At a recent business networking event, I met no fewer than three people who’d quit their PhD. Although they believed it was the right decision, they still felt a sense of failure or defeat. Estimates vary, but it’s likely that around 40% of PhD students leave. The figures are much higher for part-time students and stratospheric for those pursuing professional doctorates. Because universities are squeamish about sharing the true figures, people who struggle think they’re in a tiny minority. The reasons for quitting will come as no surprise: mental health problems, job insecurity, financial worries, and supervisory conflict are just a few. For valuable insights and discussion on these reasons, hop over to The Thesis Whisperer.
Apparently, students seriously consider quitting a least three times during their PhD. While some finally go through with it, others recover their motivation and submit their thesis. How do you decide what’s right for you?
One PhD Student’s Story
Scientist Toby Hendy not only quit her PhD, she also made a YouTube video to explain why. One year later, she created another video to reflect on her decision. Although close to finishing, Toby was disillusioned with the academic system and felt pulled towards other activities that she enjoyed more. In her case, her YouTube channel was gaining in popularity and had the potential to become a full-time paid job.
As she explains in the first video, becoming a successful YouTuber is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After all, internet platforms come and go. Conversely, universities are (hopefully) here to stay and she can join another PhD programme in future. And there’s no reason why she can’t continue her research. For Toby, quitting gave her the freedom to explore a range of science-related questions, rather than being restricted to her thesis.
Of course, we can’t all make our living on YouTube. There might, however, be other opportunities with a similarly short shelf life. Academia is only one arena in which you can apply your knowledge. In her second video, Toby explains that she has no regrets. In her case, there was a compelling reason to try a different path – a path on which she’d already made some progress.
If you’re thinking of quitting your PhD …
1. Talk to someone impartial
Your supervisor possibly has a vested interest in you completing your PhD, so it might be hard for them to see it from your point of view. If you’re quitting because you’re disillusioned with academia, that could also feel like a criticism of their job.
Family members aren’t necessarily impartial, either. They might be focused on proudly attending your graduation ceremony or be desperate for you to quit so you can spend more time with them.
Talk to a non-academic friend or a counsellor, somebody who’ll listen without judgement.
2. Imagine you’ve made the decision
This technique works in all sorts of circumstances. Tell yourself you’ve quit, then sit back and explore your emotions. What are you feeling? Joy? Relief? Disappointment? Leave it at least a couple of weeks before making the real decision – you’ll probably experience a variety of emotions during this time and need to identify which are dominant.
3. Write about it
Journaling is an effective technique for exploring our thoughts and gaining insights. Open a blank document, set a timer for 5 minutes, then write continuously on the topic of “Should I quit my PhD?” Don’t stop to think or edit, just get everything out of your head.
If you prefer a more structured approach, you could try Cartesian logic to examine the question from different angles:
- What would happen if you did quit your PhD?
- What would happen if you didn’t quit your PhD? (inverse)
- What wouldn't happen if you did quit your PhD? (converse)
- What wouldn't happen if you didn’t quit your PhD? (non-mirror image reverse)
You can download a worksheet (PDF) to help you.
If Cartesian logic is sending your brain into a spasm, use these questions instead:
- If you quit your PhD, what would change?
- If you quit your PhD, what would stay the same?
Often, people either start or quit a PhD to get away from something, only to find that the problem remains. For instance, Masters’ students might pursue a PhD to avoid making difficult career decisions. Toby, who I mentioned above, imagined she’d have much more time after quitting her PhD. While she’s happy with her decision, she didn’t magically regain all the hours she’d expected.
You could also come up with 10 reasons why you want to finish your PhD. Even if you identify 4 or 5, that could be enough to rekindle your motivation. Take a hard look at those reasons, though: how many of them are extrinsic versus intrinsic? Extrinsic motivations are often fulfilling other people’s goals, rather than your own. You need at least a few intrinsic motivations or personal rewards to propel you.
If you’ve spotted some compelling reasons, you need a plan to regain your momentum.
How to keep going with your PhD
If you’ve decided that continuing with your PhD is right for you, here’s what you can do:
- If necessary, apply for an extension or intermission. Perhaps you’ve slowed down recently and your original submission date is no longer feasible. It’s much better to do this now, rather than the week when you’re supposed to submit. Releasing some of that pressure allows you to work more productively. If you're thinking of quitting due to illness or family issues, maybe you just need a three- or six-month break.
- Forget the past. Whatever’s happened (or not happened) in the past, you can’t change it. You need all your energy for what comes next. That’s the part you can control. Of course, you can’t control the future directly, but you can decide what you do each day, and this determines the results.
- Prepare to do things differently. What got you to this point might not carry you through to the finish line. The final year of a PhD can be really monotonous, which is one of the reasons why some students quit at this stage. You’re no longer making new discoveries, getting insights, and making breakthroughs – it’s the relentless challenge of bringing everything together and communicating it clearly. You’ll probably need to be a lot more structured with your time, introducing accountability, setting some limits, and identifying what’s getting in your way.
There are lots more suggestions in my book How to Finish Your PhD.
For people like Toby Hendy, quitting a PhD frees them up to pursue other activities that have become more meaningful to them. This isn’t defeat or failure, rather an informed decision. If you’re no longer motivated by your research, what’s going to keep you going? Other people’s expectations aren’t enough. And if the pressure of your PhD is making you ill, then stopping is appropriate self-care. As Shane Hartington says, “a PhD should never come at the cost of your mental health”.
Take your time, though, and decide what’s right for you.