Wanting to quit your PhD crosses the mind of almost every PhD student at some point during their programme. There’s a patch, especially somewhere in the middle (around the 2-year mark), where the thoughts of wanting to quit are just too loud to ignore. It’s actually a really common but difficult period and there are so many variables to consider making it extremely difficult to process. And for PhD students, this is actually a big statement, because problem solving skills and holding complex decisions in our minds is what we’re best at.
Before we delve into the variables that impact your decision on whether to quit your PhD or not, it’s really important we address something else first. That being that it is okay to quit your PhD. Academia itself can be a very toxic place at times, thoughts of leaving academia, let alone deciding to quit your PhD, can be seen as taboo. This also makes it very difficult to discuss it openly with your peers and supervisor, it also doesn’t always help when trying to speak to your friends and family about it as they don’t always necessarily understand what a PhD consists of or entails. Let alone what value it might have in the long term.
Nonetheless, it’s really important to give yourself space to explore this idea whilst also being non-judgemental about your decision – irrespective of what you decide to do. A lot of this judgment can be exacerbated by imposter syndrome, but ultimately, completing your PhD is merely just a certificate, a piece of paper, an acquisition of skills, a journey, it has no bearing on your self-worth or your value. Thus, if you do quit, your self-worth and value is not diminished.
This leads us nicely into our first variable, your self-worth, or more broadly speaking your identity. Throughout our academic careers we construct our sense of self around what we study. To be honest, a lot of people construct an identity around their job. For PhD students it’s typically that you’re an academic, that you’re a good person – contributing to research, solving the world’s problems or hidden secrets, or even that you’re ‘a researcher’ a ‘scientist’ or ‘philosopher’ so to speak. Sometimes these beliefs are deeply held, so deep in fact most of us don’t have conscious awareness of them. Ultimately, ‘a PhD is what I’m doing, and this is who I am’. When the time comes, and things are difficult, the thoughts of wanting to quit your PhD leave you with a hole – a form of disconnect. You know who you are, but now who you are is changing. The very thing you’ve spent years building your identity around might not actually exist anymore. This is an extremely overwhelming process, it’s also very similar to what you will experience at the end of your PhD and want to leave academia.
It’s the very same mindset that a lot of people can’t shake when it comes to an end. Wanting to quit your PhD or even academia are psychologically very tough decisions to digest. No matter how unhealthy or miserable your PhD makes you, this can be enough to keep you enduring the struggle. It can be enough to keep you tied to your PhD. This is usually the final hurdle, when you know you want to quit your PhD but don’t know how to make sense of it or what it means for your identity.
To work through it, you need to ultimately reconstruct your sense of self. Who am I? What are my passions? What are my interests? Do I have more than one interest? Do I have multiple purposes? What do I do in my spare time? These aren’t easy questions to answer. Especially the ones relating to your other interests and hobbies, as sometimes a PhD will consume so much time you don’t have any other interests! Because of how psychologically challenging this is, you essentially have to grieve your PhD in order to quit your PhD. It’s weird, it’s hard to explain, but for those of you who have quit or are at the end of your tether, you’ll be able to relate. This can take months to work through and not everyone can do it. But it certainly is the biggest contributor to not being able to quit your PhD when you want to.
The remaining variables are, on the most part, subjective, but they usually touch upon the same threads. This mainly consists of your interest/passion for a subject changing, your well-being, your finances, and possibly the long-term prospects shift. For two of these, that being a shift in your long-term prospects and a change in your interest for your subject, it’s hard to say whether these should influence your decision. Certainly, a shift in your long-term prospects (e.g., you may change your career goals, or career path, you might have worked out your post-PhD salary goals), can make your PhD suddenly feel redundant and a waste of time.
If you always wanted to be a mental health professional but now you don’t, having a PhD in mental health can feel, at times, useless. Similar situation goes for a shift in your passions, if you loved ancient history before your PhD but now you hate anything remotely old – you’re unlikely to continue down this road as a career. However, here you have two options. Either quit your PhD because it feels useless or adjust your perspective on the value of your PhD – it’s recommended to have a browse around this blog for more insight. Essentially, get away from the hard skills or discipline specific knowledge and focus on your transferable skills, here you’ll find that your PhD is not a waste of time. It can also be really healthy to do this early into your PhD journey as it can give you a framework on how to make the most of it and set you up for PhD success. If you identify this early, you can deliberately try to acquire transferable skills, it can take the edge off and re-energise you for the long hall. It won’t feel like a waste of time.
The other variables of your financial circumstances and mental health are more significant and ultimately have more weight when deciding whether to quit your PhD or not. People don’t like to talk about it, but money is important. Your PhD does not occur in a vacuum and thus, the decision to quit shouldn’t either. Completing a PhD, especially if your self-funded, is a huge commitment.
After a few months or a year in you might feel it isn’t sustainable anymore in which case you ultimately don’t really have a choice – your hands are tied, and you’ll need to quit your PhD because it simply isn’t affordable. However, what do you do if you can afford it, but not sure if you should continue to self-fund? There are a few options. Firstly, re-define what your PhD means to you as we’ve already discussed, this essentially re-frames the return on your investment. You’re not necessarily paying to get expert knowledge specifically; you’re actually paying to be put through the most rigorous learning experience of your lifetime in order to come out the other end with a whole host of skills. Again, the transferable skills really are the bread and butter of this blog. Identifying broader, more general benefits can make the return on investment more understandable – and thus you’re more likely to continue.
The second option is to explore research grants, apply for additional funding, it will add to your workload, but it can really be useful to have these funds to pay for your research costs and in some cases be used as a stipend. Not easy, but possible. You may also want to take up teaching whilst completing your PhD, as these can sometimes pay. The third option, which is something most people don’t consider, is to switch to part time. Half your PhD working hours and pick up a job that pays. Of course, this is likely to double the length of your PhD which might be better to avoid, but worst-case scenario you could give this a shot when trying to find a solution to not quit. If it isn’t working out, then maybe switch back to full time, or quit all together. Nothing is ever set-in stone.
The final and most important variable is your well-being, your mental health, and your overall happiness. PhD’s are draining, they can really wear you down, they’re lonely, with minimal feedback, long hours, and with often very few wins or successes. This is partly why most people hit a PhD slump halfway through their PhD – the monotony and repetitiveness of your work can be soul destroying. Especially if it’s extremely challenging. In the middle is usually when most PhD students experience burnout, when you’re simply trying to do too much all at once. This behaviour is unsurprisingly not sustainable and begins to have a negative impact on your well-being. Everyone pretty much agrees that if your PhD makes you unhappy you should quit. Or if your PhD has a negative impact on your well-being you should quit. There’s nothing new to add here. This blog post echoes this message.
However, sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re unhappy because of your PhD specifically or the way you’re managing your PhD. It requires a lot of self-reflection, but do you have good time management, are you experiencing burnout (in which case some annual leave will set you right), is your supervisor making things difficult for you, are you working hard instead of smart? If this negative feeling persists and brings you down, or in order for you to keep your head above water you have to sacrifice your well-being, it’s not worth it. Your PhD shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg (psychologically speaking). A PhD is hard work, and it is a challenge, but it definitely should not be all consuming. You might really love your PhD and your subject area, but if it’s killing you in the process – it simply isn’t worth it. Nothing that destroys your well-being is worth it, period. In the first instance you want to have a conversation about your well-being with your supervisor, family and friends. If it is unsustainable you want to start thinking about solutions or systems that you can create that make things more manageable. Sometimes it really is simply about time management skills – taking things off your plate so you have the resources to cope. Sometimes it’s not, and no matter what you do you need to quit your PhD.
Deciding to quit your PhD really is difficult, and nobody will ever be able to tell you what to do. But you should think about it long and hard. Consider the pros of staying and quitting, consider the cons of staying and quitting. If overall it makes sense to quit your PhD, even if nobody else understands, do it. Your mental health and happiness should come first. Honestly, not having a PhD is not the end of the world, no matter what happens, everything will be okay.
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