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



153 thoughts on “Why do people quit the PhD?

  1. Alan Mackie (@Oldmanmackie) says:

    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).

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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.

      • Mandalay says:

        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 🙂

        • justblade says:

          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 🙂

    • justblade says:

      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.

      • Mandalay says:

        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. Suzette Henry-Campbell says:

    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. galpod says:

    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 🙂

    • Stevil says:

      I started a PhD because I strongly believe in the value and importance of my research. I have considered leaving and still do but my interest and passion for my research keeps me going. This would seem to tie in with the resilience narrative but perhaps a little more hopeful 🙂

  4. g2-03db67cface373158834e8e7ee578a0e says:

    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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. Brian says:

    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. NessieMonster says:

    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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.

  7. JeanRumbold says:

    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).

  8. jenny says:

    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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.

    • Frances says:

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

  9. Tori Wade says:

    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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!

  10. Walter says:

    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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.

  11. Anon says:

    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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.

  12. justblade says:

    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.

  13. Yali says:

    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. 😛
    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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!

  14. Kate says:

    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.

  15. Joy says:

    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.

  16. Thesis Whisperer says:

    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 🙂

  17. Nikki Aharonian says:

    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.

  18. c-clark@netspace.net.au says:

    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

  19. horsesfordiscourses says:

    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!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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.

  20. Ella says:

    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.

      • mika says:

        The truth of the matter is that the majority of today’s Ph.D students (Oz) are not cut out for a Ph.D spot, nevertheless finish one in the first place..

        When will uni’s start being honest with their selection ‘process’?

        I think this is the biggest problem, not the whinging
        about supervisors behaviour bla bla bla..

        The one’s that have it in them academically, do the work, suck it up socially and move on- either in academia or out of it, if they can’t cope with the politics of the workplace..

        A Ph.D is not supposed to be easy, & one by publication only = a new demise of the Ph.D degree, is definitely not equal to a Ph.D by research thesis. Or Msc degrees that get converted to a Ph.D- another joke..

        I believe that this blog is becoming a soap opera: Give away the Ph.D for nothing, just because i want one..

        Please come to your senses people!!!!!

      • Anonymous says:

        This above post by mica is probably one of the most ignorant I’ve ever read and completely shows this person has not the slightest clue of the research process. The majority of people who curtail their PhD do so because they realize it’s a waste of time and that life isn’t about having a title. Too many people spend years walking sullen around a lab and loathing every second of being there but don’t have the strength to just step up and leave.

      • ELF says:

        @mika That seems an interesting perspective. Can you elaborate on your comment:
        “A Ph.D is not supposed to be easy, & one by publication only = a new demise of the Ph.D degree, is definitely not equal to a Ph.D by research…”

        As I understand it, a PhD is, by definition, a degree by research. The term “PhD by publication” describes a thesis document where some or many of the chapters have already been published. The thesis document is still a record of research undertaken by the candidate.

        Are you perhaps confusing this with Professional Doctorates? These do not go by the name PhD. Instead they are named depending on the field of study, e.g. EdD (education), EngD (engineering). They have quite different requirements compared with a PhD.

      • mika says:

        @anonymous: You clearly lack a Ph.D….

        @ELF: There seems to be a new trend at Oz uni’s, whereby, weaker students (with excuses) that start a Ph.D, and cannot, for a plethora of reasons- get it on…, end up doing 2 things (e.g. from social sciences)- Enrol in a Ph.D by research thesis (the traditional)- get the freebie fee waiver, but then convert to a Ph.D by publication (from my experience, this can also be attributed to a ‘wanky’ topic that won’t be eventually passed by the examiners; in this instance the primary supervisor is responsible, but never held accountable!!), publish 2-4 articles (you would hope peer reviewed!!!), attend a couple of ‘peer reviewed conferences’ to recycle the material, get a travel grant of max 2K to travel overseas and than get awarded a Ph.D. Or do the above minus any serious peer review, which means the primary supervisor get his ‘mates’ to be examiners in order for it to get passed!!

        A professional doctorate also consists of coursework, and again, is definitely not equivalent to a higher degree by research: Ph.D. Great for a promotion in the workplace, nothing more or else. Bad for academia in general though..

        In the States though, Ph.D’s are structured in this manner, in order for student’s to finish grad school, unlike Oz, where its more research orientated and intense.. The q is sometimes though, how well structured are Oz Ph.D programs?

      • Anonymous says:

        This mika character sounds like the classic young-20s student without any real experience. Let alone the repeated mention of “weaker students” or those who are “not cut out for doing a PhD” shows the ego complex this person has. It’s people like you (no offense) that nobody wants on a research team.

      • ELF says:

        @mika: “Enrol in a Ph.D by research thesis (the traditional)- get the freebie fee waiver, but then convert to a Ph.D by publication”.

        Is this process/procedure for converting enrolment written anywhere? Could you post a link to e.g. a university handbook or grad student web page that describes it? I was not aware that a PhD by publication involved fees, or that candidates were not eligible for “fee waivers”.

        ” Or do the above minus any serious peer review, which means the primary supervisor get his ‘mates’ to be examiners in order for it to get passed!!”

        This suggests there are different examination procedures for a traditional thesis document versus one that includes publications. Does this mean a thesis that includes publications is not sent to two examiners who are external to the university? Again, if you could could post any links that outline the examination process for a PhD that includes publications, I would be most grateful.

        “attend a couple of ‘peer reviewed conferences’ to recycle the material”

        At my university, the requirement to present at national or international conferences at some stage during candidature, applies to all research higher degree students. I’ve not seen rules that exclude candidates writing a traditional thesis from accessing funding for conferences. In fact, conference funding provisions for PhD candidates were around long before the PhD by publication emerged.

      • mika says:

        Extremely disappointed in your approach Inger. You claim I’m the problem, yet fail to moderate @anonymous. It takes 2 to tango. As such, why haven’t you “moderated” @anonymous? Just because you don’t like or agree with an opinion doesn’t mean its automatically spam!!

  21. Roller Coaster, PhD says:

    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!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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!

  22. ablogbyerica says:

    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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.

  23. LiliRose says:

    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/

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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!

  24. annainternational says:

    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!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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!

      • annainternational says:

        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!!

  25. Ashley Shaw says:

    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…

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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.

  26. BrianLParkinson (@BrianLParkinson) says:

    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.

  27. Joanne Abbey says:


    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

    • Frances says:

      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.

  28. notmensa says:

    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.

    • Still Jaded says:

      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.

  29. joaquinbarroso says:

    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

  30. Frances says:

    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.

  31. I'm the blue man says:

    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.

  32. Jaded says:

    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.

  33. Agne says:

    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.

    • The Voice of Reason says:

      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

    • Brian says:

      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.


  34. netnet says:

    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.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      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

      • netnaj says:

        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.

  35. Lilia says:

    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?

  36. The Voice of Reason says:

    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

    • FrancesB says:

      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.

  37. Elle Sid (@ElleCSid) says:

    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.

    • FrancesB says:

      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.

  38. ablogbyerica says:

    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.

  39. Dreamer&Idealist says:

    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.

    • Anonymous says:

      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.

  40. ccc says:

    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 🙂

  41. Tony Brady says:

    Hi Inga,
    While all of you reasons bear relevance, I believe you have missed a fundamental issue and that is the push to sign up PhDs. Potential supervisors scour their classes looking for PhD students. I have witnessed thevsigning of 5-6 students with 3 non completes, 2 awarded Masters after several reviews and 1 PhD awarded. If one lecturer, in one year, can be responsible for these results, then what are the real figures? The associated prestige and reduced teaching load contingent to having a bag of PhD students provides a certain allure that is not in the interests of Doctoral Research. I am interested in your thoughts and the experience of others.

  42. Sarah says:

    I wonder why the cost of childcare hasn’t been given a proper mention for the reasons that make many students with young families give up the PhD?

  43. somedude says:

    Why did I quit my Applied Math PhD after 3 years? Simple. I realized that not only was my 50+ old supervisor sleeping with his only female PhD student (25 years his junior; by her own admission she wanted to get a permanent position at the Uni), he was “guiding” me (i.e. ordering me what to do and what not to do) the whole time so that he can steal my research results to get her “yet another published article” – without my name and consent of course. You know, forget scientific progress and intellectual challenges – write and get published as much of whatever as possible (preferably about the same stuff as your advisor is writing so he can write you a 120 page long “previously published articles review” document which you’ll get published under your own name after +/- 4 months and god knows how many blowjobs). I shall never understand the point of this. Me being a foreign PhD student in a rich country (honestly, the main reason for me as well as most of the other foreign PhD students being there, at home nobody gives an F about anyone having 2 PhDs) he told me if there’s anything I don’t like I can go home. At the end I contacted 2 members of the rector stuff about this, what did they do?!? “Ah yes this is wrong this should not be happening, we have procedures for this…” and then of course they did nothing but cover their asses so that they could enjoy their tax payer paid jobs for another 20 years. Btw during my Msc cum laude studies I worked in a tech startup for 4 years – nobody I’ve met at t3 universities in 2 countries can touch those guys. So if somebody starts talking about intellectual challenges etc I say do a startup in your field – there’s a good chance you’re going to be working with far more intelligent people than you’ll ever meet in tax payer money subsidized academia. Plenty of people feeling and thinking they’re smart, far less people actually being smart – by private sector/startup scene measures anyway.

  44. cultureandideas says:

    This post was extremely reassuring. I’m in the midst of leaving my Phd program. I’m going to speak with my supervisor next week and discuss about this decision. I have felt like an imposter ever since I joined the program, didn’t really fit in but I kept pushing myself. I’m in my 3rd year and I don’t think I can do this anymore. My supervisor is so busy with her own work I feel cheated that she has not given me the right feedback about my work, which resulted in a horrible Qualifying Exam experience. And research thats just in tatters.
    Feeling emotionally and physically drained these past few months and this week I feel that its time to make a decision and leave. Because imagining another two more years doing research and working with my supervisor makes me feel really bleak about the future.
    I just wanted to say thank you for your post, it made me feel a little better about myself. I’m currently battling with an overwhelming sense of fear and guilt,and this post felt like a reassuring hug.

    • Xavier says:

      I also had a horrible experience during my qual. They knew I’ll leave soon due healthy reasons (see the post below) and they gave me 4 days to prepare the qual. 4 fu****g days. No need to say they fu***d me without love and compassion 🙂

  45. Xavier says:

    Today I wanted to write to my supervisor telling him I’m going to quit… And I found this great post.

    I was in my first year of my PhD and everything was great: hard work, stress, etc. And I was able to manage all of this. However, I had leukemia years ago and the cancer ghost knocked my door again.

    I got a LOA and for 9 months I had no news from my colleagues or supervisor during this time. Before Xmas I just had a mail from my supervisor asking my if I’m able to return by Jan and to work without disruptions this time. I was like WTF?

    I’m really dissapointed. Really. Its not to be a drama Queen but during this 9 months I had to manage all my health problems alone and without family support. Consecuences? A big depression… And the funny thing is not about my PhD 🙂

    So I’ll find a new research project, a new PhD, and a new place empty of crackpots. I know it sounds a bit strict, but when you have an illness like cancer, this illness gave you a filter. And this filter worked with me in this way.

  46. Ashley cox says:

    Thank you very much for this super interesting article. I am a PhD student from the United States that just tendered my resignation yesterday to stop at a master’s-level.

    Mine is more of the ambivalence narrative i think. I exited Academia the first time almost 10 years ago (2008) as a 23 year old. I had just graduated with my masters in women’s studies and was ready to Take On The World and make it a better place. I did just that for four years working as a caseworker but while enjoyed my work, I missed the stimulation of Academia. I Quickly came to realize that most social workers didn’t get into social work to combine research with practice. Rather, many often wield their feelings at their main broblem solving tool. To my more scientific mind, this seemed rather sloppy and when I got laid off in late 2012, I decided that I wanted to go back to academe into a more quantitative field (social/health) psychology.

    Started off rough from the beginning. This was a new program that was only a few years old when I joined it. The work days for much much longer then what I had as a graduate student years ago. This time however I moved across the country with a significant other and it was an extra chaleng to balance both life and work. What ended up happening is that I mostly just work. And worked. And worked. I also ever really bonded with the other graduate students because I was much older this time in my early thirties .

    It has been two years in and I’ve recently decided to stop with just a master’s degree. I recently became to realize that I no longer wanted to be an academic. The life of what I thought and I thought it looked like is not what I was being trained for hear and not what it looked like from this angle there’s some of this could have been due to the field switch for my last agreed to this one. This one looks like endless work when was not as applied is women’s studies. Secondly it to me recently that my advisor never really have much of a plan for me. Your grand plan for me was generally to just figure things out on my own essentially teach myself and come see her once in a while. I recognize the Merit of teaching oneself to some degree, but I also think oneself also needs to have significant tools under their belt before they undertake some things, at least if they want things to be done correctly and efficiently. My problems we started to spiral when my advisor was wanting things quicker and wasn’t really willing to do any actual teaching. Her philosophy is that students should just play around and figure it out on their own – that is how they learned, she believed . However it has become evident to me recently that this type of approach has bred a lot of uncertainty, bad techniques, and inefficiency in our lab. The my advisor became hostile with me for variety of reasons ranging from not really publishing much and my first two years to spending too much time prepping for a class that i teach to me not really wanting to stay in the are during the summer when the university couldn’t really fun me during the summer months. I have work in my home town that can provide enough money to not only get me through the summer months I do also help you get through the school year. She was not at all synthetic and this fact she told me that I had inflated sense of what I needed to live . She also began to tell me some strange things just simply weren’t true in relation ti the jobs I wanted, another person professor, some travel arrangements, all things that I confirmed later that weren’t true. The real starw that broke the camel’s back was when realize that she just didn’t seem to have a plan for me relation to a few key things that I had been asking her about her a while (comprehensive exams, things that I should be working on during my summer break, etc). For examole, She told me to go ask another student about the nature of the comprehensive exams, which I had asked her about multiple times.; I made a phone call to a Graduate advisor and got it fixed in 20 minutes. It was then that I began to question if what I’m putting myself through and my significant other through was all worth it if I really didn’t want to be an academic anymore. secondly, I also began to wonder what I would really be learning Should I stick out my degree. If her grand plan for me was to simply just teach myself she didn’t seem to really have much of a plan for me then why should I even stick around? Couldn’t I get just as much of an education off of the internet. Why do I need to stick around with her in order to do this when the jobs I really want to be hiring at the Masters level.?

    In summary I quit because I was really Disturbed that I don’t think she really had much of a plan for me was ne and I didn’t want to be treated in hostile manner for a degree but I didn’t really need.

    Don’t know if this helps your reasear but thought you may simply be interested in knowing another story about why a PhD quit.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a long and throughtful response. I think your story demonstrates how important the supervisor is in these decision making processes. I wish you all the best for your future – I’m sure it is bright

  47. Michael English says:

    talking about quiting a PhD I did just that today. i went on leave for the birth of my son and had an accident so re-evaluated my life and a PhD just doesn’t fit in. However prior to leaving I had grown very dis-satisfied with future job prospects in spite of the novel work I was involved in. My area is in medical nanotechnology and yes i am the sole author (with my supervisor) of some papers. i also have a MSc. Anyway, I knew while conducting my research that a better future lay outside so I had been investigating a field where i could start my own business. i am in the process of doing that, a winery of all things. Still i cannot complain as i learnt a lot of relevant material and made use of the time . I was fairly close to finishing with little more than a write up and final seminar with defence to go. But thats it. I achieved my aims and found out the unvarnished truth about the pecking order at a University. i am too much a free spirit to ever fit in.

  48. Karape says:

    never quit, never give up, never let the next day defeat you, fight for today….fight for now…..fight for this moment, never let the decision you make next defeat you….fight for today and if you have conquered today, you have conquered an eternity because time is an illusion. Today is all that matters, never let today slip you by, never let today go by without you best fight.

  49. Michael English says:

    The reasons for quitting my pHD crept up on me in a variety of ways

    The first was spokenly openly in everyones presence that academics ager over 55 would no longer be employed and those who were had to retire.

    At the same time research funds for projects under the Australian government dried up with the University forcing academics to closely align projects with industry.

    I took all this in and gradually started to look for something else to do as the chances of me being employed were very low at that particular university and I had no desire to leave from Brisbane or go very far pulling my family along.

    In the meantime the university pulled funding on tutors to save costs and I was one of the casualties. This stung badly as I had written up a fair amount of coursework experiments which are still used.

    I went on leave as my wife was having a baby but I continued with developing a potential business. Unfortunately I was injured during this.

    I was contacted by the university to return and present my final seminar. I protested that I still had a year left. So as I was already dubious and sceptical about my post pHD career I quit officially.

    I will say I am vastly happier being a free spirit than I ever was doing my PhD. Inwill never return to it but the research skills I developed during it are of immense help to me in private life. Michael.

  50. Kismetkate says:

    There is another narrative that i have found helpful and is the result of long time yoga practice which is simply to “do and trust eventually all is coming”. Make working on your PhD a habit. Write often and early. Let thoughts come and keep track of them. Colllect the data and evaluate it :often and early. Don’t judge but be mindful and discriminating. And do it because you can not because it must.

  51. Kati says:

    Thanks for the article. I am an international student in the US, I have finished my masters in a year and got acceptance for the PhD from different university. While I was studying in masters, I have really enjoyed it and I thought I need to study more, learn more, do more in academia. I have started to PhD program with a big ambition, but everything has gone wrong with me in the first year. I struggled with reading thick books, writing papers (for assignments), go to the morning classes early, be active during the class time, ask questions to the professors every time, attend to boring(!) colloquiums (it is mandatory for 4 semesters) and be in a good relationship with the advisor. I can not finish reading long and thick books or articles on time, so, I can not finish my assignments as expected! I have slept on the colloquium today (it was not on my hand) and my lovely, polite advisor saw me and she really got mad with me. (I have not seen her such an angry mood, ever, I kept hard my tears for crying :((( )
    I know, I like learning, I want to study and learn, I want to do contribution to do academia but I am thinking that I am not appropriate person for the PhD and I think I won’t finish it. (My advisor told me that I am late person, I do not write good, I do not attend to classes actively, I am feeling bored etc., I believe that she does not want to continue with me.
    I am really feeling bad, I do not know why everything goes worse and worse. I have started to think that I have to withdraw from PhD program. I am just wondering that is there any person like me? What do you advise for me? If I withdraw PhD, will I be regretful in the future? (I am in the second year and have not started to thesis or research yet)

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  53. Pam says:

    I’m ABD. I’ve written the first three chapters multiple times, and it’s never good enough. I’ve been beaten down enough to know that it’s time to go. I’ll can’t meet their standards and am much happier since I’ve owned that fact.

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