Three questions to ask yourself before quitting your PhD

It’s normal for PhD candidates to consider abandoning their studies. Here’s how to take emotions out of the decision.

28 July 2020

Gemma Conroy

Jacobs Stock Photography/Getty

It can be difficult for students to admit that they’re struggling.

Amid lab shutdowns and cancelled fieldwork, many PhD students are facing tough choices regarding the future of their research career.

Roughly 45% of PhD students expect to disengage with their studies within the next six months due to financial hardship related to the pandemic, according to a new survey of 1,020 doctoral candidates in Australia.

While walking away without a doctorate will be the right choice for some – and perhaps the only choice for those with inadequate financial support - it’s important to ask the right questions before making a decision.

Kate Kenfield

Shane Huntington

“Students need to separate the fake and real reasons for leaving,” says Shane Huntington, deputy director of strategy and partnerships at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences in Australia.

“Some of the most common reasons students quit have nothing to do with their ability to do a PhD.”

Below are three questions that can help a candidate decide whether to quit or continue with their doctoral studies.

1. Are your problems solvable?

A disengaged supervisor, toxic lab culture, or a string of failed experiments might feel like reason enough to quit your PhD, but these are not insurmountable problems.

Huntington suggests switching labs if poor supervision or an overly competitive environment are causing you distress.

“I try to get students to determine whether their reasons for wanting to quit are really about them, and not just due to systemic problems. My advice is to map out what the problems are and explore how they can be solved.”

Struggling with specific tasks, such as writing, isn’t a sign to start drafting a withdrawal letter, says Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Inger Mewburn

“This is a fixable problem,” says Mewburn, who edits a popular blog called The Thesis Whisperer.

“But if you just aren’t enjoying what you’re doing each day, then those feelings need to be critically examined.”

2. Have you talked to someone about it?

It can be difficult for students to admit that they’re struggling, but reaching out to supervisors and other lab members can offer some much-needed perspective, says Frey Fyfe.

“There is a lot of pressure to only convey the positive,” says Fyfe, who quit their PhD in volcanology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom in 2018, and has not returned to academia.

“I wish I had spoken to someone in my research group, as pretty much every PhD student wants to quit at some point.”

Frey Fyfe

Huntington recalls that a quick chat with his PhD supervisor saved him from quitting his own PhD in physics in the late 1990s. The discussion led to weekly meetings where other lab members could help him find solutions to his experimental problems.

“My supervisor told me that most students want to quit at least three times, which sort of gave me permission to feel the way I did,” says Huntington.

He says the weekly meeting helped him feel supported. “We were able to work through the low points.”

Fyfe says that viewing a supervisor as a fellow collaborator, rather than someone to win approval from, can make it easier to communicate more openly.

“It’s not a one-way street,” says Fyfe. “You need to be able to communicate what’s going right and what isn’t.”

3. Does your PhD fit with your long-term goals?

Embarking on a PhD is a major career milestone for many students, but it’s important to consider how it will further your aspirations in the long-run, says Mewburn.

For example, if a candidate wants to end up in a research-focussed job that doesn’t involve teaching, gaining experience from an industry placement could be a more strategic investment than spending years on a PhD.

It’s also important for candidates to make a realistic assessment of the job prospects in their field, particularly in the wake of pandemic-related hiring freezes and job losses.

“You’ve got to explore your options,” says Mewburn. “Is there even going to be a job in your field when you finish your PhD?”

A common mistake students make when deciding whether to quit or continue is focussing on the sacrifices they have made, instead of considering where they want to head next.

“People often think of the past, rather than the future. There’s a lot of guilt about what they’re giving up [if they quit],” says Huntington. “But it’s a myth, because you are not giving up on all the hard work, you’re just taking it in a different direction.”

Whether choosing to quit or stay, it ultimately comes down to feeling confident about your underlying reasons, says Huntington.

“Students should have some power over their destiny. Make the right decision on the right basis, and feel good about the choice you’ve made.”

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