Last winter, I wrote a post about giving up on a PhD. There were a lot of comments on Thesis Whisperer in response to that post, and it seems to have been a topic many could relate to. So I thought it was worth exploring a little further. Here, then, I want to talk about those times when you might feel rather low about your studies, but when you ought to be careful about making the decision to quit.
The question is: how can you differentiate between situations that suggest you should quit and those that might feel that way but don’t actually signal quitting time? And if it’s the latter, what should you do?
If you know for sure that you want to work in academia or in another research field, then you probably need to find a way of pushing on with your PhD. Not only do you need the PhD just because it’s usually a job requirement, but also because it shows that you are the sort of person who can do research on a high level and who can carry a major project to completion. Hence, the PhD is something you need to finish so you can move on with your life. Quitting won’t help you achieve your goals.
If you aren’t absolutely sure that you want a job in research but you haven’t ruled it out either, then you should consider completing so that you are giving yourself as many options as possible for your future. Some doctoral students don’t know what they want to do next, which is fine, but then you do need to keep your options open. Again, then, you might not want to quit.
If you want to go into a field that doesn’t require a PhD, but you know you could earn a higher salary or would have more opportunities to develop your career with a PhD, then you need to make a decision for yourself about whether the additional year/s and potential pain of the doctoral programme is worth that extra money or positions. For some people, it is worth it, while for others, they’d rather take a lower salary and leave behind the stress of their studies.
And, of course, if you want to have a career in a field completely unrelated to your PhD research or if you don’t want a career at all, then that’s something to think carefully about as well. You might find that you want to show yourself (and your friends/relatives) that you can carry out a project on a very high level and can get a PhD. You might just really want the pleasure of the title “Dr” or the status that can come with it. If either of those scenarios is the case, quitting probably isn’t the best option (then again, as I said in the last post, I’m not convinced that doing a degree just for the title is the best way to spend a few years of your life).
So what should you do if you’re currently not engaged by your research and you’re tempted to quit but you suspect that quitting isn’t the best idea?
The obvious first step is to talk. Talk to your supervisor/s, your colleagues, your family, your friends, and possibly your therapist. You need to get other people’s insight into what’s happening and what you can do. It could be that your supervisor think you’re taking the wrong tack; perhaps a shift in approach or methodology is what you need. Maybe you’re teaching too much and you’re left with no energy for your research, so you can arrange to have a lighter teaching load for the next term. Maybe you have too many hobbies and you’re not following a clear schedule for your research, and since you’re not accomplishing much, you feel upset about your research. In that situation, you need to work out a new schedule and learn to prioritise. Maybe you’re having a problem with your partner or your children but you’re avoiding it, so that’s causing you to blame your research for you feeling depressed. Sorting out issues at home should take precedence then. Maybe you’ve recently lost a friend or relative, and you just need time to grieve before you can focus again. And so on.
For many people, feeling unhappy about their research is in fact caused by problems elsewhere in their lives and/or the lack of progress with their research is due to having little energy or low concentration levels. Take some time to talk to other people and to think about what is going on in your life. The problems you think you’re having with your PhD may not actually have that much to do with your research after all, and dealing with those other issues first may have a positive knock-on effect for your studies.
Also, as I said in my previous piece, there are times for all of us when we lose our research mojo. This is not a reason to give up on the PhD. Rather, it’s worth remembering that this is a temporary situation, and that there are ways of dealing with (taking a brief holiday, finding a new hobby, reading for pleasure, spending time with relatives/friends, meditating, going to a museum or a play or a concert, concentrating on teaching, even focusing on another part of the research project). We all need breaks and academics are particularly prone to not taking them because of our workaholic natures (yes, I’m generalising here), so if you’re feeling less than enthusiastic about your work, a strong likelihood is that you just need to do something different and to shift your attention for a little while.
Again, quitting really can be the best choice for some students. But before you make that decision, consider both other factors and also what you want to do after the PhD. It may turn out to be the case that you do want and/or need to complete the PhD, but that a short break or other solutions, such as marital counselling or a different schedule, will help you find your enthusiasm again.