Four More Reasons People Quit the Ph.D.

This post is by Hillary Rettig, author The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block. Hillary lives with her partner, a physics professor at a midwest liberal arts college, and her two fabulous rescue dogs. She is a vegan, a free software/free culture advocate, a living kidney donor, and a former foster mom to four Sudanese refugee teenagers (“Lost Boys”), now all adult and living independently. Hilary coaches academics: check out her online classes, and telecoaching services. You can view more of her work on How to Finish My Thesis and Life Long Activist

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 2.23.21 pmAfter reading (and commenting on) Dr. Mewburn’s recent fantastic article on Why People Quit the Ph.D., I wanted to add four more reasons to her list. As a writing productivity teacher and coach, I frequently see these among graduate students who are stuck.

1) Prior Harsh Rejection

While rejection is endemic to work and life, not all rejections are the same. Some are harsh enough that they undermine you in ways that make it difficult to get future work done. If left unhealed, such harsh rejections can easily derail a thesis and career.

Some harsh rejections are obvious, but others may not be. A good rule of thumb is that if you can remember a rejection, and especially if the memory elicits feelings of guilt, shame, or anger, then it was probably harsh. Also, keep in mind that rejection:

(a) Comes in many more forms than most people realize, and includes things like callousness, capriciousness, disparagement, diminishment, bias, marginalization, hypercriticality, hypocriticality (neglect), and ad hominem attack. And,

(b) Can come from many more sources than most people realize, including not just your supervisor and other professional colleagues, but friends and family, or even a news story that disparages your work. And,

Blindsiding is a common amplifier of rejection harshness, because when you’re blindsided—for instance, denied a job, publication, or other opportunity that you were absolutely sure you were going to get—your defenses are down. (Moderate your expectations, people!)

And perfectionism, as usual, only makes things worse, since perfectionists not only set unreasonably high standards for success, they tend to overidentify with their work, and so can take rejection extra hard.

Harsh rejection impairs your productivity by making you terrified to show your work—and so you procrastinate as a way of avoiding that. (If you don’t finish, you can’t show!).

The solution is two-fold:

(a) Start showing your work, even if only a paragraph or sentence at a time. (E.g., “What do you think of this paragraph? I know it needs editing, but I’m pretty proud of the main point.” Or, “Do you have any suggestions for this paragraph? I can’t quite get it right.”) Be very selective in whom you choose to share with, especially initially: neither your supervisor nor family members may be the right choice. Most graduate students benefit from having a “writing buddy” or two to provide moral support, and gentle feedback and encouragement: such a person would be a great choice, and you can also tell her exactly what feedback would be helpful. (“I just want your overall thoughts on the piece—please don’t worry about the grammar.”)

(b) Defuse the underlying traumatic rejection through discussions with sympathetic friends and colleagues, journaling, or therapy. In some cases, you can address the person who rejected you directly, especially if you feel that they are not fundamentally mean or vindictive. (That’s the best reason to only seek to work with good, kind, generous people, and avoid the others regardless of how illustrious they are.) They may not have meant to hurt you, and may not even be aware they did. By having a non-blamey heartfelt conversation, you may get your healing plus affirm the relationship.

2) Challenging / Traumatic Field Work and Other Research

Sometimes graduate students whose field work or other research was emotionally challenging are reluctant to “revisit” it via writing. I’ve seen this in students in fields like anthropology or sociology, and also in historians researching topics like genocide. If the student has a personal connection to the topic—e.g., his grandparents were Holocaust survivors—or has bonded with his research subjects, this can make the situation even more fraught.

Sometimes just acknowledging the emotional challenge is enough to defuse it, especially if you’ve got a good support network. Journaling can also help you sort out your feelings. But sometimes you need professional help to deal with what might be actual trauma or which, along with being a mental health issue, can seriously degrade your productivity.

If you are wondering whether you should seek out a professional for this kind of issue, you should probably just go ahead and do so.

Ideally, academic departments would recognize that some types of research have the potential to create emotional difficulties for students, and do some work to prepare students and minimize the harm. But I’ve never seen one that did.

3) An Activist Component

Many thesis projects either intentionally or unintentionally challenge the status quo, and therefore can be considered activist as well as academic projects. When you add activism to scholarship, you add layers of intellectual, emotional, and strategic complexity. Intellectually and emotionally, your work could challenge not just you, but your committee members or others. Strategically, it could limit your career options.

It’s wonderful if you want to combine academics and activism, but do so knowingly, and with abundant support from other scholar/activists. In particular, you will have to figure out how to balance your activism with your career goals, especially if you’re hoping for a job at a conservative institution – which is not necessarily a sell-out, by the way, since we need radical viewpoints inside the system as well as outside it. It’s also not a sell-out to: (a) incorporate your radical views gradually into your work, so that your thesis might not actually be that radical; (b) collaborate with nonradicals; or (c) present a conventional / nonthreatening appearance that makes its easier for your more traditional colleagues to accept your more radical message. In fact, these moves are often brilliantly strategic.

For more on what an activist mission entails, see my book on sustainable activism, The Lifelong Activist; entire text available for free at ).

4) Research Qualms

“Not enough.”
“Not the right kind.”
“Too narrow.”
“Too theoretical.”
“Not as interesting as I thought.”
“If only I could go back and…”

Many graduate students are dissatisfied with the results of their research, and that dissatisfaction, especially when coupled with regret, remorse, guilt, etc., can cause them to stall on their writing. Second-guessing your research is a pure waste of time, however; if your supervisor and committee think your research is adequate, you should accept their judgment and focus on your writing.

More generally, a major challenge in many fields, including academia, is learning to live with, and keep working past, your mistakes (Here’s a terrific video on that) It only makes sense that you’ll make some mistakes and misjudgments in what is probably your first big research project; and you definitely want to comprehend your weaknesses (and strengths, of course) as a scholar. When, however, your self-analysis crosses the line into harsh perfectionism—which typically leads to unproductive procrastination and dithering—you’re not doing yourself any favors.

So, keep your critical eye, and definitely create the list of things you would have done better “had you only known.” Then take those steps—on your next project.

Related links

Why do people quit the PhD?

Should you quit your PhD?

41 thoughts on “Four More Reasons People Quit the Ph.D.

  1. Hillary Rettig says:

    Hi Inger thanks so much for running this!

    Hi Everyone, I will be checking in periodically and would be happy to address any comments or questions.

  2. Deborah says:

    Whatever the reason, remember that after you’re done you won’t even remember the struggle. It’s an enormous undertaking but the reward is enormous. Just get it done! Finished in 2014.

  3. Jodie says:

    Thanks Hilary! I LOVE that video of Ira Glass talking about how it’s normal not to start out good. Love it! Wish I could pin the whole video to my cork board – huh. I think I just invented Pinterest…

  4. Bridget says:

    This post is really insightful thanks. I’ve struggled a bit with 2 & 3 (not that I am being deliberately activist, but that is certainly how it could potentially be seen). When I raised the difficulty I was having engaging with my fieldwork notes that I’d left to “cool” because of the emotional involvement/stress I felt from what I had witnessed, my supervisors completely avoided the topic. Fortunately I’m not stuck or in any way tempted to quit (I work by the “just keep swimming” mantra). Your post was useful in that it made me feel less alone with these concerns, that they are real and shared, and that is extra support that makes me feel more able to be swim through them.

    • Hillary Rettig says:

      Hi Bridget, Thanks for your comment, which hopefully will also help others feel less alone. I’m glad you were able to persevere despite your supervisors’ irresponsible (in my view) failure to engage with you on your subject matter’s emotional challenges. “Just keep swimming” is an excellent mantra.

  5. Anni Moana Sandell says:

    Thank you. Your words went right into the core of something ,that is for me, a great challenge.
    Not only have I experienced a great deal of capricious criticism from a former supervisor, I was told to drop “narrative research methods as no one really takes that seriously”, and my interest in Indigenous health, and my constructionist approaches were met with derision.
    I have now landed on my feet with brilliant supervisors at a wonderful University where my research interests have not only been validated but actively encouraged. I have beautiful and compassionate academic mentors who appear to think that my work is significant and meets a gap in the literature that needs to be addressed.
    I am a Psychotherapist by trade, interested in critical Psychology and in working in culturally appropriate ways in order to support people to re-story identity.
    My research – on the reported relationship of shame (and historical trauma) to the use of alcohol in harmful ways by Australian Aboriginal women – is an area which seems to cause discomfort to many White Australians.
    I have worked for years in AOD and in Mental Health, and, inspired greatly by the work of Isaac Prilleltensky and others, I feel very strongly that I cannot be a good therapist and teacher without consciously engaging in activism.
    Today, reading this article, after a barrage of student emails, accusing me of racism (I was lecturing on White Privilege on Saturday) I feel very much comforted and very strong.
    Again, thank you.

    • Hillary Rettig says:

      Dear Anni – Thank you so much for your comment. I’m so glad my piece is affirming. And I’m so glad you got out of the first toxic situation and found a supportive academic home. I’m glad you persevered and advocated for yourself. You are doing important research and teaching work, and I wish you much success.

  6. Teresa Somes says:

    I found these comments insightful, and importantly, sympathetic. I immediately began reading your book, and on completing a list of ‘snarls’ identified 23! It was both traumatic and cathartic to identify them. It may however take me some time to deal with them individually . Thankyou for your invaluable contributions.

    • Hillary Rettig says:

      Hi Teresa – Thanks for your kind words and thanks also for purchasing 7 Secrets! 23 is not so many snarls! It’s amazing how even trivial-seeming episodes of underproductive “unpack” to reveal themselves as pretty complex.

  7. Zoe says:

    Many thanks for this. Working on my PhD sometimes churns up some unexpected reactions/emotions, so this article is a great reminder that this is normal! I’m about half way through and recently I’ve been trying to make some lifestyle changes to support my work – since it’s clear to me that my PhD affects other parts of my life, and the rest of my life certainly impacts on my productivity. Any suggestions for reading on this topic? Thanks again!

  8. Carol Mills says:

    I have recently moved interstate to get my thesis “done”. One of my supervisors says I am fear failing. I think she may be right but also my work involves a trauma that I experienced and sometimes find hard to detach from. Time has helped provide that distance. This is it for my, my final year and a big commitment and sacrifice as I am away from home and
    my husband.

    • Anni Moana Sandell says:

      Carol, you say that your work is related to a Trauma that you have experienced.
      It would be hard to “detach from”, and it is your own narrative that may have nurtured an interest in the area.

      I hope that wherever you gone to “finish” this phase, that you have good support such as counselling and people with whom you can talk.
      Being away from your husband and home would be hard – I hope that this Thesis is tamed soon…they can appear to us as such out of control wild things – making massive demands of us.
      I did a great course last year with Professor Ron Adams – who is renowned for his work with PhD students. Worth a look depending on which state you are in.
      Lest the fear overwhelm you try to talk to a student counsellor at your Uni about possible ways of approaching the Thesis. I am going to now read Hillary’s books.

    • Hillary Rettig says:

      Hi Carol – I see Anni already responded; I’m glad.

      If you even suspect you have trauma I urge you to consult a trauma specialist asap, even if it’s been years. There’s no point in waiting – it can impact your life negatively in many ways.

      And it can impact your life (and work) positively to get some treatment.

      Best to you in your work; you are showing great commitment.

  9. Mark Read says:

    Hi Hillary. Thanks.

    I found writing my Methodology really painful. It touched on some personal issues which emerged from my interviews. I was inadvertently and covertly researching aspects of my own circumstances. I overcame the distress to a degree later but it delayed my writing substantially.

    I am glad to hear this isn’t a unique experience. (Well, relieved but not happy for others.) Is there any literature which reflects this kind of experience? I don’t want my Methodology chapter to become too subjective in this respect if I can avoid it.

    Best wishes.


    • Hillary Rettig says:

      Hi Mark, I am sure this situation happens fairly often. It’s pretty widely acknowledged in the fiction and nonfiction writing communities, but I guess scholars are supposed to be “above it all.” But it only makes sense that we’re drawn to topics because of our personal experiences, and boy you can get some pretty complex and intense situations as a result.

      add to that the whole dynamic of being a “researcher” in that realm.
      btw, procrastination, perfectionism, etc., are problems of the *best* people: those who care the most, take the breadth of their responsibilities most seriously, etc. Someone who cares is more likely to get caught up identifying with their research “subjects.” Caring is wonderful – when we stop caring, all kinds of evil steps in – but it adds a big layer of complexity.

      memoir writers get into trouble because, often, they and everyone expects memoir to be easy. “You’re just telling your story.” But they can hit some huge emotional roadblocks.

      > Is there any literature which reflects this kind of experience? I don’t want my Methodology chapter to become too subjective in this respect if I can avoid it.

      I don’t know of any literature (other than my book, of course!) Maybe others do. If you find something please post it here. // But I really think forewarned is forearmed. I wish grad schools did a better job of helping students understand and prepare for the entire breadth of their experience. They have the responsibility to do it, and it would save everyone a lot of pain and trouble.

      • Hillary Rettig says:

        re the “subjectivity” question really the ultimate arbiter of that is your committee, so you should write to their standard. Just being aware of the potential problem is probably going to be a big help, but if you have any doubts in this area raise them with your supervisor sooner rather than later. // if you find any papers or other resources on this topic, please share them with us!

      • Mark Read says:

        By way of thanks:
        I found Jadwiga Leigh’s Qualitative Research paper (Sage online) ‘A tale of the unexpected’ useful. It’s a sensitive topic though the advice is well grounded.
        Hope it might be interesting and helpful.

        • Hillary Rettig says:

          Thanks for that cite, Mark, and your kind words above!

          Also, I do recommend Joan Bolker’s book Write Your Dissertation in 15 Mins a Day. I don’t know if she discusses this specifically, but she well might. She’s very good on the whole emotional aspects of things.

  10. Anonymous says:


    I’m a scientist in England, so not like most of the commenters here apparently. I’m sorry to comment like this. I had a big #1 experience: I guess you’d call it an obvious/harsh rejection/blindsiding! Which was a good thing, because it meant I didn’t go back to work again for the abusive supervisor. A decision once made was unmade, and lots of things were said that were intended to destabilize me. This was over a year ago now, and I still think about it pretty much every day, and it majorly affects my work. I don’t really have anyone to talk to, and there is 0% chance I’ll take up therapy. Anyone here have any recommendations?! Or am I just screwing myself?! (I really won’t do the therapy thing, by the way.)
    Thanks for the great post, by the way. It was really insightful and you sound like a great person.

    • Hillary Rettig says:

      Hi Anonymous, Thanks for your note and kind words, and sorry for the late reply – I’ve been traveling. I’m sorry you had what sounds like a truly awful experience, and glad you were able to rebound. Not everyone would be. We have almost no protection against someone who sets out to be intentionally mean, vindictive, etc., especially when they have great power over us.

      OK, here’s what you need to do about the residual trauma–a word I don’t use lightly:

      Get over your therapy block. I can’t say it any other way. your rigidity on this issue is unhelpful and kind of outdated. These days, lots of people get therapy at one time or another. I’m married to a physicist and know plenty of scientists of all kinds. Most have been to therapy quite productively. Therapy is a tool successful people in all fields and from all backgrounds use to become more successful. Eliminating therapy from your life to me makes as little sense as eliminating dentistry.

      I would start by figuring out where the aversion comes from. First, there are a zillion types of therapy. I’m guessing you don’t want the Freudian “let’s delve deep into your feelings and background” type thing. Fine. Look for someone who does cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on unhelpful behaviors in the present and exercises for change. And there are other treatment modalities as well.

      Another option would be to work with a work or writing coach; someone like me. There is a therapeutic element to what I do but the emphasis is on the work. Still, I’m not a clinician and my work often is most useful as an adjunct to therapy, or after someone has dealt with many therapy-type issues.

      True, many therapists are not very good. Many “coast,” and your average therapist is probably not as analytical as your average scientist. All that means is you keep looking till you’ve found the right one. I am located in Michigan and Skype with a therapist in Berkeley. She is very smart and has a strong Buddhist orientation (has written books on it) which is exactly what I need to get out of the overanalytical “box” I sometimes find myself in. Analysis isn’t always the right toolkit.

      I hope the above is helpful. I hope others will chime in with their inputs, and if you have any follow up question or comment Anon I welcome it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hi again!

        Your reply is really thorough and helpful. I thought I’d take it a step at a time, which I don’t do very often, but I had a bit of a look around for a career coach sort of person. Just emailing someone different could be really useful… maybe. Anyway I had a search around the Internet and couldn’t find what I needed. Then this morning, I got an email from a national organization related to my old school about a mentoring programme. I thought of what you said, and maybe this will be the first thing that helps. I’m not sure when this programme starts, but I’ve signed up to it now.

        Just saying thanks for your kind comment.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hi again… I have a comment.
        So my supervisor – who is very well known in my field, very harsh, always logical and extremely tough, with seemingly very little emotional understanding (but an amazing person)… suggested I get counselling. He also said I should take some time out of the lab for a while.
        I went back to my home town and signed myself up for a private therapist, as there would be no time for an NHS one.
        She. Was. Amazing. To my surprise, she was extremely analytical and clearly very intelligent. I feel terrible for having judged her before I knew her. She was also very tough, which is how I see myself. We got on like a house on fire and she totally got me to change my life around by telling me so many things I hadn’t been able to see because of a lack of objectivity and training, and thinking about it.

        Thank you for your comments. They were really great.

      • Hillary Rettig says:

        Anonymous – I’m glad you had such a good experience. Thanks for sharing it, which is useful to me and hopefully inspirational to others.

  11. Robin Farley says:

    Great article. I struggled with many of the problems you cite in your discussion. I finally succeeded last year, as close to the final deadline as humanly possible, and used many of the strategies you highlight. Your point about procrastination being a defense mechanism was very true for me. In the end I realized a few things. First, I had learned a lot in the long PhD process and had actually transitioned into being a researcher so I stopped thinking of myself as being some sort of imposter. Second, I realized that I really did know more about my subject than just about anyone else, enough at least so that I believed I could defend what I had to say in the dissertation and that the conclusion and my diagnosis of the problem was legitimate and added some insight to the body of knowledge.

    • Hillary Rettig says:

      Hi Robin, Thanks for your comment. What I find interesting about it and what others should notice is that it was *your attitude to your work* that determined whether you were blocked or productive. That is indeed the place where one wants to tackle the problem.

      Thanks for providing such a vivid illustration of a really important point.

  12. Dell says:

    Y cuando charlamos de querer la naturalidad de la mujer, no quiere
    decir que debemos rehuir de determinados lujos”, maquillaje y moda.

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