Why do people quit the PhD?

I’m interupting our usual programming to share with you some research in progress, because I am really interested in hearing what you think of it.

Next week I’ll be at the Quality in Post graduate Research conference (or QPR) the key gathering for research educators in Australia. I’m planning on presenting an analysis of the comments on a blog post written in 2012 by BJ Epstein called “Should you quit your PhD?”.  As you can imagine, it has been a popular post; so far it’s been viewed more than 30,000 times. Two years later it continues to get around 100 hits a day and, the time of writing, there were 183 comments.

This is a shed load of data about people’s experiences and thoughts around the subject of quitting the PhD.

I started my analysis by putting the comments in Nvivo to identify themes in order to compare them with what we already know. This helped me with a big methodological problem: how can I know that all the people who said they were PhD students were PhD students? If the results of my content analysis broadly matched with previous findings, I could be more confident that most people who commented have some lived experience of the PhD.

As it turns out, we already know quite a lot about why people quit their PhD. In her 2006 paper, “The Changing Environment for Doctoral Education in Australia”, Margot Pearson summarises prior research, mainly conducted in the United States, and names a complex set of interlocking factors:

  • research mode (full time / part time or movement between the two)
  • structure of the programme
  • dissertation definition
  • advising
  • departmental climate
  • research money
  • type of financial support
  • campus facilities
  • and job market opportunities.

Barbara Lovitt’s interesting book “Leaving the Ivory Tower”, published in 2001, covered similar issues, and, amongst many other interesting findings, identified two key factors in the decision to leave:

  • “Pluralistic ignorance”: failing to realise that the problems being experienced are similar to the problems other people are facing. People can then make the mistake of thinking THEY are the problem and ‘leaving in silence’. (BTW – this blog is dedicated to fighting pluralistic ignorance and demonstrating how many common problems and feelings there are amongst the PhD cohort, worldwide)
  • Feeling like you don’t belong to the discipline, or can’t conform to its norms of behaviour. (Lovitts uses Durkheim’s phrase ‘anomie’ to describe this phenomenon).

The reasons for PhD student attrition seem remarkably persistent over time. Ernest Rudd conducted interviews way back in 1978 with research students who had either quit, or had taken a very long time to complete their studies. In his book called “A new look at post graduate failure”, Rudd talks about the following factors:

  • Problems with motivation, including boredom, disenchantment and laziness
  • Injury or Illness
  • Family commitments, including marriage breakdowns
  • Loneliness
  • Lack of University jobs / attraction of a job offer
  • Problems in choice of topic
  • Cross disciplinary research issues (see “Is your PhD a Monster?” for more on this topic)
  • Failed lab work
  • Problems with ‘writing up’.
  • supervision issues (including neglect, incompetence and personality clashes)

As it happens, the result of my first pass through the comments was broadly consistent with the existing literature. In descending order, I found the following themes in my data:

  • Bullying or disinterested supervisors
  • Loss of interest in the research / Lack of internal motivation (essentially drift)
  • Don’t want to be an academic anymore and therefore see no point in continuing. Linked to the worry that PhD might make them ‘unemployable’ outside and wondering if ‘out there’ is better.

Mentioned less often were:

  • Being asked to do extra work to make the project ‘submittable’ (sometimes tied to lack of good formative feedback along the way, but not always).
  • Mounting debt (interestingly, in the two institutions I have worked, this is the most often stated reason for leaving a research degree, perhaps because it’s the most impersonal).
  • Not family / relationship / carer responsibility friendly
  • Desire to change disciplines / topic, but difficulty in doing so
  • Failed lab work
  • Stress / exhaustion / mental health issues – like depression

Mentioned much less often were the following:

  • Loss of supervisors / lack of appropriate supervisors
  • Intellectual isolation
  • Feelings of being trapped or powerless to act
  • Poisonous, competitive research environment
  • having to do work that is not your own – baby sitting, other people’s lab work, supervisor’s busy work.

Given all this, it’s interesting to look at why people say they stay. In the comments I found three main factors:

  • Sunk cost (I’ve got this far, might as well go the whole way)
  • Pressure / expectations of others like family and supportive supervisors
  • Sense of shame at failure

So my content analysis broadly matched the literature and suggested my data set was valid enough, but other than re-affirming what we already know, what else can we learn from this data? The comments are full of shame, blame and largely unspoken tensions. It seems that many people who are entertaining quitting thoughts find it hard to give them voice. It must be easy for a disaffected student to become quite socially isolated. How then, can these stories become a valuable source of knowledge about the PhD experience?

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 12.50.14 pmIn his book “The wounded story teller” Frank explores how people with cancer talk about their experience of the illness. He identifies three key narratives, which he calls “listening devices”. These narratives, he claims, can help us better understand and respond to the experience of people who are undergoing treatment. The ultimate aim of this better listening is better treatment and more empathetic care giving.

Distressed PhD students certainly in need of empathetic caregiving, from supervisors as well as family and friends. Perhaps some “listening devices” might help? So I went back to my data again, this time asking myself: what sort of story or plot is being told in this comment?

Like Frank, I decided to stick with the three most common narratives I could see, while acknowledging that all the stories people tell are complex ‘hairball’ stories with many threads. I hashed the multiple narratives together in a diagram which appears on the left. I then tweeted this to see what people in my network thought, and I’m particularly indebted to @katemfd, who is going through some pretty intense cancer treatment herself (and writing about it beautifully), for entering into a thoughtful discussion with me about it.

Here’s the tentative list of narratives I came up with after this conversation:

The resilience narrative

This is when people talk about the PhD as a journey or trial which can, or must, be overcome through the diligent personal effort.

I think this story line is what Frank would call a ‘preferred narrative”: many of the comments either follow reslilience narrative, or react / reject it in some way. A preferred narrative acts as a way of ‘disciplining’ people’s actions – in this case, to attempt to keep a student in the PhD, regardless of whether or not this is the best choice for them.

You’ll note, if you read through the comments, that many people who have passed their PhD are telling those who are thinking of quitting that “pushing on” is worth it. Many commenters, who seem on the verge of quitting, have ‘internalised’ the resilience narrative in their own self talk, telling us they intend to carry on, even though they are hating it.

People who cannot, or will not, ‘buy in’ to the resilience narrative seem to show signs of being alienated, sometimes extremely so. There are comments full of guilt or self blame for not ‘measuring up’ and being resilient enough. Others talk back to these expectations in defiant terms, especially those who have quit and say they feel liberated. I think, by the way, that this is one of the reasons that “The Valley of Shit” has become such a popular post: it speaks to this experience of feeling worn down by other people’s chipper “you can do it” comments.

When we hear the resilience narrative, or find ourselves repeating it, we should perhaps pause for a moment. What do we have at stake in this person finishing their degree? Are we actually just putting on additional pressure they don’t need?

The Chaos narrative

These comments speak of events in aconfused, non linear way, almost as if the person is having trouble putting their experience in words. Chaos narratives are marked by anger, fear, powerlessness, misery and apathy. I took this narrative idea straight from Frank’s work because the comments in this vein closely conformed to examples in his book. Frank points out that the chaos narrative is not a “real story” in that it doesn’t have a structure or clear ‘plot’.

Frank points out that the chaos narrative is “threatening to hear” because it reminds the listener how easily they might, themselves be “sucked under” by events. When we hear the chaos narrative we may be tempted to fall back to the resilience narrative as an attempt to turn the person’s thoughts in a more ‘positive’ direction. But it’s probably important, Frank insists, that we instead ‘witness’ the chaos narrative and don’t feel like we need to rush in and suggest to the person how they can fix the situation. This is not the same as doing nothing.

The ambivalence narrative

This narrative is marked by lack of faith in the future, or uncertainty about what the future holds. Generally these stories are marked by a “what’s it all for?” vibe.

Some people talk frankly about ‘not knowing what to do next’ and therefore allowing the situation to drift. Others talk in more pragmatic terms of just finishing in order to put the experience behind them. Still others seem to be falling into apathy, depression and general ennui. I noticed it was in these kinds of stories that many students expressed thoughts about not wanting to be an academic anymore.

Since I started thinking in terms of an ambivalence narrative I have started to notice how often it is voiced in my conversations with PhD students, and in blogs and interviews with them. It’s making me wonder if the ambivalence narrative is becoming the preferred narrative amongst students themselves?

Perhaps the ambivalence narrative is a reaction to the uncertain work structures in academia. I certainly remember employing this narrative myself while I was a PhD student. I knew I wanted to legitimise my academic work by getting a full time job when it was over, when I wasn’t at all sure this plan was going to work out. Sometimes I think I told this ambilvalence story as a way of testing out loud what other options and identities were available to me.

How should we listen to the ambivalence narrative? I’m not really sure, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on it or any of the others.

Do these narratives resonate with you at all? Can you suggest any others? Is this a helpful way of thinking about how to help people thinking of quitting the PhD?

Next day addition: I only just realised that my friend, PhD student Megan J McPherson has been telling me how irritating she finds the ‘resilience’ theme for some time. I probably picked up on this subconciously while doing this work – so thanks Megan!

Another addition: The post published on the same day by @tammois “So long and thanks for all the theory” provides a great counter narrative to those posed above and shows us how doing a PhD and not finishing can also be a positive experience.

Related Posts:

Is your PhD a monster?

Should you quit your PhD?

The ups and downs of PhD research

 

 

102 thoughts on “Why do people quit the PhD?

  1. Interesting article thanks. Came across the blog on twitter. Justing finishing an MsC and start my PhD in September so found this interesting. Wondering if mental health issues come under illness? Hearing more and more about PhD students suffering from depression due to a range of reasons (pressure, isolation, stress & anxiety).

    • It’s a huge issue, and emerging as a key, unspoken problem in academia, as well as the PhD. I believe there is some good work presently being done, which I will talk about in a future post.

      • I have a friend who believes that doing a PhD causes brain damage, not just depression. Her theory was that the constant critique of other scholars’ work and self-critique of one’s own research/writing changed the brain’s wiring (she was a scientist). When in the very dark depths of my writing up, it seemed a plausible reason as to why things weren’t going well…. the wiring wasn’t firing :)

      • That sounds a little bit of a “Susan Greenfield” kind of interpretation, and I hope somewhat tongue-in-cheek! The principle of neuroplasticity as I understand it means that every experience ‘rewires’ our brains (much as I dislike the metaphor), so at one level it’s probably a fair enough statement. What value you then put on those new connections is a different matter :)

    • Definitely some big discussions kicking off on mental health and academia at the moment. I think it will be useful to keep some distinction between distress arising from situational stress and the conventional view of ‘mental health issues’. For some purposes they may look the same and some responses may work the same, but for some ‘treatments and at least for prevention this distinction may be really important.

      • Hi Justblade,
        It was very much ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and not meant to downplay or detract from the serious issue of mental health and academic life – an excuse sometimes to act eccentric!! And I agree entirely that there needs to be differentiation between situational stress and other (conventional) understandings that can be used for treatment. I think there is a major issue around mental health support for academics – personally, I have spent the last few years feeling somewhat excluded or tolerated within my former department, where everyone worries about their work, their job, and performance evaluations, and where Orwell’s ‘double-speak’ is rife. It is nice to know that, outside academia, others actually like me, my work, and think it is important. Inside the hallowed halls, it was somewhat different. But I’m older, have other networks, worked elsewhere and can see this; I do worry about some younger, less experienced, former colleagues.

  2. Lots to think about. I think for many who stumble, there is the issue of securing financial resources and the opportunities that exist after the Ph.D. Like everything else, one has to consider whether the ‘romanticised’ image of earning a doctorate is worth the journey.

  3. Interesting. I don’t know many people who left, but I heard a lot of the “what’s it all for” theme among current PhDs (and I’m not sure myself what I’m going to do with mine. Probably work at the Starbucks :) ). I think a related interesting question is why people *begin* their PhDs, and whether that has anything to so with why (and if) they quit. I’d be interested to hear what you think :)

  4. i am trying to *not* give up on my phd. seven years is a long haul.

    i have had to deal with institutional ambivalence, disciplinary confusion, a lack of engagement with my work, roadblocks in the way of conferences or publications (o.O), and apathy around accomodating my disability (aspergers).

    to finish i’ve had to withdraw from my program, and juggle writing on my own with trying to get enough work to get by without overrunning writing time. i cannot attend the postgrad quality conference next week, hosted just down the road from me, because i lack the funds and any institutional support. (neatly summarising much of my phd experience :/)

    i entered a phd hoping for a rich academic experience. instead, i’ve found a demi-corporate, results-driven expectation to ‘complete’ (‘on time’) – without any meaningful assistance to do so.

    along the way, i’ve navigated numerous external ‘life events’. the expectation of obsessive focus on completion, on getting things done, without meaningful help and guidance to do so grinds down relationships, stresses out candidates, and divorces everyone from ‘reality’. i’ve watched others bow out under stress, but many more have been carried across the line through direct involvement of supervisors and other academics – often after it has become apparent the candidate won’t make it on their own.

    meanwhile, i’ve been left to struggle on, alone – or worse, increasingly cut off by institutional processes and distant decision-makers. i was not consulted on decisions that directly affected my candidature: i am left feeling that someone confused aspergers with infancy. at the end of my second year i was left to figure out how to proceed after my near-completed case study was taken away, and being banned from attending conferences or submitting publications (while not changing my program from by-publication …).

    my chosen problem does not fit neatly into a disciplinary box. i’m a lawyer-technocrat trying to explore a problem at the intersection of public policy, technology, and regulation. i am throwing my fate into a big-picture approach after numerous specific cases have been rejected. without a supervisor, publishing is even more important – and perhaps more fraught as i approach journals without institutional support, and naive in at least one discipline.

    i can relate to each of your chosen ‘narratives’. i think of my own as ‘survival’. i will survive this. hopefully my phd will as well. this year will determine whether i submit or walk away. since i actually *want* to work in academia (i know, right), the latter would be a crushing blow. but this has to have an end. i still have no idea how to write a phd, so instead i will write what i can and hope that’s enough.

    • Thanks for your story – I think there’s a survival narrative in many of the comments too. I restricted myself to 3 in order to keep my presentation to time, but in the journal paper I will certainly follow this thread. Thanks for naming it :-)

  5. Another thought provoking post. In some ways, I have the opposite experience. I am often ask by friends and colleagues why I am doing a Ed.D and what comes after it. Having had an interesting life full of physical and psychological injuries/hurdles (non doctorate related) I have taken a very zen approach of dealing with my doctorate one day at a time. I often answer the question about what next with “will see when I am finished”. One of my dramas is that I love the job I am doing, but the doctorate may make little impact at my work depending on who listens when I talk – I am employed by a police force as a public servant law instructor. As such, this brings a different level of anxiety in that I may need to leave this role to make my studies pertinent.

    My education and doctoral experience is the subject of my presentation at the QPR in April. My short presentation is called “The Tyranny of Distance” and I am part of the last group Friday afternoon, so I hope some people stay around!

    I almost quit but that was due to lack of supervisor support/clarity/compassion; and I felt very isolated. In part I still do feel isolated, for reasons to be articulated at the QPR – now you have to come and listen ;-).

    But, I found a wonderful, caring, and compassionate lecturer (not my supervisor) and spoke with her several times by e-mail and phone. Based on her advice I approached my uni and now have two fantastic highly energised supervisors who guided me through the confirmation seminar (jumped that hurdle – yeah) and we are now into the data collection stage. Which is another hurdle, as I wish to use government agencies, and that is a different mindfield to navigate. I also transitioned based on hints from supervisors from full-time to part-time and this has lessened my level of finishing anxiety.

  6. Pingback: Ghosts of PhD Past | Just words …

  7. Oh wow, so much to think about here and loads of it resonates with me. I think I’ve used all three of those narratives in the time I’ve been doing my PhD. The resillience one particularly annoys me and when other people push it on you, it very much feels like they don’t take your struggle(s) seriously nor do they see how bad things are from your perpesctive. I think a lot of fellow PhDs and post-docs push it on you because if you quit, and they went through similar feelings about quitting, it threatens them. Encouraging you to stay validates their own choice but you quitting casts doubt on their decision to stay.

    The chaos one has been particularly relevant to me personally, although I’ve spent a lot of time with the ambivalence narrative too.

    Also interesting is all the talk about loss of motivation and increasing apathy. I went to a workshop run by my university’s counselling centre about finding motivation. It was very much geared to undergrads struggling with revision but what I noticed was how many of the reasons for increased apathy and disengagement from ones work actually relate to external factors to do with time/effort/output links and supervisor relationships i.e. ones it is very hard to change. Seeing those reasons match up with what I’d experienced made me feel much less of a failure for loosing my motivation – turns out I could frame it as a logical response to stressful situations. It was much better than trying to make sense of how I, a formerly highly motivated student, gradually had less and less desire to do any uni work. That loss of motivation was also tied into depression and chronic stress i.e. mental health issues.

    Finally, as to the “why stay?” question, the Sunk Costs Fallacy has a hell of a lot to answer for, especially when you consider the prestige bonus of completing a PhD. It’s the top level academic qualification so how much of a failure do you look like if you give up part way through? I have promised myself however that I will never stay in another situation like this again. In the future, it would only be my job/income on the line, not my academic sense of self, and I know what it cost me to still be here and that’s not a sacrifice I’m going to make twice.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Framing lack of motivation “as a logical response to stressful situations” has a lot to recommend it and probably deserves its own post. Loss of motivation was so common in the comments, but I never experienced it so had trouble processing it, so thanks for the insights here.

  8. Arthur Frank’s third narrative is a ‘quest’ narrative where people find their own meaning in living with chronic or life threatening illness – and in dying. I think that would relate more to those who find a personal reason to continue (eg belief in the value of their subject, commitment to participants … ) or to leave (eg better health, different ways to use their learning in practice …)?

    I was lucky enough myself to have fun doing my EdD, with a wonderfully permissive supervisor and great peer support. As a supervisor myself, I will willingly support people to leave PhDs and no feel bad if life gets in the road too much, or if this particular project loses meaning for them. Mostly though, people seem to find that changing topics, changing supervisors, or finding peer support can help if they do still want to continue – and if they have set out through the Mecca gate many do (see Sara Delamont’s Four gates of Damascus article on reasons people do research).

  9. Thanks for this piece. I realise how hard I am on myself, thinking what a hopeless case I am, when actually it seems that many people struggle with the same things I do. I am currently trying to find new supervisors in a university which tells me that it has no staff availability, no room to move in the budget (and therefore no chance of getting an external supervisor) and that a PhD is “just another 3 year degree – 4 if you are really slow” (direct quote). I am trying to do a thoughtful and profound piece of work, and there is no way I can think fast enough to finish in 3 years! Especially when I have muddled around with my topic for the last year, and am into my second university and just been through my second lot of supervisors. I feel humiliated even saying it. But now I do have a topic I am passionate about, and I think it is really good. I have thought about giving it away but if nothing else it is the humiliation that stops me. And I am doing it for “fun”. I am 60 years old, I’m not looking for another career. I am still romantic enough to think that there is value in people like me devoting themselves to thinking and contributing in a different way.

    • It sounds like you are encountering many of the road blocks that are described in the literature Jenny. Quotes like that make me growl in frustration! 4 years is not a long time actually, it’s the conventional time frame. Good luck with your work and struggles.

    • :) Jenny, I wonder if the person who told you a PhD ‘is just another 3-year degree’ had actually done one him/herself?

  10. I can comment on your question about the “ambivalence narrative”. From some work I did in a previous life using the psychodrama method, I would characterise the ambivalence narrative as being two or more narratives that are intertwined, or closely follow, one on another. So thinking about one narrative quickly leads to thoughts and feelings related to another one. A useful way of further investigating this is to set out each of the narratives separately, then look at the ways in which each narrative relates to/interacts with/affects the others. Each narrative can be regarded as a role, which is a coherent set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with a particular setting (either internal or external), and being in a state of ambivalence indicates conflicted roles. In this state, it is particularly difficult to act.
    Obviously, there would be lots of other ways of also investigating this phenomenon, but I think this one might be fruitful.

    • Thanks Tori – I think you might be right. Role / identity are implicated in all these narratives and teasing these out will be fruitful. I’ll have a good deep think about this. I must say, the value of putting your research out early and unformed, for comment, is really coming home to me now!

  11. I’ve met a few people who started their PhD programs not really knowing why, or at least not really finding out what they’ll do with it if they finish. It’s so easy to lose focus whilst writing a PhD dissertation, but that’s what a good supervisor is primarily for. I simply can’t help but wonder if some have been unwittingly pressurised (by peers, society, et. al.) into doing a PhD or enter the program thinking it’ll buy them a bit more time (especially if there’s a scholarship involved) whilst trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. I firmly believe in having more people do postgraduate research courses, but I think we just have to admit that it isn’t for everyone.

    • Yes, I think you are right. We do know that some people, particularly in sciences, are encouraged to see the PhD as the next logical step in their career. All kinds of problems can occur down the road if the student is not well briefed on the process and expectations.

  12. Whilst these narratives are useful, I think they are a bit limited and don’t necessarily reflect how different students may fluctuate between the different narratives at different times throughout their PhD. I have certainly passed through all 3 narratives – though my experience of being in the ‘ambivalence’ period (whats it all for?) was more one of anger – as in – What is this all for if not a job? Why doesn’t my uni career service offer better support? Why haven’t I been exposed to developing ‘employable’ skills in PhD journey?

    Another point is- who are the students who are not buying into these narratives (i.e. not having thoughts of quitting their PhD and/or not finding it stressful?). I know students who completed a thesis-by-publication and can’t really understand any of these narratives as they never experienced any of these feelings.

    Finally, you haven’t discussed much the Supervisor role in these narratives – for example, I distinctly remember a senior academic saying to me “oh you must be really stressed about your upcoming presentation to your committee…” and whilst it was meant in good faith- actually, I wasn’t stressed. I was feeling exciting and privileged about the opportunity to discuss my research and I really noticed how there is an expectation to buy into certain narratives (it was expected that I should be stressed) at certain times – I’ve found supervisors less able to address some narratives than others depending on their own experiences and expectations.

    • Excellent points all. I certainly never meant to suggest they were clear cut narratives (hence my ‘hairball’ metaphor). I think what your comment highlights most is the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in and how academia is primed to expect certain roles of students (and of supervisors?). Many people don’t (or won’t) conform to these roles – but the presence of these narratives act as disciplining devices, exerting a force on us to conform. Your comment about the presentation emotions is a particularly good example of this in action – and what happens when you don’t conform (in a good way). Thanks a lot for writing in.

  13. Owning the pingback above :) 15ish years after withdrawing from my first PhD project, I find myself confronting ‘ghosts’ of that previous experience as well as the stresses associated with my current doctoral research. I really appreciated your ‘next day’ comment and Megan’s observation about the ‘resilience’ narrative. It sets my teeth on edge too! I’d rather embrace the chaos than hear more reassurances or motivationals that end up sounding like platitudes! Maybe that’s just me …

    Thank you for the comments about how to listen to the narratives – I think that’s the beginning of some really useful discussions about some of the more pastoral aspects of doctoral supervision.

  14. I am at the end of my PhD study, just writing up all the findings and reading posts like this to motivate myself keep going. :) at the second year of my PhD, I suffered from depression, lack of confidence and withdrawn from connection with family and friends. I am an international student study in Australia for PhD in engineering, plus, female. There was misunderstanding happening all the time, due to culture differences, also language. And all my supervisors are male native English speakers, so I felt powerless and isolated for quite a long time. I thought about giving up, but my sense of pride stopped me from doing so. Throughout my time in school, I’m never a quitter and I don’t wanna face the stigma people have towards the one who give up. It’s specially hush in my home country. :P
    So I carried on and learnt how to change this situation. I went to seminar about positive thinking, planing and organising work/life, also clear up my goals in what I want to do in life, in terms of the story of my life as a whole rather than being defined by 3+ year PhD experience. I talked to strangers at seminars, to people who interested in education, also to psychiatrist, all of whom offered sympathy. I really appreciate the time spend with warm and caring people. Life does not stop at a PhD. No matter we get it or not, there is a way to continue life and be happy. The most important thing I learnt is that we should ask for help when things get tough, if it’s too much for oneself to bear, speak out before it’s too late. Other people can’t walk your way, but they can offer you tools to jump over obstacles. I heard about thesis whisper when I was in a seminar on writing thesis a few month ago, and it has been great to read the story and insights from all of you. Best wishes to all.

    • Thanks so much for that lovely comment. I think your story tells us the value of what Kate Bowles is calling ‘self care’. Recognising we need help and reaching out can be hard, but worthwhile. In fact, that’s what I am doing by putting this research in progress out there now – I felt nervous about sharing, but really needed to get feedback on the ideas to progress. Glad to hear that you are on the home stretch and can write so confidently about your own strategies. Best of luck with the last bit!

  15. I recently started the process of quitting my PhD. I wrestled with my decision for a long time and I read your blog post many times! I’m happy to say that I’m still enrolled and happily working towards submitting my candidacy application in the next couple of weeks. The one thing that made the difference to my decision were my supervisors. I have two supervisors, with different discipline backgrounds. I’ve usually found my female supervisor more supportive, mostly because she has been more approachable and open. However when I told my supervisors I was considering leaving due health reasons and work pressures (I’m a PhD part timer) my male supervisor kicked into what I term “Dad-mode” and wrote a truly genuine and supportive email and we had a team meeting. He basically reassured me that what I was thinking and feeling was completely normal in the PhD process and that he knew I was capable of completing a PhD. He also took the guilt and pressure from me and allowed me to take a step back and reconsider my decision without feeling like I was letting either of my supervisors down. Now I’m glad I’ve decided to stick with it (maybe ask me again in a years time!) and I’ve found I’ve been getting more useful, practical assistance like brain storming and workshops together to fill in my mental blocks. It made me think that if I had voiced my concerns earlier that my supervisors would have realised I needed more help in some areas.

  16. Thanks for your post today…I needed a boost to keep going. I am in the challenging situation of having cancer and also trying to finish my PhD, so lots of your commentary was particularly relevant. Yes there are days when I want to quit…what’s it all for?…shouldn’t I be doing something better with my life?…the shame of getting this far and having made so many sacrifices to then just quit? Cancer has taught me to prioritise, take time for yourself, value each day and be satisfied that what you have done today has been enough. I also heard Libby Trickett commenting on the value of pushing for success and her realisation is …if you don’t think you’re anyone special without a Gold medal then you won’t be anyone special with one either. For me that translates to my PhD…I need to find joy, satisfaction and accomplishment in the everyday NOT just when I finish the PhD. The PhD doesn’t define my identity. This has never been articulated to me by the university, my PhD for the past 6 years has always been framed as an ongoing sacrifice for the ‘reward’ of completion..the elusive ‘golden ticket’ rather than as simply an addition to a joyous life.

  17. Yes indeed – the delayed gratification thing can be extremely problemmatic. It sounds like you are dealing with multiple problems by keeping self care in focus – a lesson for everyone. Lately I have been seeing the cancer/PhD journey up close and personal with a friend of mine who is pushing through on both fronts. I realised how (surprisingly) the PhD can be a source of strength and motivation in this circumstance. It does throw into sharp focus the privileges of the process, along with the difficulties. I wish you all the best with your own journey :-)

  18. I imagine that many middle-aged PhD candidates are attempting to write their thesis while maintaining intensive full time jobs. As vice-principal in a school, I often feel that the conflict in demands on my time is my most significant challenge. So often I find myself sucked in to doing what is urgent (putting out fires at school…) instead of what I should be doing. I have often blogged about this –
    e.g. http://naha1.edublogs.org/2009/05/28/almost-a-month-since-i-wrote-last-end-of-year-blues/ or http://naha1.edublogs.org/2010/11/05/today-i-am-a-student-more-identity-issues/

    Another issue is the isolation experienced by PhD students studying off campus and living in another country.

  19. Hi, Has anyone asked you about the Melbourne University rule about word length, which includes footnotes? This means that  in a humanities thesis (where the citation style is to put them in footnotes) the full details of all citations are part of the word count (http://gradresearch.unimelb.edu.au/handbooks/phd/thesis.html#wordlimit). I felt like I’d entered a parallel universe, or fallen down Alice’s rabbit-hole, when I started asking about it. Initially the Graduate School office claimed I was the first person ever to ask about it, though I subsequently discovered that apparently history PhD students apply ( – yes, they have to apply) to go over the word limit. (Unfortunately I’ve not yet been able to get assistance on this that is both informed and practical.) More generally, I’m fazed by how arbitrary the rules are – footnotes count, but not appendices, or words in tables. Is this typical, or have I just really lucked out? thanksCaroline Clark

  20. The ambivalence narrative is being reinforced by universities themselves, who these days seem keen to disabuse students of the notion that there’s a job waiting for them in academia.

    To me, at my institution, I am really getting the sense that we are being pushed to think about exactly where this PhD is going to take us. Though the university may see it as helpful, to me it comes across as depressing to be constantly being told that there are no jobs in academia. No wonder we’re all feeling so ambivalent about doing a PhD!

    • Absolutely agree – it’s totally depressing. There’s still a one in 4 chance of getting a job in academia at the end. And we do know that the vast majority of students end up employed in some capacity and are high earners. There’s a lot to be positive about in that respect.

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  23. Sharing this story way too late, but oh well.

    Technically, I have quit my PhD already. I started as a PhD with coursework and transferred to a Masters with coursework (in my program, the only difference between the two is the size of the thesis).
    I transferred from my PhD due to, principally, a lack of supervisory support. After over a year of stress and depression caused by this, I moved to a Masters and a new supervisor, and am now planning on doing a research PhD by publication with the same supervisor when I finish my Masters. I have no hesitation in saying (out of old supervisor’s earshot) that if I had started the program with my new supervisor I would still be enrolled in a PhD.

    The problem I am finding at the moment is financial pressure. My program (Masters or PhD) requires a set amount of hours of (usually unpaid) supervised practice – and those hours are increasingly difficult to cover due to regulations becoming more stringent. Due to this, I can’t get a full time job while studying. My options now are to delay full time work until I complete these hours – potentially another 1.5 years, not financially viable – or to put it on hold until I accrue enough leave to finish my hours then. Many of my colleagues are in the same situation.

  24. Wow… I’m so glad you wrote this, Inger. I was one of the commenters on the verge of quitting (I’m the one who stayed because I was in the throes of a new chronic illness diagnosis & I needed to maintain health insurance). I can’t recall if I also mentioned this, but surely, the idea that I came to do the PhD for a specific cause was another sticking point for me. At the time, I wondered if it was supposed to be *me* or whether I just needed to be a champion for the research. In the end, I’m still here, doing a bit better… I think.

    I’ve definitely experienced the loss of a supervisor, been through two other terrible supervisors (got thrown back to the first one, actually), and been put through the ringer of, “We’re just now listening to what you want to do and we think your research idea is terrible.” A year and two dissertation ideas later, the faculty is now encouraging me to pursue my original idea. Sort of. (I asked and verified that I should not ride off into the sunset, lol!) I still feel a lack of support in the mentoring department, but overall? Things have definitely turned around. And you know what? I have encountered four other people who have gone through almost the exact same experiences I’ve been through. I’m quite flabbergasted, really.

    That said, I find myself constantly discouraging people from pursuing the PhD, so I’m definitely interested in galpod’s mention of investigating why people even start down this road in the first place. I worry so much about those who don’t have a research mission driving them along the way. Why lose all those years in income generation and suffer through all this harassment and disappointment, only to find yourself on welfare to support your coffee slinging gig?

    I’m also on a mission to make sure prospective students understand how bad the politics can really get. I came in knowing there would be some struggles but I had no idea how brutal things got. I wonder how much of people’s decisions around quitting are about this kind of shock and not having the support to deal with it. I know I felt like I didn’t have it in me to survive – I was literally planning to finish the master’s this year, then walk away from the whole thing. Of course, I didn’t want them to know that, so I played along. It seems that the more I “played”, the more things turned around.

    Really looking forward to watching how all this unfolds in your research!

    • It’s really interesting you use the word ‘play’ – it hits on so many of the points people have made here about role, identity and performance to (or not) expectations of others. It sounds like you are finding your own way. If you are committed to finishing (and it sounds like you want to at the moment) you will be learning amazing things. I often say to people who are having a hard time with supervisors in particular, that they are at least learning about what kind of supervisor they DON’T want to be when and if they have a chance to play that role. Hope it continues to be managable for you!

  25. Hi Inger

    I think there is another side to the resilience narrative, one that is about people working in academia who want to maintain the mystique of it being ‘tough’ to get there. It’s not a position unique to academia, it occurs in other professions as well, part of the stature of the position is tied to how difficult it is to get there – whether from army boot camp, or the ridiculous hours of young lawyers.

    It seems to me this leads some to be reluctant about dealing with the problems doctoral researchers encounter. There are a bunch of people who ‘fought hard’ to get their Phds, and some how they feel their achievement will be lessened if they contribute to making it ‘easier’ for others. An ‘injustice for all’ argument if you like.

    Best wishes for your research and enjoy the conference. You know we’re all looking forward to hearing what else you learn.

    • That’s a really interesting angle – thanks for that. There’s definitely something in that. Long ago there was a paper called ‘forged in fire’ that talked about exactly this phenomenon. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  26. Thanks for this! My life at the moment is dominated by the ambivalence narrative, sometimes moving to chaos when looking closely and helping myself with a bit of resilience talk.
    I live in the UK and things might seem better for an academic career that in the US from what I read on other blogs that tackle the issue of motherhood and academia. I am on the STEM sector starting the second year of my PhD after some time off due to maternity. I am 36 and have two children (1 and 4 years old) and a lovely husband. Leaving my job for returning to university for a PhD seemed a good idea back in 2011 when the recession made career progression very difficult. Also I had a much romanticized idea of how it was going to be but with time it became means to an end. I think the train is gone for me to enjoy this… I am not originally from the UK, so before 2011 I was not eligible for funding nor did I have the right kind of residency permit to pursue this much earlier, when I was single and childless and could have engaged more seriously. Now my mind set is that of endure and get done, fake it till you make it. It gives me flexibility around my family and perhaps over the rainbow there would be an academic career awaiting me. I have visualized so many times myself (as in one of TW recent posts Parenting your way to a PhD) receiving my PhD on a stage with my boys watching me from the audience.
    Time has passed and the more I look around the more I realize that the lifestyles of those who inspire me and have become my role models are so different to mine in terms of family commitments. They certainly work hard, but at a rate that I don’t entertain, not because I don’t think I can’t do it, but because I don’t want to. I am not willing anymore of making my PhD the centre piece of my life; I am not in such position. I want to be available at home for my children as well as at University. Don’t get me wrong! I am very hard working, but my priorities have shifted.
    Which leads me to think, why should I bother with this? Under the circumstances I am in I feel I would have to settle for a second rate academic career. The more productive people I know are the ones that work 70-80 hrs a week and juggle their children and their laptops, the ones that have family holidays on the places they do field work, the ones that send their family on holidays while they go to conferences. And I know all this is doable, but I don’t want to live like this for the sake of productivity. I don’t think it should be the norm but the exception.
    Why should I settle for this? I had a career before and the recession seems over in certain economic sectors and in mine I know I could back now to a more senior post and a better salary. A 9-5 job where at 5 I would close my computer and my brain to anything other than my family. It is certainly tempting earning more money, having a pension, being on a progression path now and not waiting and seeing in 3 years time. But as I know the grass always seems greener on the other side, I am afraid more than anything of regretting having left. I just don’t know what to do right now… I seem so sure yet I am still here.
    Thanks for reading/

    • I hear you. I look at the careers of some high flying academics and realise the same thing. I like to work hard, but I need to turn off. Academia is, as KateMFD puts it ‘boundaryless’. It will seap into every crack and crevice if you let it. I’m not sure what the answer is – I battle with this everyday. I think, for what it’s worth, the attitude you are giving voice to here is a healthy one and self care is crucial. Finding work that fits into a 8 hour work day and going home to be with the people you love is an honourable way to live. ALl the best with finding your way in the mess!

  27. Yep, I’m at the writing up stage, and wondering why the heck I bothered, as job applications are going nowhere and I have sunk 5 years of my life into something which does not appear to help me out career-wise at all. Woo hoo. Thankfully, I also have a full time job (albeit one to tide me over til I get a real one) so I am in a better position than most!

    • I can empathise with that feeling – I had many failed attempts at academic job interviews myself before stumbling onto my current career. I suspect a lot of people find themselves with an ‘accidental career’ – and loving it. I wish you all the best with your search!

      • Thanks! If only it were easier to get into paid freelance writing, I’d be happy! Far prefer it to law which bores me to tears these days-no wonder motivating myself to finish the thesis is so hard!!

  28. I wonder if age at all relates to reasons for leaving.
    My husband has just decided to quit his PhD. At 30, pretty much his entire life has been in academia, and he’s never developed an identity that doesn’t include ‘PhD’. He left his first PhD at 26 because an incompetent and unscrupulous supervisor led to a failed project, but immediately started a second one simply because he’d always believed he should have a PhD (something of a resilience narrative?). Yet three years into this attempt he’s quitting because he realises that there are other options that are better suited to his skill set, ones that are more likely to provide gainful and rewarding employment.
    I started my PhD at 36 after having a successful career, and while I like the work I’m doing, I’m trying to decide if the pressure, politics, and time demands are worth it. I fall very much into the ‘ambivalence narrative’. There’s no real reason for me to have a PhD- I’ve realised I don’t want a job in academia and the sort of job I do want I’m already qualified for.
    Possibly it also has to do with identity. My PhD has always been just one part of my identity, so deciding to leave wouldn’t require a fundamental change to how I view myself. For my husband, his PhD has become less integral to his identity as he’s added others like ‘husband’ and ‘father’, making it easier for him to look at it more objectively.
    Really interesting stuff. Somebody should do a PhD on it…

    • I think you’re right – identity and the roles available for you to play are bound up together. It’s heartening to hear your husband looking to other sources for his identity. Perhaps troubles start when people identify only with one role -be it PhD student or parent? I hope you work through your own ambivalence narrative in a way that’s productive for you.

  29. My personal experience is one of not fitting into a discipline. Using words which have one meaning for my supervisors but another for me. This resulted in arguments and a very unpleasant experience.
    I would have dropped out but for my partner.
    I am now at another university in a department where we all speak the same language. I feel very positive about my PhD and I enjoy my supervisions.
    I know this is not a solution for many people but it worked for me.

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  31. Hello!

    I wanted to comment on your blog post above. First, some contextual data about me:

    I completed but reasonably often felt discouraged enough to want to quit I was part time, distance ed student with a principal supervisor who was not employed at the university where I was a student, was an external sup. Research only program I defined the thesis topic. The uni accepted me on that basis. Thesis topic arose from my career experience & the associated question I wanted to research Advising was through my principal sup only, for all but the last phase (1 year/8). My supervisor & I lived in different cities; contact was mostly by phone or email I had no financial support except the RTS I never attended the university (except once every 2nd year or so to present WIP) I didn’t aim to be an academic

    In relation to B Lovitt’s work: I had no contact with other students so felt like I was in an isolation tank through out the 8 years. I found it hard to know whether my problems were common to others or if they were just my neuroses. However, I don’t mind working on my own, and I did find it interesting enough that I got absorbed in it all the way through. I was enrolled in an interstate section of the university where there were no professional associates and I was a fish out of disciplinary water. Psychology dept did not accept me as I was doing a qual research, concept development study that did not fit with their paradigm

    Apropos E Rudd’s research: I loved my topic and wanted to do it justice. It propelled me to the end and still holds real interest for me. I see its practical value Unexpectedly I had spinal surgery in 2012 which laid me out for around 8 months before I got back to being able to work full time. This made me late and anxious about being able to meet the revised deadline. the uni was not particularly supportive Family was committed and my husband was interested; kids were not Writing up was hardest part of the entire process. I was very bad at it until I got better during the last 6 months Supervision was difficult. My supervisor was acknowledged to be harsh and we were saved from disaster by the intervention of an associate supervisor who came into all teleconferences to monitor comments/behaviour. This kept my supervisor in line and I was able to complete. Containment was helpful.

    Personally I experienced: exhaustion, stress, fear loneliness anxiety that I would be unemployable after investing in the thesis for 8 years

    Why I stayed: Sunk cost Personal & family expectations – never give up Shame about potentially giving up I wanted to find out what my results showed. this meant I had to write it up

    What it cost me/us: financially – a huge cost in terms of foregone income as a self employed psych emotionally draining despite wanting to do it physically exhausting – the pressure to keep at it for the sake of the deadline was extreme (for me) recovery – I am only beginning to be aware of how long recovery is taking at all levels. Perhaps I’m not so resilient, but it’s left me tired (compounded by surgery) no one to talk about it with – no contact with other students, friends were not doing phds so their understanding was limited. I had little contact with supervisor for most of the time. It was a solo experience largely

    Your questions: my thoughts: 1 resilience, chaos & ambivalence narratives appear to me to reflect defensive ‘turns of mind’, or ways of dealing with an extreme situation (doing a phd) from the perspective of a student’s personality defences. Another way of looking at it might be to ask yourself: what kind of student/personality is likely to resort to resilience mode under pressure? or to chaos mode? etc. What is the supervisor’s countertransference (personal emotional response) to the mode? How does it make the supervisor feel/react; in what ways does the supervisor feel ‘ruffled’ by the student’s mental/emotional distress of, e.g., being out of their depth? How does this being out of depth communicate itself to the supervisor and affect them? 2 Chaos narrative, the way you’ve described it, could potentially also be called the overwhelmed narrative.. When you’re overwhelmed it’s hard to make sense of or structure things 3 ambivalence narrative could also be described as (unconsciously) choosing the option of despair, defeat or pessimism when faced with uncertain outcomes. In other words, students are finding it hard to hold onto optimism when the going is tough – when they are required to dig deeply into themselves to find the personal resources to get them over the successive humps of the thesis production process. It’s a complaint about one’s personal perception of having inadequate strength, lack of self belief, or confidence in one’s long term goal setting that will carry them through when rough times confront them. ‘Ambivalence’ seems to be an impotent response to testing/trying circumstances. Since there are no guarantees of success for anyone, potential emotional/feeling responses of impotence could include ennui, apathy, loss of self directedness, etc. I sometimes think of Mandela in jail for many years and wonder just how he found the personal resilience (in the broadest sense of the word) to emerge with such emotional strength. It was developed precisely in the pit of despair with no escape, and injustice upon injustice heaped upon him. Following a thesis through to its conclusion (submission) has a similar trajectory: if you want the outcome, you have no escape because it is up to you. The rubber hits the road there. 4 So, to conclude this long commentary: I experienced all the narratives many times. Reflecting upon the repetitive nature of my self-stories and the emotional experiences I cycled through brought me to realise this. It was about the need to face up to growing through the experience rather than blaming anyone or anything. The thesis was just a thesis; it was not a personal attack and I was not a victim. I just had to grow up. People/students are free to do what they need to do, but a supervisor does not need to support beyond providing academic assistance in a kind, consistent, interested, dispassionate way to the student. If a student is interested to think about their repetitive emotional patterns and discuss it, perhaps a sensitive sup could comment on what they notice/observe if they feel the student can take it without feeling criticised. Otherwise, leave them to the great teacher, life, to sort them out/ help them to grow. 5 Your question: is (the narratives) a helpful way of thinking about how to help people thinking of quitting the PhD? Yes, in part. I’d push it a bit further to ask what students’ narratives are telling me about a student’s emotional dynamics. The sup does not need to take on the student’s limitations – they are the student’s responsibility

    Btw, I’m not as hard hearted as it sounds when I re-read this. I hope some of it is helpful! Thanks for your great blogs, as I find them useful to help process my experience as I wait for my results.

    Best wishes

    joanne abbey

    M +61 412 537 939 | T +61 2 9745 5583 W corporatewellbeing.com.au A po box 201 haberfield australia 2045

    • This makes a lot of sense to me Joanne; I think who we are as people affects our journey hugely. One of the things that has surprised me about the PhD is how much of a growing experience it has been; I’d published a number of papers previously but somehow this has felt like the first time a project was truly mine/I was truly responsible for it. I guess it’s the growing into being an independent professional rather than being a student.

  32. Inger, this is important work. The fact that bullying (and disinterested supervision) came out as a major reason why students leave phds is an extremely concerning, even disturbing finding.

    It would be interesting to investigate what (if any) mechanisms students have to report bullying, and what systems universities have to deal with it. If it were a usual workplace, where supervisors were considered managers and students their subordinates, this would likely show up as huge numbers of OHS/Workcover claims. The organisation would have very clear legal obligations to act, and financial incentives in terms of trying to reduce escalating workcover insurance premiums.

    • Hear! Hear! I think the other interesting thing, is that most supervisors do not even have a basic degree in Education. Any other teacher does. From kindergarten to secondary school, whether they have a previous degree or not. For some reason, HE does not seem to value the basic B.Ed. I think many supervisors are not trained to be educators; to understand pedagogy, how students tick, and generally how to teach. Sure, they might be awesome in their topic, but they are not always teachers. They just wing it, and for students that are on the ball, they can see this a mile off. Supervisors bully to assert the power, rather than approach the supervision from an educators point of view and have collegial discussions.

      I have never understood why many University supervisors do not have any sort of tertiary education qualification. I think that would provide some consistency across supervision, just like it is expected from teachers in any other sector of learning and education.

  33. Insightful as always! Good luck at the conference!
    I have also found that -maybe due to the advent of social media- many people leaving their phd’s (due to any of the reasons you state) tend to take a -sometimes cheap- shot at the system; as if to say the academic system failed them or that they are too good for a system this bad. Do I make any sense?
    Best wishes

  34. Thank you for a very interesting post and discussions.

    Why do we stay and why do we leave? I suspect much of it is to do with where we are in our lives when we encounter the hard bits, our expectations of ourselves and tolerance for any gap between expectation and reality, how well we can communicate our needs for support and how well our supervisors can help us find what we need.

    I’ve done both. In my undergrad degree I found I could cram easily as long as I understood the topic, and it came as a big shock that honours required sustained work. When I realised I wasn’t doing as well as expected, the only reason I didn’t withdraw was that ‘I don’t think I can do this’ didn’t seem a good enough reason to put in the ‘reason’ box on the form. I carried a completed one around for weeks but was too embarrassed to hand it in. I communicated very little of this distress to my supervisors. In the end I spent a month reading Lord of the Rings, the Dune trilogy and the First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and that girded my loins and I was ready to go on. My thesis was appalling but I talked myself from a fail to a pass in the oral exam; I was sure I had already failed so was quite relaxed and just trying to walk out with dignity, so started my talk with “I’m not proposing to defend this because I’ve read it and it’s got holes big enough to drive a truck through sideways. If you like we can talk about what I think is wrong with it and how it could be done better.” The examiners immediately relaxed and we had quite a collegiate session.

    Before my supervisor realised how bad my progress was he was encouraging me strongly to do a PhD; eventually to make him quit pressuring I said I needed a break and would enrol in 1986. That seemed a long way off in ’82, but it came round, I was still working in the same lab, and enrolled part-time. I did fine working and studying part time until I moved to a new town and new full-time job with a boss I didn’t get on well with. My supervisor kept encouraging but because of the state I’d gotten myself into it felt like pressure and after a few years of slow progress and despite feedback about the quality of the work, I withdrew. It felt like my sanity or the PhD and I decided I was more important than living up to someone else’s expectations. It was very liberating and one of the best things I’ve done, although it seriously damaged my relationship with my supervisor who took it personally and felt very let down – I can sort of see his point. I had tried to tell him how desperate I was feeling but he couldn’t understand.

    Twenty years on I was doing a Master’s Honours research project; took too long and did way too much work but ended up with two published papers and findings which were very useful to my local community, and although it was painful it wasn’t as excruciating as my initial experience. One of the things that helped was finding some of the writing I’d done for my earlier study and realising the writing was actually damned good; it helped me see how skewed my perceptions can get under serious stress, so I could better hear when I thought my writing was crap but my supervisor thought it was ok. Quitting crossed my mind in the dark places but I just kept plodding.

    Now I’m in the hopefully final year of my PhD, and the things that keep me going are knowing that if I just keep doing chances are it will get done, try not to worry about the outcome, I’m doing work that I’m genuinely interested in and that will be very useful to my community in helping manage a significant public health issue, and quitting hasn’t crossed my mind. I am coming to accept that I do have very useful things to say and useful insights, and know my topic very well. I wish it felt safe to talk with my supervisor or other students about the emotional things that cause me to get ‘stuck’, but it just doesn’t feel that way. I suspect that unless you are another person who reacts to stress by freezing, it is a very difficult thing to understand. They do try to help when they see a problem, but the help feels like pressure and pushing to me, which tends to make me stick further and I have to mange my dislike of being pushed. I wish people could just acknowledge and give me space.

    Other than repeated practice, two things have helped me learn how to deal with this. One is the book ‘Quiet’ about introverts and the different ways we tend to react to things than extroverts; I score highly on the introvert scale and the book had some useful tips for managing as an introvert in a social system that currently decidedly favours extrovert characteristics. It also helped me recognise that my softness comes with deep strengths, including that I rarely crowd others and having a knack for encouraging those who lack confidence, and am good at finding the common ground because I don’t just assume I’m right and go after what I want but listen and consider and can see from many perspectives.

    The second thing, and the most powerful, has come from working with one of my horses. I was very new to horses when I got him, and he was considered ‘difficult'; we initially did well together but then I started listening to local experts who said I had to be much more of a boss with him; that suited neither of us and eventually we got to where he was increasingly defiant and I was getting scared of him. Luckily I stumbled across a program built around positive rewards rather than the usual pressuring/bossing way of training horses, and our relationship has blossomed and he is much calmer and more relaxed. All he needed was time and being listened to and having much of the pressure on him removed. As he has grown more confident so have I; it has been an enormous boost that my ‘untrustworthy, never any good’ horse has become so different through me trusting my intuition and using a training approach that those same local experts considered ‘not practical and likely dangerous’. I’ve come to see how much pressure we tend to use against people, often without even knowing it and without meaning harm, and how damaging that pressure is if we use too much.

    I hope some of my experiences are useful to others.

  35. For my part, I’m on my 3rd year of my PhD, and also the last year I can stay with it with financial support. Somehow I managed to rally myself to move on with it, but still in doubt if I can make it in time. I’ve already experienced the feeling of desiring to quit the PhD and pursue some other career rather than academic jobs, and that thought is still wander around in my mind. Nevertheless, I have to admit that to continue this point so far, is a great effort of myself, that I still go on and try to deal with it.

    I think quiting the PhD is a tough decision for almost everyone, the reason is various as pointed out in the topic above. But people need to move on with their own life, not their PhD, that’s true. In fact, enter the PhD and experience through it is just not that bad, in my opinion. Many valuable skills and experiences cannot be obtained from somewhere else beyond the PhD, in my humble opinion. Maybe somebody should write some articles about this? Going through a PhD and what we can learn from it?

    Thinking about what I can move on with my life after the PhD, maybe a job that related to what I’ve experienced in PhD or require skills that I’ve walkthroughed it is my bet.

  36. Great article! And so easy to relate to!

    I have come to that stage in my studies where I am quite disenchanted with academia (although I was like that not long after I began my PhD. But I don’t like quitting things that I have started). I had these romantic ideas that I was going to be paid to think and impart knowledge. But it seems so competitive and superficial at times. It’s all about talking big and throwing in a lot of jargon.

    Also, the fact that your work never seems safe. My own supervisor actually asked to use my work, but said that they would use their own words, for a write up they were doing. I naively said, “okay”, knowing that was not right. They have a moral obligation to at least cite or give me co-authorship. But nope! So why bother killing myself over something that someone will take away, just like that!

    My supervisor talks big and loud, but never follows through. I am getting sick of being built up, all to have the conversation forgotten. No wonder so many people leave the industry jaded.

    I think there is some truth in the fact that smart people are best not to do a PhD.

  37. It’s the third time in a month that I think about quitting. I love hard things, I love difficulty, but my mental health is in danger. I started my PhD in June 2013. It was a dream that came true. But the reality is so different from dreams. The most important problems are about my thesis topic and my supervisor. She absolutely doesn’t help me. She doesn’t know what I am doing. We speak about my dissertation once in a while, and normally I found that the topic I’m analyzing, or what I’m thinking can’t be studied, is wrong, is not a subject of our discipline. She has given me only 2 o 3 references. In 10 month I’ve changed three times the topic (with the relative literature review) and I am still like the first day. The problem is both me and my supervisor. I’m completely alone and I simply cannot start. I have now only 2 years to finish my PhD (I have a grant), and it seems impossible to me. I’m very frustrated.

    • Agne, this sounds more like a supervision problem. I suggest you speak to your supervisor in the first instance and outline your concerns to her and be clear about what you need from supervision at this stage. If the situation doesnt improve, go see the post grad tutor (or equivalent) for a chat and discuss your options. Perhaps a change in supervisor may be required. Act now though, as the situation will get worse if you don’t

    • Agne, are you tied to this supervisor? If not, then seek help and get another supervisor?

      I had the same issue as you are going through late last year.One of my supervisors took my final proposal away for 2 months only to come back and totally discounting my work and telling me that my idea was not worthy; and while making some suggestions as to the possible direction I could go. I was left to stroll the academic and literature wilderness. It was worse for me as I am a distance student and live two states away from my uni.

      I actually got to the stage of seeking out other universities and then resolved to quit. I commenced the quitting paperwork, and then for some reason spoke to a lecturer (not my supervisor) and this was the best thing I could do. I ended up talking the head of department and within a week I had two new supervisors, and in the space of 4 months, my final course work was done, and I sat my confirmation seminar and with their help made it through the confirmation.

      I would urge you to find someone at the uni and get their help. Or, if you need a compassionate ear, drop me a line.

      Brian

  38. Pingback: Reason for leaving: Self advocacy and academic ableism | An Ex-academic follower of fashion

  39. Hi Thesis Whisperer,
    Need some advice,
    I am having a thought of quitting my PHD and suddenly see this stories. Should I quit?
    I had a very good and helpful supervisor But the main problem here is myself. I am not capable to do my PHD as what my supervisor required. He did help me a lot but still I couldn’t do any progress even after 4 month.
    At first I really wanna enjoy myself doing phd, I keep on telling myself this is the time to improve my knowledge but thing come up differently. I jump into an area that I don’t really had background, its totally my weakness area. In the beginning I thought its good to challenge myself coz by doing this I can improve later on.
    But now I stress myself a lot, I started to lost confident, passion towards phd. I didn’t enjoyed doing it anymore.
    Stress on the background that I don’t have, then I need to do a presentation which is really not my area and my weakness. Even after 4 month I didn’t had anything yet to show to my supervisor even though he give me many input. I am also worried he will lost his patience on my weakness.
    What should I do?Should I quit?I am not enjoy to do it anymore.

    • I can’t tell you what you should do, but it does sound, from reading this short comment, that you are exhibiting many of the ‘danger signs’ of someone who might eventually quit. I think you need therefore to seek professional advice from a range of people. I would suggest you do this before you take such a big step.

      Reach out to the academic skills assistance at your uni (there will be a unit dedicated to this) and see what support they offer, talk to faculty in your area about ‘auditing’ (basically, observing without doing the assessment) lower level courses in your area, talk to your supervisor and other members of faculty about other ways to fill these gaps. Finally, I highly recommend talking to the counselling service so you can get some free, unbiased help with working through the issues in a ‘safe space’. Then take a week totally off your thesis. Relax, do some stuff you enjoy.

      After you have done all this you will be more informed as to what your options are and (hopefully) have a bit of emotional distance from what you are feeling at the moment. At least then, if you do decide to quit, you wont look back and regret being impulsive about the decision. You will know it’s the best one for you.

      All the best

      • Helo thesis whisperer,

        thanks for the reply. Yes I already talk to supervisor and went to see counselor for an advice. everybody said im in lucky position because i had good supervisor, helpful person. I also had friends around me. I am the only problem, I did study about the research and class which is not my strength and little background but still not improve. I am not really sure what to do then. My SV asked me to think carefully, If I really cannot do it (like we know ourselves better), then need to decide early.

  40. Thank you for this post.
    My PhD research on the role of social support in the PhD journey (a part of which I will present at QPR next week =) and I found this post particularly interesting. In my focus groups with PhD students I did not come across the ambivalence narrative, but certainly got a sense of the other two being present. The Resilience narrative was found to be annoying, yes. Participants often said to me “I don’t want people telling me to cheer up and to persevere when I’m down and things are not going well, I just want someone to listen to me”. The expectation to perform is adding even more stress and pressure. The Chaos narrative, it seems to me, may become a driving force, the urge to find the “exit sign”. From conversations with other PhD students I feel the Ambivalence narrative may emerge when students actually take time out to think, and reflect on why they are doing their PhD, what it’s all for, how it fits into their life and career aspirations. I wonder if the tightened process of today’s PhD allows time to do just that, to reflect on the value and meaning of the PhD in one’s life, or if it rushes the candidate through it so you don’t get time to stop and doubt. Do you get a sense of the average PhD student rushing through their journey to just get it done?
    Lilia

  41. It’s perhaps easy to say when you have a PhD but the reality is there are far more important things in life, especially your health. I know of several people who dropped out of their PhDs (for various reasons) and they were very damaged by it.

    issues that go beyond normal anxiety and doubt require some reflection. the PhD is not for everyone and there is no shame in saying its not for me. if it fills you with dread, destroys your self confidence and causes depression (ie, more than simply feeling down), you really have to consider whether continuing is the right thing to do

    • I completely agree with this. And sometimes what is not right for us at one stage of life may become right at a later date.

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  43. My biggest struggle is immense, all-encompassing self-doubt and the constant feeling that I have absolutely no control over the work. I am exhausted all the time, I sleep way too much, and I cannot seem to work more than 5-6 hours a day. Even when I accomplish something I feel absolutely no pride or relief, just a nagging suspicion that I didn’t do it properly or well enough and that I am just not smart enough to be here. My memory fails more and more and most of the time I just want to do things that are relaxing, like long walks, and shopping, which all lead to extreme guilt and self-hatred. Everyday I ask myself why I am like this, how I got this way–I didn’t start this PhD because I was bored or a life-long overachiever. I was never interested in academics until university and I really love ideas and collaboration and writing and research…but I’m so unmotivated and I’m afraid I’ll never finish. The idea of writing all the chapters seems entirely impossible. Like, it’s surreal to even imagine. My automatic thought is TERROR because I cannot do it. It cannot be done. I’m sitting in front of a conference paper right now with a headache and I want to quit writing it and the deadline is ticking and I just keeping thinking that I’ve got NO CLUE NO CLUE NO CLUE what my research should tell me. Sorry if this post is unintelligible.

    • Your post is intelligible. I felt much like this during my Honours and at various times during myPhD. What helped me was remembering that if we’re clever enough to be accepted into a PhD, chances are we’re clever enough to complete it, and teaching myself to focus on the enjoyment of working with the ideas and finding out stuff, and try not to focus on how well it has to be done. If I focus on the doing, the quality takes care of it’self; if I focus on the quality, I freeze.

  44. Elle – your post is intelligible and certainly says things I identify with.

    I share your frustration at not knowing how much is enough or what is good enough. All I can offer is that in other contexts I can do this, so I’m working on the basis that it is a skill I’ll develop and I’m trying to do that by learning how long it takes to complete bits of work, and getting out to hear other doctoral students at similar points in their work to benchmark.

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  47. Hi, I found this article very helpful! I have been debating the idea of quitting from my PhD program for about two months now. I am nearing my fourth year and have not yet advanced to candidacy. I had a lot of financial issues at the beginning of my program as I was not getting any financial aid and had to pay out of my pocket for the love of finishing my degree. Two years into it, and I had no research topic. I started getting financial aid a little over a year ago, and my advisor pressured me to make up for lost time. We were of course in a great deal of debt, so even though my husband was working full-time at the retail business, he was not getting enough money, so I had to work on the side. That only slowed things in my research progress. After performing my current research (on a topic almost completely outside my discipline), I came to the realization that I feel both behind (have not advance to candidacy yet) and not advancing in my research plus I am losing interest on it. I am finding other disciplines more interesting due to the research I am conducting. My advisor is super close-minded and wouldn’t let me branch out from my own project and conduct different types of research. It’s really frustrating. I see him very little and when I see all he wants is the results. I am done with course work, and I am working this summer as hard as I can to see if I can stick around. At the end it is my decision, and I want to do what makes me happy. I don’t want to make the mistake of staying in my PhD and not doing something I love.

    • I’m a medical student and was doing a concurrent PhD for the past 1.5 years. I was interested in the concepts, but I had to come to terms with the fact that I slowly started to hate the lab. Actually, to say I hated the lab is an understatement – I abhorred it. And I felt trapped in many ways. I was definitely held back. In my spare time, I was working on my own medical textbook that had absolutely nothing to do with my PhD. And I felt like everyone else in my lab cared so much about their work, which made me even more put off by it. My co-supervisor had said to me at one point that she didn’t see my in the lab enough, and then she mentioned a couple people in my lab who were putting in hard work, and that I should try to be like them. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t want to be like those people in a million years! It was a joke, really. So when I ultimately went to meet with my advisor to talk about mid-candidature (this was last week), I told him I’m leaving with a Masters (and the cool thing is, I went from being probably ~33% done with a PhD I loathed to being ~95% done with a Masters that I can be proud I gained life experience from, even if my end goal changed). Now I feel free. And I spend my time working on my medical textbook and focusing on my med degree. The PhD is no longer in the way. I’m still completing some final experiments for the Masters, but they’ll be done in two weeks. The pipetting makes me sick to my stomach, but I tell myself I won’t have to deal with this ever again, and I’m so glad! As much as everyone in my lab seems to care so much, they’re so morose and saturtine walking around. I feel like the odd one out here. But successes are built on following your passions, not what accolades are extrinsically tied to you. I know this might sound absurd/childish, but I received more “likes” on FB when I announced last week that I was converting to Masters to focus on my true passions than when I had announced my authorship in a major medical textbook publication earlier this year. So just in case you’re concerned about how society views these things (reasonable concerns), I was actually really surprised that more people supported me for following my passions than for my accolades. A PhD isn’t for everybody. Don’t let yourself feel held back. It’s your life. And you only have it once.

  48. Thank you so much for writing this article!
    I have decided last week to give up on my PhD and this article seems to just speak my mind. Very helpful. I don’t feel so alone :)

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