Should I quit my PhD?

posted
11-Apr-18, 11:19
Avatar for Crabtree
posted about 3 months ago
Hi,

I started my PhD about 1.5 years ago in a European university, in a lab of computational biology. I had always dreamt of doing a PhD, and although biology was not my initial field of study (applied mathematics and computer science), I really thought I could get interested by the subject I was proposed. Also, the lab mates and my advisor seemed nice.

Problem: although my own research topic has been okay since I’ve started (it’s quite theoretical, I felt passion for it in the beginning, but unfortunately not really anymore), I really really hate the world of biology. I am a very conceptual person, and it’s a real struggle for me to remember the function of this or that protein, and the ten thousands different experimental methods people used to study a given problem. Yet the whole lab is turned toward biology, people only speak of biology (even during breaks or lunch breaks), they go to biology symposiums… This would still be acceptable if my boss wasn’t himself a genius physicist, who does not hide that he’s not impressed by my theoretical work, and is kind of disappointed by my lack of adaptation to the biology world.

For all these reasons, I’ve been suffering from a massive impostor syndrome since the beginning of my PhD. I had always been among the top students of my classes, and I am now below average (although I know my work is not terrible either), which is really hard to live with. Truth is, I never had a lot of self-confidence, and now that I don’t get any acknowledgement from my boss, I regularly feel like a piece of shit. I’m afraid to go to conferences and talk to people because I know they will judge me for lacking the background that I should have acquired in biology. But every time I try acquiring some biology knowledge, I forget everything the week after, because it just doesn’t interest me at all.

(continues next post)
posted
11-Apr-18, 11:19
edited about 16 seconds later
Avatar for Crabtree
posted about 3 months ago
Evolving in this world that doesn’t interest me is a real challenge: I feel completely under-stimulated because people have almost zero interest in the things I like (e.g. philosophy), and completely stupid when things come to factual topics (biology, most of the time). Since I’m not passionate, I try keeping an acceptable workload (40-45h) in order to have a little bit of free time to do things I really like and not catch a depression. But I compensate by working harder in the lab, and I’m usually so tired when I come home that I don’t have much energy to work on the projects that would really interest me. And I carry a latent anxiety with me most of the time, thinking that I should work more, and get over this biology problem.

Although everything is not going terrible (my boss is not unsatisfied with me, the ambiance in the lab is nice most of the time), I’m regularly depressed. I know I have at least 2 more years to go, and I’m really not sure I want to ruin them with some bad years of PhD. Truth is, I’m certain I don’t want to stay in the academia after my PhD (if I finish it), and I think I could easily find a job as a data scientist if I decided to stop.

(continues next post)
posted
11-Apr-18, 11:20
Avatar for Crabtree
posted about 3 months ago
The things that essentially prevent me from doing this are:
-I don’t want to appear as a failure to the eyes of my relatives
-I don’t wan’t to have a huge gap on my resume, which I wouldn’t know how to justify
-I’m not completely sure I would be happier outside of academia. Maybe the passion will never come back. Maybe the impostor syndrome never goes away.
-I don’t really have the courage to start a new life in a new city all over again
-I have one publication which I hope we will submit in the months to come (but everything takes forever, because of my supervisor perfectionism), and another one as a co-author which will probably also be submitted in the weeks to come. I feel like it would be a shame to leave without any publication. In any case, I’m thinking of making a data science blog in order to present the work I’ve been doing, to show that this PhD wasn’t a complete loss of time.

I already had quite a long conversation with my boss at the end of my first year, telling him I had some doubts, and he convinced me to stay and to take things more easily. But to this day he’s still very avaricious of compliments (and not of critics), and my doubts are stronger than ever.

Any advice would be really nice.

Thank you.
posted
11-Apr-18, 12:50
edited about 1 minute later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 3 months ago
Hi Crabtree

It sounds like you want to quit... if you were in your final year, I would say stay - just for the sake of finishing what you started. But since you are early in, it seems like a good place to stop. That is unless you believe things will get better.

If you were to "quit", it wouldn't be failing and needn't appear like that in the eyes of your relatives, on CV etc. You have a possible publication coming up - so by the sounds of it you have done enough to register for an MPhil (if you are in the UK - don't know what it is like elsewhere). Deciding to change your direction and pursue a different avenue in life with an MPhil and a publication under your belt certainly doesn't sound like failing to me. It sounds like being pragmatic by pursuing something that you will hopefully enjoy more (feeling like sh*t for a prolonged period isn't great). Have you identified any possible jobs that you would be thinking of applying for? That might help in your decision.

That all said, if you're reading this and thinking, "hmm... no", then maybe you deep down do want to stay on and finish your PhD? Bottom line is, you have to do what you want to do - not minding about your boss or your family. In the course of a lifetime, what they think about your decision does not matter (although it might seem to at the time).

I hope this helps your reflection a little.
Tudor
posted
11-Apr-18, 13:02
edited about 4 seconds later
by tru
Avatar for tru
posted about 3 months ago
Hi, Crabtree,

I think you need a break. Take some time off to think clearly about what you want to do.

You are really quite close. Do you think you can hang on a bit longer?

If you decide to stop, you could ask your supervisor if there is sufficient data for you to write up as a Master. That way you won't have a gap in your resume.

A few things I'd like to address about your thoughts:
-I don’t want to appear as a failure to the eyes of my relatives --> It's your life and future. Ignore them.
-I don’t wan’t to have a huge gap on my resume, which I wouldn’t know how to justify --> Write up as master
-I’m not completely sure I would be happier outside of academia. Maybe the passion will never come back. Maybe the impostor syndrome never goes away --> Would you like to work part time while you are deciding so you know if you are happier outside?
-I don’t really have the courage to start a new life in a new city all over again ---> Find work in your city then. If you do postdoc, you will likely need to move.
-I have one publication which I hope we will submit in the months to come (but everything takes forever, because of my supervisor perfectionism), and another one as a co-author which will probably also be submitted in the weeks to come. I feel like it would be a shame to leave without any publication. --> Wait until after the co-author paper is in before telling your supervisor you want to go. Negotiate with your supervsior if you can submit the first author paper earlier.

Have a good think about what future you want, academia or not. Choose the future that you will be happy with, regardless of what others say because ultimately you are the one living it. Good luck.
posted
11-Apr-18, 14:38
Avatar for hasanhash
posted about 3 months ago
I will agree to the abovementioned comment. Take some break, travel enjoy go to your homeland and then sit alone and decide what you want in life.

- how this quitting will impact your carrier.
- do you have good alternate carrier development choices
. I would recommend you to also find a mentor who could give you suggestions regarding your current situation .

Above all, even if you quit, don't worry. Try to find the thing you love. Remember, getting a PhD opportunity from a European university is not a small thing. Think about it again before leaving it
posted
12-Apr-18, 07:14
edited about 47 seconds later
Avatar for Crabtree
posted about 3 months ago
Thanks a lot for these answers, that's very helping, and very appreciated.
It seems that I can't "convert" my half-PhD into a master thesis or a MPhil in my university... Otherwise I would already be gone by then. After discussing the situation with some colleagues, it seems that it wouldn't be that bad to simply drop the PhD. After all, I've got a good reason: I came in the lab thinking I would be merged in a world of applied maths, while it's actually mostly experimental biology. Applying to this lab was a bad choice from my side, but I tried to assume it for more than a year before I gave up. And it's not like my boss wanted to get rid of me because my work was too bad. Plus, in the end, you're right: it's my life that I feel like I'm wasting, so it must be my decision.

Anyway, as you both highlighted, this is not an easy choice, so I think I'll wait a few more weeks, to be sure of my choice. Maybe this will give me enough time to submit my current work. And if I find myself depressed again, I'll be sure of my choice.

Thank you.
posted
12-Apr-18, 09:59
edited about 27 seconds later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 3 months ago
All the best Crabtree; giving it a bit of time sounds a good idea : )

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