Friday, 5 April 2013

When's it right to quit?

The PhD student in our group just quit her phd (if you read this, I hope you don't mind that I'm writing a blog post based on it).  She's got a new job lined up, if not for a while, and pretty much everyone agrees that it seems like the right thing to do.  I knew she wasn't happy, I knew she didn't want to end up an academic, but it still kinda feels like a shock.

It seems strange that I'm surprised that someone else would leave a PhD that they hated.  After all I did it and it was absolutely the right thing for me (although I now have one in a different field).  I'm a big advocate of people not slogging away at things they hate, make the leap, do what's right for you.

But there's an undercurrent that says, if you leave halfway through your PhD you're a quitter.  I suspect that lots of people continue on for this very reason.  Maybe that's why so many people have a terribly hard time with their PhD.  Obviously for people who want to stay in academia and in that field it's probably best to just slog it out, but if you don't want to be an academic anyway, what are you doing it for?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not encouraging people to quit.  I'm not one of these people who think you shouldn't get a PhD if you don't want to go into academia, either.  But you've got to want to do it.  There are a lot of things I think need changing about academia and the concept of the quitter (you get it if you bail out after a postdoc as well) is definitely one of them.  Everyone should be free to follow the path that's right for them without other people looking down on them


  1. When I was doing my PhD I really hated it towards the end and really, really wanted to quit. However, I slogged on, got my PhD and I now have a career in web development, completely unrelated to my PhD.

    I think one of the things that kept me going was the fear of being labelled a failure. I didn't want people to think "Oh yeah, Tom Williamson, he was doing a PhD right? I remember, he quit it. What a failure he was!". On the flip side, I think the fact that I did finish it shows that I can persevere, and I do feel a sense of pride having accomplished it.

    I also think that my undergraduate degree didn't prepare me for postgraduate life. I'll be the first to admit that I did a PhD for all the wrong reasons: I thought it was just standard to do one after a masters, all my friends were doing one, I got a stipend, and I thought it would be cool to put "Dr" in front of my name! If I went in with the proper perspective, that you do a PhD for the love of your subject, and you should appreciate your very privileged position, things might have been very different for me.

    As for quitting a PhD, that will inevitably be the correct decision for some people. I think one of the problems is timing. If you can quit early, it can look like you have been decisive and taken action quickly, whereas if you quit late it can just look like you've given up. I am against judging people in general, but having been through the process myself it's hard for me not to imagine what I would have done in someone else's shoes.

    1. Agree with everything you're saying Tom. I think it's a difficult decision for everyone and very much depends on the circumstances. Wish there was more support for people thinking about it though...

  2. I'm currently working on my PhD in Computer Science after having completed a Computer Science taught BSc & MSc courses at the same institution and found my BSc and MSc to be absolutely useless at preparing me for the PhD.

    Now, about 18 months in, I feel as if I'm prepared enough to *begin* work on my PhD, but I'm being expected to have publications in journals and conferences now (I haven't submitted or started writing any, and missed two deadlines for conferences my supervisor suggested I submit something to) and expected to be well on my way to formulating what my final thesis will be about (I have no idea). I'm just learning how to read research papers and messing around with some experiments that look like they may work, after perusing a few dead ends. I foresee not being anywhere near ready to submit when the funding runs out in another year and a half. I don't know how I'm going to finish off the PhD will being trying to find a unrelated job to pay the bills.

    So, so should I just quit now? I don't want to because it sounds like being a failure.

    1. I think the things is you have to try and ignore the failure thing. It's not being a failure if leaving is the right thing for you, you have to look at the other reasons. Have you talked to your supervisor about how you feel? How do the other PhD students feel? You might find out that you're not as behind as you feel. And beware imposter syndrom!

      It's hard to give advice, because I'm not an expert and don't know the situation well. All I can say is think about it very carefully, but if it comes down to it don't let fear of the failure word stop you.