Advice wanted - Feeling hopeless in PhD and wanting to quit

posted
09-Jan-18, 10:06
edited about 23 seconds later
by melodie
Avatar for melodie
posted about 5 months ago
Hi everyone, sorry that this is yet another "I want to quit" post. However I hope some of you may still be willing to have a read and maybe offer advice.

I am now towards the later stage of a funded science PhD at as well-respected University, but in terms of the work I have done or sense of accomplishment, I am no where near. I have one published paper, and so I guess that would make one chapter, with most of my day to day work having been towards other chapters. Here is where the problems start. The nature of my project is very much experimental, in the sense that the techniques were novel, and so were never guaranteed to work. So far two methods have not worked at my attempts, but both could be possibly investigated further. However, this of course means I've lost years to the method development of these two experiments, and so feel like I have nothing to show for 3 and a bit years of work. To compound this, my family's health has been a rollercoaster; my father has a terminal illness, and mother was briefly hospitalised following a mental health crisis. I suffer from long term clinical depression myself, that waxes and wane,s but when in the depths of it I just can't cope with the pressure of the PhD along with my grim personal life and feel that there is no let up. As such I have had two extensions (without extra money), due to basically falling apart. Before Christmas I was struggling to cope, but then received further bad news about a medical problem, meaning I now need tests and possibly surgery in the coming weeks/months. All in all, I feel like I don't have the energy to complete the PhD if it's even possible, given the dead ends, but will be in a very difficult position whether I stay or go, given that I will be jobless and homeless. Sorry for the ill-structured wall of text, but any advice?
posted
10-Jan-18, 17:26
edited about 18 seconds later
by sb0070
Avatar for sb0070
posted about 5 months ago
You can submit the chapters as method development chapters. You can write up every experiment you did, talk about the theory behind it and what you observed, then say that it's not good enough to use as a method and explain why.

It's not your fault that these methods didn't work and that's just part of the process when you're doing novel experiments. Talk to your personal tutor and supervisor about how you feel, they can advise you further.
posted
11-Jan-18, 07:35
edited about 34 minutes later
Avatar for newlease36
posted about 5 months ago
contd
posted
11-Jan-18, 07:49
edited about 22 minutes later
Avatar for newlease36
posted about 5 months ago
I suggest you go to your university counselling service for both support with your mental health and advice with with approach this stage of Phd.

In relation to your actual thesis, i feel you need to talk with your supervisors, about what you need to add to get it done. So you have one complete chapter and then can any of any failed studies be included?, even if they didn't work out. I have some non-significant findings in one of my chapters, but the rationale and method for those studies is fine. Either way you need to discuss with your supervisors what you now need to do, to finish up in the shortest time and then make a plan of action based on that. I would imagine not having a clear idea of what you need to do at this stage, would provoke a lot of anxiety and be very demotivating.

I hope this helped.
posted
11-Jan-18, 10:57
by melodie
Avatar for melodie
posted about 5 months ago
sb0070, newlease36, thanks to both of you, as those are very wise words regarding writing up the failed experiments alongside being honest with my supervisor about the need to finish up in a way to try and get the project finished, not necessarily to take it as far as they would ideally want.

I get on quite well with my supervisor and so I guess this has added to my feelings of being a let-down and a bit of a rubbish PhD, but even more so than that I have indeed been demotivated and made incredibly anxious by having no clear idea of the way ahead or how to address these problems. I have a supervisor meeting coming up and so I will broach these issues come what may. I had in fact attempted to tell of the failed 2nd experiment once already, but it was somehow written off as that the method just needs more refining, but this is from a supervisor from a completely different field. Talking to those in this field (a field I also did my masters in), they have all agreed that it is really not working. So I guess I need to argue my case a bit more, but to say I feel unconvincing and ignorant is an understatement given all my psychological weights I've previously mentioned. I just feel like I have been running on depleting strength for over 3 years, and just can't seem to get it back.

Thanks for the advice tough guys. I keep hearing such encouraging sensible words, but my mind goes off and does/tells me something else!
posted
11-Jan-18, 19:40
edited about 5 minutes later
by Dunham
Avatar for Dunham
posted about 5 months ago
First of all, I think it is already impressive that you made it this far despite these massive set backs in the project and the difficult personal circumstances. You can take pride in that. Many people would have quit by now.

Now that you are already over the 3 year mark (I just assume 4 years funding), why not at least try to write up and attempt to finish? In my opinion, there is not much to lose now. Have an honest discussion with your supervisor, where you also mention the difficult private circumstances and maybe there is a way to make it a thesis, even though the project was supposed to go further. Most theses have chapters where everyone involved knows that this manuscript is never going to get published. Chapters with negative results are quite common and as long as there is something (you mentioned one published paper) that worked, it can still pass. I would at least discuss it with my supervisor. Maybe he or she has an idea how to make it work.
I think it will bother you eventually if you quit so close to the end without exhausting all options.
posted
12-Jan-18, 11:38
edited about 44 seconds later
by melodie
Avatar for melodie
posted about 5 months ago
Thanks a lot Dunham, that is very kind to say, and believe me when I say I've been trying to keep going as well as I can, but I do feel like I've hit some kind of limit.

I am indeed on a 4-year programme (initial year involved broad training and choosing the project) but due to the suspensions I am not as near the end of the tunnel as it may seem. I think it would take at least a year of painful further perseverance to try to get something together to make a thesis, with a lot more labs to try and make an experiment work. But that's also complicated by running out of funding this summer and not having time to use the day for the analysis,in addition to the fact that with all of the extenuating circumstances I may don't think I would make it through that.

Sorry for the pessimistic response, I am indeed going to have that honest conversation with my supervisor though and how some sort of thesis work a chance of passing may be possible and if not whether making an mphil may be possible.
posted
12-Jan-18, 17:04
edited about 13 seconds later
by melodie
Avatar for melodie
posted about 5 months ago
Okay so I had the meeting, and it was a bit of a failure, or at least felt that way. I tried very hard to explain how the 2nd experiment is reeeally not working (with more oomph than last time), and how much the road ahead feels harder because of all my personal problems. I think because I was trying very hard not to cry, I wasn't able to go the whole way into details as much as I would've liked to, such as mentioning changing to MPhil if necessary, but it also just didn't really end in much of a solution or feeling I'd got all the facts across. Sup now wants me to write up a document specifying what has been done so far for the experiment and what's exactly the problem and possible solutions. They also ended it with telling me the immortal words "cheer up!"...which I can't say helped. I guess knowing the severity of anyone's depression is hard, and of course as my boss I feel very awkward having to say such things.
posted
12-Jan-18, 22:26
by Pjlu 4 star member
Avatar for Pjlu
posted about 5 months ago
Melodie are you receiving any support to assist with the low mood and anxiety you're experiencing? Not from supervisors but from others? Friends, counsellor or GP or someone? It reads as though you have a lot of hardship in your life at the moment and could use some practical support or similar, while you work through some of the Phd issues.

Supervisors understand that many of us get overwhelmed and over it at various points in the journey but they may not understand or recognise when this goes beyond the usual doctoral blues and needs more consistent and appropriate professional support or empathy. Is there someone who you can turn to who can provide this in person? Perhaps a counsellor?
posted
12-Jan-18, 22:35
edited about 28 seconds later
by melodie
Avatar for melodie
posted about 5 months ago
Hi Pjlu, thanks for your message. I have indeed attended counselling, and the counsellor actually promoted the idea of changing to getting an MPhil or the like, as with all of the personal and professional pressures and the impact it is having on me, they are encouraging me to escape before I become even worse in my health, through conversion to MPhil etc. It has definitely been helpful and I would be even worse without it,but I am dealing with a lot of conflicting messages on whether to soldier on or cut my losses, while finding it hard to know the right path. I suppose a point is reached, where even with support or encouragement, the brutal facts of circumstances can't be changed, and that is why the right decision may well be to just prioritise my health and life over the PhD. But of course, trying to convince my supervisor of that fact is very hard as the data and results mean more than my wellbeing, frankly, and that's quite heard to deal with.

(sorry if i'm being a bit maudlin. As previous posts indicate, I've had a tough day)
posted
13-Jan-18, 00:04
by tru
Avatar for tru
posted about 5 months ago
Hi, melodie,

I am sorry you are facing many challenges both at a personal and PhD study level.

I think that your supervisor's suggestion of preparing a document with details of experiments, problems and possible solutions is a good one. You will need to incorporate that into your thesis anyway, so you might as well get started.

I think you have had very good advice here from counselling to writing method development chapters which I think you could consider. I would like to suggest that you sit down and draft the outline of your thesis (Chapter titles plus main headings for the chapter) to see if you have sufficient data to write up. I suspect that you do. Then, present that together with your other exp document to your supervisors and ask "Can I write up and finish my PhD?".
posted
13-Jan-18, 11:07
by melodie
Avatar for melodie
posted about 5 months ago
Yes, I think it is definitely wise to finally sort out exactly what the situation is regarding the second so-fair failed, and I do already have a fair amount written down about it. I think sometimes it's easy to expect people to give you the answers so I think I was just a bit too overwrought yesterday to think clearly or sensibly in the meeting or afterwards!

Yes, I will do that over the next few days, and thanks again everyone as I really appreciate the advice!

I think I don't have enough data yet, but I can at least see the full picture of what would be needed if I do as has been suggested and outline the current state of thesis. So I'll start there :)
posted
14-Jan-18, 03:26
edited about 12 seconds later
Avatar for newlease36
posted about 5 months ago
Hi Melodie, You said you were getting conflicting messages about whether to continue to pursue the Phd or go for Mphill. So I don't want to add that confusion.

But I do think the fact that your supervisors want you to continue means something. In my opinion, unless there clueless and incompetent (and only you can judge that) it means they believe both and you and your research are (or have the potential to be) good enough for a Phd.

I see the opposite case all the time, where the student wants a Phd but supervisor's are advising Mphill.
that's the case with you. It says something positive about you and your research.

I think, as others have said that creating the document they asked will help. And perhaps off the back of it you can come up a reasonable plan to finish. Maybe you could just spend a short time finishing up experiments/ tying up enough lose ends and then write up.

I think if you manage to de-stress a bit, you might find while writing the document that you come up with some creative solutions, ie you figure some not too time consuming things to do to tie it all together. It seems like your supervisors think you capable, and you probably are.

In relation to mental health issues, I find meditation really helped me. I can recommend some books that helped me, if you like.

Best of luck with your decision. For now, just focus on the document you need to write. Don't think about the mphill/phd decision/ the end/the vivia/the thesis. Just focus on this for now.

Walking in nature for breaks is really great too. I know its obvious, but so beneficial. I find a swim has the same effect on me also.

N
posted
15-Jan-18, 11:26
by melodie
Avatar for melodie
posted about 5 months ago
Hi again Newlease,

True, and I know I'm lucky to have a positive supervisor that I have got on with. The issue there, is that this experiment that has not worked so far, is in a a different field to my supervisor's, and when I have spoken to a range of people in that field, there is a lot more dubiousness on whether it is a viable thing to keep pursuing.

There is also an issue that is my own failing, which is that to use the results of the experiment data, a large model is needed, which I would need to do around all of the other work, and i think this is where it is not appreciated how large that combination is as a work-load at this point. And with my suspensions and delays, I've even less time left to tackle something that really is big. I also have not done proper coding since my undergrad, and this would still be a massive step up, and so that is basically another large obstacle that another researcher could do, but I am lacking in the skills. Embarrassing to admit, but true. And of course this model only has a purpose if a way is found to make the experiment work, which could take any amount of time, or just not work.

Therefore I really do think the viability of the phd working out to be completely uncertain given the above and everything i've mentioned before, and the fact that I really am not coping very well.

As always the advice is great and makes so much sense, I just wish I was more able to follow it! Though so true about walking in nature, I went for a long walk with a friend on Saturday and it was incredibly calming.

Melodie
posted
15-Jan-18, 21:01
edited about 6 minutes later
by melodie
Avatar for melodie
posted about 5 months ago
Jamie I'm so sorry to hear of your circumstances as they sound incredibly tough and you've done really well to continue on as you have! I can definitely empathise with the difficulties regarding your mum's sectioning due to the similarities to my situation. My own mother is also worrying my brother and I currently with her behaviour being similar to the last time she was sectioned, making it hard to know what may happen next both for her and therefore also for the situation with my father and his care for his dementia. So Christmas is always just a trauma to get through, not a break.

I'm really quite shocked at your supervisor's response. Does he know the full picture? And if he really is that callous, are there no academic administrators or graduate study directors you could speak to instead? It sounds like your treatment has been incredibly unfair.

I also really think you should make the effort to access the counselling. If I didn't have that, along with good friends, I don't think I'd be here now.

Your last point is certainly true, but as I'm sure you know it becomes increasingly hard to know what the right thing is that's important. I certainly have spent times not knowing if my family, PhD, or personal survival are the right thing to prioritise, and each one has sadly been damaging to the other at some point.

Thankyou, and I really hope things get easier for you. Remember that the PhD isn't everything you are.

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