident science geek, I'm now at the end of my first year and I'm pretty certain that it's time for me face up to the fact that academia is not what I thought it was, that it's not for me and move on. I'm not sure that I'm looking for advice (comments very welcome though), as I am 99% sure that I have reached my decision. I suppose I just need to put it out there and have something to look back on to remind me why I quit if ever I feel a tinge of regret.
I took on the technician/research assistant jobs in the beginning because I was new in the department (big mistake). I caught my supervisor bad-mouthing me in a public corridor. I am a shell of my former self in that I am sceptical of everyone's agendas and have no confidence or self-esteem left, as opposed to the happy-go-lucky idealist I was one year ago. I hate all the double-crossing and politics and ego-massaging that seems to be par for the course. I am currently caught in the crossfire between my supervisors and my committee who disagree on the level of support I need (who to trust when they have opposing views of my development needs?). I am sick of the uncertainty and being in the middle of a prolonged conflict, relaying messages between the two camps and taking the crap because I'm the messenger, even though I haven't done anything wrong, in fact exactly the opposite - I've done my best and it's not enough. I'm starting to think Radiohead were right when they wrote "Ambition makes you look pretty ugly". I'm not willing to put my health and sanity at risk for the next 2.5 years. I've never been so emotionally unstable in my life (I'm in my 30s), it's no fun for me and it's not fair on those closest to me. The thesis, the achievement, the title - I just don't want them enough anymore. Other things are more important to me e.g. family. Unfortunately, it's an interesting project, but the shine has long gone. It would be nigh on impossible to get back any motivation I once had.
Having worked in the public sector before embarking on an academic path, I realise now that, for me, the grass was greener on that side (it's not a case of rose-tinted spectacles). I sorely miss dealing with everyday people on a daily basis, being part of a genuine community and the satisfaction of doing something for others (not just chasing my own selfish ambitions ruthlessly and single-mindedly, as I would be required to if I stayed in academia). I've already started to put the wheels in motion for my Plan B and I finally have hope again.
You've already apparently made your decision to leave and that's fair enough. But I'll throw in a few thoughts before you call it a day.
Your view of the experience has been coloured by some pretty bad politics. I've seen both sides of the coin, having had a relatively good experience during my PhD and first post-doc (there was some politics, however, it never concerned or involved me) but a stinker of an experience during my second post-doc. I will add if I'd opted to do my PhD at my second post-doc University (and there was that option), I do not think I would have got through so bad was the situation. I look at your story and think "There but for the grace of God go I."
However, I didn't opt for that University and at the University I went to I got the right level of support and control over the project to be able develop the project (though my primary supervisor had a very interesting side project that added value to my thesis) and felt able to thrive during it. In other words, the nature of the supervision can be a deal breaker. An enthusiastic supervision team can bring through and open up an apprehensive candidate just as much as a poor supervision team (i.e. like you describe) can drag an enthusiastic candidate down.
Before you take the final step, can I ask if you've enquired about changing supervisors? The moment he bad mouthed you in public, that for me would have been the end of him as my primary supervisor. Changing supervisors may change things sufficiently to revive at least some of your enthusiam and rescue the situation, if alternatives in your field are available.
If that is not possible, then you do need to bail out. However, you still may wonder what might have been a few years down the road and I would never say never. As I discovered, a different University and a different supervision team can make all the difference. See how you feel in a couple of years and if you're happy in whatever you're doing, then don't give it a second thought. If that itch to scratch returns, don't rule out the possibility of a PhD altogether.
But the important thing is you're happy in whatever you're doing.
One comment I will make is whether the experience is good or bad, the PhD process can be a lonely road and it can be up to you to look for opportunities to socialise. Joining student societies or sports / interest groups outside University can be an important and sociable release for you that can also make all the difference.
I feel identified with what you write. The PhD process has been quite hard on me too. Sadly success depends strongly on publications and when you get none it looks like you´re the only one to blame and people start bad mouthing.
I have started my third PhD year with no results and feeling looked down (I have a lot of results but negative).
I feel now that those negative results were something and I was able to tune the project so that finally I think I will be able to make it work. Sadly I was alone all the time, and had to do it all by myself (ironically if it ends up in a publication I sense I won´t be the only author in it...).
So the PhD process is hard when things don´t go as expected and harder when the environment shows no support. Sadly it´s all about the results and the orientation you receive plays a major role. If you caught your supervisor bad mouthing you maybe it´s time to talk with him and maybe even change him. Specially if you have been working hard on a project which has failed due to lack of advice and motivation.
I won´t leave the PhD but it´s your decision. You could work harder and prove them they were wrong!
I think now's a good time to leave if that's what you want to do. Giving the PhD a year to see what it's like is a good enough investment of time to know what it will be like. The problem of deciding to leave after a year and a half or two years is that it can seem you have to finish just because you've already invested so much time. If I had quit, I would have done it at the end of the first year. It really is a good time to make that decision.
A couple of thoughts: I'm a "mature" student who worked outside academia for a while before ending up in a PhD programme. Also ended up in a hellhole. Also spent at least 3 different periods over the 3 years where I realized my confidence was lower than I ever thought it could be. I do think that when academia is bad, there's probably nothing worse. I've worked some bad jobs, with awful people, but there's something about the straightforwardness of the exchange -- I owe you this work, you owe me that check, when I am off duty, you don't exist. That separation doesn't happen in academia. In some ways, it can't, if you do research, because the things that are in your head all day are all wrapped up with the people at your university. What I'm saying is: recognize that it isn't you, it really is the situation! If you decide to stay for some reason, think of it as a challenge: how can I (independently) avoid this? I did that: I totally minimized my time with my department: enough presence not to look like I'm acting out, but I am physically in that building about 10% of the time I used to be. And boy did my work improve! I also started reaching out to people at other universities, and made some good contacts and realized that there are good people out there, too.
But I also would say: don't think of leaving in a negative way. Two years -- and all the stress of a PhD -- is not worth it if your heart's not in it. Don't take two years for granted. Plus, this year was worth it. Whatever else happened, you learned something key about yourself -- you like working with "everyday people" etc. That's huge! Good to know at your age! All best wishes!
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