I was really delighted to have a post accepted on the Thesis Whisperer website, because it’s a site that offers a lot of thoughtful, helpful analysis of the process of doing research and writing a PhD dissertation/thesis.
So this post on giving up the PhD was originally published there in early November. Do check that fantastic website out.
When to give up the PhD
You’ve been plugging away at your PhD for a while now, maybe a year, perhaps a couple of years. But you don’t seem to be making that much progress. The prospect of getting up in the morning to go to the university or to continue work on a chapter doesn’t thrill you the way it did during the first few months of your studies. But you force yourself to do it, because you have to, right? Or maybe you can’t force yourself and instead you spend the day surfing the internet, chatting with friends, occasionally looking at an academic article, and when evening comes, you feel depressed and guilty.
Time to give up the PhD?
No, you think. You can’t give up on your doctoral studies. What would people say? How would you feel about yourself? Would your supervisors be disappointed? What kind of job would you be able to get if you can’t finish your PhD?
Those are all natural concerns, but there are some situations where you’re actually better off letting go of the PhD and moving on with your life.
If you are doing the PhD for the “wrong” reasons and you aren’t enjoying it or getting much out of it, then it’s time to let go. There are many possible wrong reasons. I’ve talked to students who decided they wanted a PhD because they didn’t have anything else going on in their lives. Some have actually said, “I don’t have a spouse or children, and all my friends are married with kids. I needed something, too.” If you want to have a partner and/or children, concentrate your efforts on that, and don’t use your thesis as a substitute. If you don’t want those things but you are lonely and/or you feel you need something equally important in your life, carefully consider whether a PhD is actually that meaningful to you. It might be that you’d be happier if you made some new friends or found a new hobby or changed jobs.
Other students have said that they couldn’t get a job, so they decided to continue with higher education instead. Think about whether a PhD will in fact help you get a job you want. If it isn’t leading you in the direction you want to go in and/or if it is just piling you with debt, then you might be wasting time. Similarly, if you are doing it because you think having “Dr” in front of your name will get you a job and/or other benefits, that isn’t a strong reason to continue.
If you are no longer interested in your topic and you’ve lost your passion, it might be time to give up, but you need to ask yourself a few questions first. Most researchers go through phases where they are more or less excited about their work. Indeed, all workers have tasks to do that are less enjoyable than others. Have you temporarily lost your academic mojo? If so, what can you do about it? For some people, taking a short break (whether an actual holiday or a “staycation”) can be enough to reignite their love for their subject. Sometimes reading books on another topic altogether can help. Also, other activities – teaching, volunteering, going for a walk, spending time with friends – generally can help with research-related stress, and this in turn can help re-focus you. It may even be that moving on to a different chapter or working on a different part of your research is enough to help. Maybe approaching your topic from a new angle is all you need. Talk to your supervisors about this.
But if you’ve been feeling disengaged from your work for a long period of time and nothing you try makes you care about it again, it is probably time to consider leaving it behind. If the thought of continuing with your research strikes you as drudgery that you just can’t face, that is telling you something, and you should listen to your feelings.
An issue that can come up, however, as I mentioned above, is that some doctoral students worry that they would be ashamed if they scrap their thesis and their studies, and that others will be disappointed in them. While it is true that people generally feel better if they accomplish what they set out to and while it is also often the case that we are very aware of others’ expectations and desires for us, none of this constitutes a reason to make yourself continue on a path that is bringing you little joy or satisfaction. Also, your supervisors won’t want to waste time chasing you up to do work you promised but never delivered, and they, your friends, and your relatives would much rather you be happy than not.
It is a hard, but brave, decision to make, and yes, it may involve disappointing yourself and/or others. There may be other implications as well (having to pay back student loans, needing to move, looking for a new job, a loss of prestige, and so on). But these all pale in comparison when you consider the fact that this is your only life, and you don’t want to waste it by pressuring yourself to do things that aren’t right for you.
People claim that “quitters never win”, but actually, for some, quitting a PhD is the best choice they can make.