Not-Doctor Stavvers, or how I learned to stop worrying and quit my PhD

Content note: this post discusses depression and suicide and disordered eating

Over the last couple of weeks, a discussion has opened up in the media about mental health problems in academia, in particular amongst PhD students. Some point to a culture which normalises mental health problems, accepting them as a feature rather than a bug of the system. Others point to a lack of time, with 60-hour weeks being fairly common. Other factors may include perfectionism, and an environment that just doesn’t care.

Maybe all of it is true. Maybe some of it, maybe none of it. We don’t know, because there is little formal evidence, beyond a few studies indicating higher levels of psychological distress in academics. What I do know is that my own experience chimes strongly with the rest of the anecdotal evidence present. While my experience is squarely in the sciences, I understand that a lot of similar problems pervade arts and humanities research.

Two years ago, I quit my PhD. I was about three and a half years into it, and miles off finishing. It was the best decision I ever made, because it was killing me. I was thoroughly miserable. I seldom ate, and lost a lot of weight, because I had no appetite, just a dull, nagging sense of anxious nausea. Everything that went into my stomach came back up again. I couldn’t sleep, which interacted pretty horribly with my epilepsy as well as my general sense of wellbeing. I pretty much didn’t care whether I lived or died: I took a lot of risks, and my road safety became thoroughly appalling. It wasn’t like I necessarily wanted to be dead, it was more that I didn’t really like being alive at all. I say that as though I had a capacity for liking anything, which I didn’t. I veered wildly between feeling utterly, abjectly miserable and crying in people’s faces; and feeling absolutely nothing except a kind of glassy-eyed ennui. In a way, during that time, I was dead.

Hanging over me were the deadlines. I’d already missed the three years that they say a PhD takes, and so wasn’t getting funded any more. So it was a matter of getting all this shit done while not even being remunerated for my efforts. Even when I was getting paid, it was a pittance. A piddling little cheque which paid the rent, in exchange for my entire life. I’d picked up a bit of marking to do to earn a bit of extra money; on paper, the pay looked all right. In practice, they paid you for how long they thought it should take, rather than how long it actually took. Whoever had calculated that it only takes 15 minutes to mark an undergraduate lab report has clearly never seen an undergraduate lab report, let alone marked one.

Most of the work itself is not fun. Research is heavily romanticised, but in truth, much of it involves staring at spreadsheets, or staring at endless rows of code, or staring at an experiment like a watched pot that never boils. It is tedious as all fuck, and nine times out of ten you are not admiring the pattern that has emerged, but, rather, literally or metaphorically tearing your hair out wondering why the fucking thing isn’t working as it should. The highlight of my days was when I ran Monte Carlo simulations on my data. I could actually take a break for once, letting the computer crunch the numbers while I could spend a few hours sitting outside, trying to remember what my life was like before it became this dull grind.

Everyone I knew was as miserable as I was, everyone I knew was up against the same constraints. We’d keep ourselves going by reminding ourselves why we were doing it: that we were studying something genuinely novel that interested us, and we’d be advancing science by keeping on forcing ourselves into this hellish situation. It rang hollow with me, and I’m sure it rang hollow with the others.

The thing about PhDs is they are a scam. On paper, they are studying a topic that you love, and becoming an expert in it, and generally contributing to human knowledge. In practice, what actually happens is the university gets a research assistant for three years, to work on a project that they want studied that is in some way related to a thing that interests you (but is actually whatever they could get funding for). The university doesn’t have to pay a penny for this research assistant: in fact, they get paid to have you there! I imagine it would be a whole lot easier if everyone just admitted that this is what is happening, but nobody does. And instead, the whole structure gaslights and emotionally blackmails PhD students. It shifts all of the problems we encounter as employees into personal failings: clearly we’re not interested enough in this topic that we supposedly chose, and if we cared enough, we’d want to do the work.

I’d describe a PhD as taking something you love and systematically sucking all of the joy out of it, leaving you a hollow shell forcing yourself to go through the motions. If that sounds a lot like depression, it’s because it is. It’s so indistinguishable from depression, that I am left wondering whether in fact depression is a feature rather than a bug.

The whole system needs radical overhaul in order to stop the relentless march over the edge of despair. Either treat PhD students as workers, and pay them fairly for the work they do and allow them to organise against the litany of occupational hazards they face; or treat a PhD as a topic one loves, and give freedom in how it is researched without the constraints of arbitrary deadlines and appeasement of funders.

Of course none of this will happen, because the problems in our universities are the same as the problems outside of our universities, and capitalism is playing the cunt once again. It demands efficiency, and it turns out what’s in place is one of the most efficient means of producing knowledge.

Getting out was difficult for me, because I had internalised the lies about what a PhD is. It was difficult because when someone walks away from something that is killing them, outsiders sneer, say that they cannot hack it, rather than criticise a system set up to destroy people. It was difficult because I had been in academia for all of my adult life up to that point, and I didn’t have a fucking clue what else I could do with my life, and I’d accumulated very few transferable skills.

But getting out was the best thing I ever did. Yes, I’m still depressed, but I’m eating normally and sleeping all right, and my epilepsy is more under control now. And, most importantly, I’m alive.


63 responses to “Not-Doctor Stavvers, or how I learned to stop worrying and quit my PhD

  • (@)

    I’m currently a PhD student. I have a history of anxiousness (my own term for something that’s not quite a diagnosis of anxiety, similar but milder) and low mood which is generally related to lack of confidence in myself. One of my supervisors keeps telling me that I don’t need to do the PhD if it doesn’t suit me, which is a bit confusing – is she trying to tell me to quit or trying to make sure I know I can if I want to? If the former, I’m worried that I’m being given the message that if I have poor mental health then I should just drop the whole idea of being an academic in any form, which is a bit scary.

    I totally agree that universities have put research students in this strange middle ground between being a student and an employee. I’m in the social sciences and there’s a mix of students being used as research assistants or being able to direct their research to their interests, largely I think because we’re a lot less resource-intensive.

    My university is taking the first steps to address the lack of support for PhDs but there’s a long way to go. One of the big issues seems to be the student-supervisor relationship, which seems to be highly dependent on the supervisor. I’ve heard a few horror stories which make me grateful that mine are reasonably approachable. I also think that one of the biggest issues is the overall culture that seems to say you just have to tough it out, but I don’t know how you deal with something like that.

    • stavvers

      Agree on supervision, although worth noting that they are as constrained by trying to appease funders as students–if not more so, as it’s them who are directly responsible for being able to get any more grants. So sometimes it becomes a matter of demanding the impossible because the whole system is broken.

    • nikkiharvey

      I think you’re supervisor is just worried about you. Maybe wanting to let you know that you can quit, that you can do what’s best for you, whatever that is, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to continue with something for the sake of others. I think universities need to work together to demand more money for the research their PHD students do. If all universities refused to take on research that didn’t was too demanding on the students and not paying enough, then the companies would HAVE to pay more otherwise they will have no one to do their research (apart from private labs that will surely charge more).

  • Barry

    Just wanted to say that this article rang incredibly true, my PhD experience brought on horrendous anxiety and depression issues for me. I was lucky that I had amazing support from loved ones, but it was still incredibly hard going at the time, and the whole experience seemed designed to induce mental health issues.

    I’m glad that you got to a better place.

  • Sam

    What was your PhD in?

  • Sula

    My own experiences were alarmingly similar. I had a child to support as well and simply had to get a first in my BA to be sure of getting the PhD funding and have the grant that would keep us afloat for three years. So the pressure started early and I only got through my finals with the help of hypnotherapy. Academic life seemed the best solution for a single parent with no access to cheap and reliable childcare, I just fit my work around school hours.

    But then the blank computer screen, the isolation, the indifference from the Uni who had put me with a very inexperienced supervisor, all added up and I would catch myself crying inexplicably at the end of each day.

    Of course I blamed myself and my own lack of real ‘ability’ and felt like a fraud for being there. Hardly any of the Professors who had taught me even had PhDs. One of them told me that it was seen as a bit overzealous to have a PhD in the old days when being a lecturer was the ideal and idle life of tenure and passing port.

    I still think I was born at the wrong time and maybe I’d have been ok in the sixties before academic life became the over-bureaucratic rat race it is now. But then, as a woman, the sixties would have had other problems to contend with. Now I realise that the system set me up to fail and I just remember that I felt so light and free when I left. Mind you, I’ve never looked at a book on Italian Futurism since.!

  • Annabel

    I just wanted to say that not all PhDs are a ‘scam’ as outlined. That’s only the ones that are attached to a specific research project, usually advertised as such, and it sounds like, in the sciences. There are lots of doctoral candidates who have decided their own research topics and are doing them apart from any larger research concerns of the university (humanities has its own set of problems).
    This is not to take anything away from your horrendous experience. Thanks for speaking out and being honest about it.

  • huma121

    And the hardest thing is asking for help because we’re all supposed to magically just tolerate anxiety and depression. Thank you for sharing your journey. I hope it helps others too realise that things can be different.

  • Dave

    Going for a PhD was the worst decision I’ve ever made, although I’ve stuck it out and now have my viva after FIVE years of struggling. I am 90% sure I will require major corrections and I just don’t have the energy to go back and look at my subject any more, I don’t want anything more to do with it, ever.

    Should have quit in my first year but a lifetime of being told not to quit anything left me in a troubling place emotionally and has given me 5 years of hell.

    Good on you for realising there are better things in life!

  • psbcd4

    Thanks for writing this — I’m so glad people have been talking about this lately! I’m so glad to hear that you’re generally doing better, now.

    This general discussion has coincided with my suspension of my PhD studies due to anxiety-related ill health. It is (sort of?) comforting to know that there’s a lot of it about. And maybe, with this exposure, the culture might change a little for the better?

    I think academics feel a lot of pressure to bluff almost constantly: that they know more than they do; that they are coping better than they are. This might well be the case with other lines of work, but I wouldn’t really know (apart from part-time retail work, which was stressful at times — but the stakes never felt nearly this high). Eventually, it felt like everything was a lie, and that everything was collapsing in on me. When the work is meant to be your vocation, and you’ve stopped socialising properly and given up your hobbies in order to do more work, this is pretty gnarly feeling. I’m all for toughing things out, but you can’t do that indefinitely.

    I feel pretty fortunate that I have had much more support from my supervisor and department than many. (Having said that, I am all sorts of privileged — I want it to be that being a middle-class white man didn’t make a difference, but … ) Since suspending studies, I have felt a lot better. I’m feeling reasonably optimistic that I’ll eventually hand something in, but I’m not quite sure what or how yet.

    In terms of academia as a system, the Guardian articles seemed to lay some of the blame at the commercial pressures and greater competition for grants now being applied to academia. But I don’t know… traditionally, academia has been a public school boys’ club anyway. It’s a problematic foundation for a low-paid full-time job, really.

    Sorry, this became a rant. Thank again for writing the post.

  • Anna Walters

    wow! You are so right…. The academic system is highly flawed. Good for you for doing what was best for you. There will always be nay-Sayers for the important decisions we make for our own lives. they’re just projecting their own misery on us… Screw them…. Gotta live your life for you and not some damn piece of paper that’s supposed to represent all your knowledge and all passion. Nahhh…. Time to reconnect with what you really love doing, whether or not it’s lucrative, eh?

  • Jo

    Doing my MA was hard enough. I know there is no way I could cope with doing a PhD. Well done on you Zoe for realising that – and you did *not* ‘fail’ – you *were* failed by the system.❤

    I read a good post on academia and mental health recently. The author's site is down but here is the cached version. Same content notes apply for this as apply to your piece. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:PIcg9qUe5ygJ:www.nadinemuller.org.uk/academia-and-mental-health/anonymous-anxiety/+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk – I really recognise the "there's always another book I could read, another footnote I could add, another theory I could bring in" syndrome the writer describes. It's a devil. "Academia will take everything you have and demand more – more research proposals, that book review, those peer reviews, that presentation, that marking, that abstract deadline, chasing more funding … It is a nightmare for someone with anxiety who tends to shut down under intense pressure."

  • Gordon

    I’ve never been particularly ‘academic’. I’m smart enough but two years at Uni ended up with me dropping out as it just wasn’t for me.

    That was a scary moment but one of the better decisions of my life (I ended up working for over a year at McDonalds so was lucky to have a job).

    Sounds like you made the right decisions (there are no bad decisions I don’t think, only wrong/right ones, or no decision at all which is worse?).

  • prolapsarian

    I’m not sure why you’ve linked to my post about arts and humanities research here. I do have some things to say about PhDs and mental health – but that post was certainly not about that: it was about what would be necessary for the production of properly critical work in the arts and humanities, in the context of reforms to funding and changes in how funding relates to policy.

    I have to say that personally I don’t share your experiences, although things are rather different in the arts and hums. In general people are working independently on their own projects rather than as research assistants. Funding is far scarcer though. Personally I am yet to find myself bored by my work, although of course it is frustrating, and often keeps me awake at night (one of the consequences of working on stuff so closely related to the Holocaust, and the history of European 20th century, particularly the destruction of resistance.) There is a marked resignation everywhere as there are no jobs for people to go into, so most people know that when the PhD ends there is no possibility for future research work, unless they produce generic shite. But I don’t know anyone in my department at least who is genuinely bored of their work, and we do talk about this sort of thing a fair bit. If anything the struggle is against an academic environment that tries to make the work and writing far more boring than it ought to be.

  • JC

    I quit my PhD more than 3 years ago, but this still rings SO incredibly true. Your discussion of how academia/grad school turns the structural problems into (nonexistent) personal problems or failings is just spot on. Terrific, terrific post.

    Good luck to you in the future!

  • awax1217

    I also found getting a PhD was going to get me nowhere but into a crazy house. Half of what I had to study was repetitious to same the least. Some of the work was downright wrong. The history of a time period with agendas by those who wrote the books basically backing each other with no evidence except their resources which I was skeptical about. My background is a B.A. and an M.A. both which required a lot of work but really taught me little. The higher PhD. would have been a continuation of the same work with learning very little. I concur it appeared to be a scam.

  • bumblepuppies

    I finished my Ph.D. because I couldn’t stand to leave after so many years once time started ticking down on the end.

    I can’t say I ran into depression but I very much relate to the folks who never want to look at their subject again.

    However, I remember all of my classmates who wanted out even more and some of them are on the tenure track now. At some level, it seems that academic life starts to make people afraid of the “outside world” once they’ve been in a while. And, to be sure, job hunting is a nightmare with a Ph.D. because of all the prejudices people have.

    Thinking back to grad school is what keeps me sane during my job search. You can call me unemployed and not stressed about it… even though I wish I were working.

  • bearly

    PhD programs are not everybody. They can be consuming. It is important to find a balance between work and leisure, friends and family. The thesis advisor plays a crucial role, as a supervisor and mentor. Before anyone decides to enter a PhD program I would strongly advice to talk with PhD students and PhD about the reality of that endeavor. Not only the 3 or 7 years it takes to complete the program, but also your prospects as a PhD. There are no guarantees that a PhD lands you a long-term, high-paying job.
    I got a PhD in Cell Biology many years ago. Friends and mountaineering kept me sane. I would not want to miss my post-doc years. Strangely enough, I got to see the world, thanks to my education.

  • liane {meraki geek}

    On a related note, quitting ANYTHING is hard. A job, a relationship, a bad habit. Your post can relate to many on different levels. The feelings and impact on quality of life when one is stuck in a situation like yours (and mine at a former job) can only lead to one thing if perpetuated. Good for you for getting out and sharing about your experience. The strength it takes to do both is commendable.

  • Denise [But First, Live!]

    Man! I cannot imagine the stress, though definitely have an idea having gone through a four-year education.
    The whole education system is flawed. And many times I question whether I’d want to continue to pursue grad school, bc as you mentioned, school is the only way of life we know for so long!

    You were so brave in taking control of your life despite society’s pressure to push people to obtaining more and more school… Thanks for sharing, and I wish you well in all your career plans!❤

  • Emily Summers (@emilysummers93)

    I have a friend who is a PhD student, and she is overworked to the point that last year she almost had a heart attack and was hospitalised. She’s ill all the time and very stressed bc what was thought to meant to happen isn’t happening in her experiments, and her supervisor, a physicist, not a biologist pressurises her for results and acts as if it is her being lazy and does not understand how long it takes for things like cells to grow, it’s terrible. Your post is very relevant, so truthful…my friend recommends I never do a PhD and I wasn’t particularly considering one, but now I am definitely not.

  • Rika Angel Stelcik

    Congratulations on moving forward. Your intuition is correct. Follow your heart.❤

  • Organizational Specialist

    I consider myself a PH.D. dropout🙂 (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology). I was very lonely and felt like my entire life revolved around the lab. Fast forward 10 years and I love my job (despite the lack of Dr.) I feel like I am an expert in my field and contribute to society in my own way Glad you are doing better and look forward to hearing about your next adventure!

  • segmation

    I am glad you are alive and it sounds like you made the right decision. This had to be hard to write about. I hope others learn from your story. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jean

    I’m lost how does the content of your post relate to disordered eating?

    Well, if you can imagine being a PhD in Humanities where the candidates are not as heavily funded as people in applied sciences by grant foundations, etc….

    Your next foray after PhD? I actually worry about my nephew: PhD at Harvard in biochem. what he will do thereafter because quite frankly I don’t he thought things through re his future. (His mother died by suicide. I miss my sister.)

  • David Fair Jr.

    How very insightful. My co workers make the road to a PhD seem as glamours as can be, but your post goes into specific details on how this is quite the opposite. Your language you use on how universities suck the life and emotions out of you was an eye-opener to say the least. It takes a lot of bravery to decide that something as extensive as an education of the caliber is not the right thing for you after spending so much time being directly involved. It takes more courage to speak with such intimate detail about the subject at hand.

    I am glad to hear that you are in a happier place now that you’ve decided to choose a path that doesn’t result in such stress and physical harm. Best of luck to you.

  • Nichole

    I really enjoyed your post, and I don’t mean that in a literal sort of way. Your story is depressing, and then almost uplifting, which is a relief but probably not something to be “liked.” I enjoyed it because I find it relatable. I earned an MSc (separate track from a PhD programme) and was deciding between pursuing a PhD or not. Fortunately, my grades were iffy and I decided I had had enough, because academia was not as wonderful as it seemed when I was wearing my sugar-coated lenses. I sometimes still wish I was doing research, but you’re right, the path (nor the outcome, I’m sure) is as glorious as they make it seem. It is more political and cutthroat than I wanted. I have no idea what I’ll do now, but that’s okay.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say, you aren’t alone in your thinking.🙂

  • obzervashunal

    excellent and sad at the same time… it shouldn’t have to be like this…

  • Humans Are Weird

    Holy shit. It might just be cause I’m extremely ‘elated’ right now, or it might be because your post really is that telling – whatever the case, I’m pretty sure you just summed up exactly why capitalism sucks.

    It does precisely this: ‘I’d describe a PhD as taking something you love and systematically sucking all of the joy out of it, leaving you a hollow shell forcing yourself to go through the motions.’

    I don’t think that’s academia’s fault, not directly at least; it’s a mere bi-product of the capitalist framework.

    Everything is bottled, wrapped up in glitter-paper, only to be sold at a profit. A process that systematically sucks the joy out of shit, all the shit, and turns it, or tries to turn it into, cash.

    If your industry doesn’t operate in this way (you bloody academics and artists are DEFINITELY included), your industry’s ways don’t fit into the capitalist scheme.

    Fix them. Make them like this. They need to be efficient… and profitable. Very profitable. Did I mention (I, the nefarious System) efficient? Also, the people don’t matter. The system and the money are what matter.

    Bah! Great post, mate. Hope the shit works out well for you. Here’s a Follow. It’s all I’ve got to give. That, and the way less tangible good vibes. Take ’em all.

  • a-wild-mind

    I’m sorry you’ve had such a horrible experience. I just want to add another side. I was diagnosed bipolar when I’d graduated high school but hadn’t started college yet. I struggled with it for years – and then I started working on my PhD. My bipolar has just about disappeared. Of course there are other factors involved and the bipolar will never actually go away, but being in grad school and being able to engage in work that excites me is a huge part of it having almost no hold or effect on my life for right now.

    Two differences: I’m in a different country and school system, and I’m in the humanities. So I know my experience really has nothing to do with what you’re describing here. The reason I’m commenting when I know that, is that I want to point out that there are differences. Your story is specific to your country and field, but the way it’s presented glosses over that distinction. I know that you’re writing about your emotional story, but I do feel that this distinction should be made.

    Before I started grad school, I read blog after blog written expressly to warn people away from PhDs – including programs exactly matching the one I’m in now. And there’s a sort of web, where once I’ve found one blog of this type, I can chase the same idea around and around the web. But then I climbed out of that whirlpool of anger and despair and actively tried to find blogs written by people who were happy and enjoying PhD work. And you know what? I found them. They’re out there. There really are people who enjoy PhD work – and I now follow blogs by PhD students in a multitude of fields who are excited about their work.

    So again, while your story is really terrible, it’s not inevitable for everyone. I really am sorry you went through that, and I hope you find your path in something that satisfies and stimulates you with as much ease and as little stress as possible.

  • swanrivergirlblog

    I too am a disgruntled and seriously scarred PhDer. I had just finished a post myself about how disastrous I feel the process was for me when I discovered this one. I am so glad I’m not alone. Thank you for being truthful.

  • dvinenow

    Congratulations for being bold and leaving/living. Best of luck to you. Everything passes. You will find your way….

  • Big Blogger of Knowledge

    Much of this is how I feel about even my current undergrad experience…

  • Mike Johnston

    This is really interesting, keep up the good blogging.

  • tinymarie

    WooHoo!! You go girl! Loved your honesty, also very enlightening, although not surprising.

  • Azure James

    Academia seems to only fulfill its own purpose. I’ll stick with my banjo, needlepoint, garden, and cows. Lol.

  • rugbyyd

    Maybe we should think about us as a person,rather than what comes after our name. I have a Masters degree and I can say that was enough to contend with, never mind a PHD. So in the final analysis does a piece of paper make you a better person. Not if it is a risk to your well being. Your post made me think hard about my life. Thank you.

  • avinashadvani

    I eagerly enroll in PhD in HRM program its my not dream its my passion to work Hard

  • ewerfarmer

    Interesting! I was in the Ph.D. boat at one time. I took a job in the real world while writing my dissertation and never finished. Now twenty years later, I look back and long to enter again. I loved being a part of an academic community. I also loved being able to disappear for periods of time to complete projects. It provided me the opportunity to be highly sociable and then totally withdraw. This is part of my nature, so maybe I was one of the academic mental nut jobs. I went to work full time before finishing, because I could not handle worrying about where the money for the next round of bills was coming from. Unfortunately this upset the social/loner balance the academia afforded me. Ironically, I’m now a farmer and back in a similar financial situation, but without being part of an academic community.

  • Dalo 2013

    About a decade ago I was sent to study for my PhD, and then my best friend from college (currently a professor and a PhD holder) passed on advice similar to your story. He basically said I would be frustrated with the environment, and in essence I would fail. Initially I was upset at his assessment, but since that time I thanked him for his honesty.

    Academics has become such a flawed set of processes that it pushes away true talent, those that think outside the box and can truly expand on academic-knowledge (and I’m not one). Very enlightening story on your part, in that you have reclaimed your life. Congratulations…great post.

  • Antonieta Reyes

    Holy Crap! excuse my french! Thank you so much for posting this. For a while I thought I was crazy. I took a break from my program last year and it’s been really hard to admit that I don’t want to go back. I love research though and although there are many people who complete a phd with no problems at all, I was one of those who fell through the cracks and whose mental health took a hit. Sanity is worth more than a degree.

  • ladyofthecakes

    I had a terrible time with my MSc project, which, I do realise is NOTHING compared to what you’ve just described. However, based on that experience, I realised that a Phd was definitely NOT for me, although, for a while, it dangled rather temptingly before my eyes.

  • ilikemathyoudont

    I was fortunate. I went into my Masters and overloaded on classes I wanted to take while fulfilling my actual requirements and had a lot of fun, and I got to do the kind of research I wanted because it wasn’t actually required of me. Getting a PhD didn’t mean harder courses–the same level of courses were offered to a Masters as well; I wouldn’t have even been held to a higher standard. So I was already taking so-called “PhD level” courses.

    Only I was able to do it without the added stress of a PhD thesis. Now, because I had taken so many courses, I actually couldn’t get a PhD at the same university because there are only a small few that I hadn’t touched. So I figured, “eh, I apparently don’t need it,” and thus I was able to be a PhD without having a PhD and not go through this level of stress in my life. But I considered myself a fortunate rarity that simply took advantage of the special way my school and department handled graduate courses and coursework and research work.

  • jumbs1992

    Thank you for making such an honest post. Walking away is never easy, but you always know when it is the right thing to do. I am a final-year BSc student, and I’m pretty stressed at the moment. But I am also well aware that my stress amounts to nothing compared to that of those further up the academic ladder.

  • chloeroberts93

    Oh man, and I would still like to do my PhD😦

  • navigator1965

    Enjoyed this candid post – thank you.

    I have a novel thesis on gender narcissism that I am self-publishing shortly. It applies coherently at both the individual and social scales, being predicated on a unified construct of gender narcissism.

    I had considered pursuing this as a Ph.D. thesis, but ultimately found this option to be vacuous in terms of value. How often are Ph.D.’s pursued to ameliorate an unconscious sense of personal inadequacy v. one having a genuine love of knowledge and the requisite intellect to master that knowledge?

    To quote Edward Gibbon: “Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book. ”

    Good for you.

  • T e r e n c e

    I can understand how you feel in a way. I have a friend who is doing his PhD. We used to be close and hanged out quite often. I hardly see him nowadays ever since he started the course. Whenever we got the chance to meet, he’d tell me about the horrors of being a PhD student.

  • Capitalist in Progress

    Things I never knew. Everyone in my family has a PhD, except me. (Im still in undergraduate). I feel an enormous amount of pressure to get “educated” but I never wanted to go to college.

    I just wanted to work with computers and read about economics, thus I am majoring in computer science and economics much to the horror of everyone in my life.

    I feel like there is so much pressure, so much expectation in life. My father told me once before he passed away, “if you were stupid everything would be easy, everything would be ok.”

    I’m not sure if that’s true but I see the point. What do you think?

  • greatredwoman

    PhD is not the be all and end all. Its pursuit was killing you. Glad you made the right choice. Don’t let anything suck the joy out from your life. Nothing is worth that sacrifice. Nothing.

    So, what passion are you pursuing now? Glad to hear that you are sleeping and eating ok.

    You are one smart human being!!!!

  • TidesCenterforGrowth

    Thank you for sharing details of your journey. Sounds like it was a difficult decision for you to walk away but I applaud you for the strength and determination for changing your reality to something better. It appears the system took away the fun and joy of the process and the cost of it all just wasn’t worth it. I hope you’ve made some self-discoveries on the other important parts of you to help define your purpose and live your idea of a satisfying life. It can be hard not to personalize the messages but there’s such power in choosing the ones we wish to embody. I wish you nothing but the best in your journey onward…this is just the beginning of some wonderful possibilities for you.

  • Kiss My Axe

    I can relate. I recently finished my Masters thesis and about 6 months prior to submission I noticed that I have a horrible short-term memory, I am unable to articulate complex ideas verbally without visual aids, I have difficulty concentrating for long periods of time and I am constantly tired. I had a neglectful supervisor which did not make the entire process easy. They should conduct an in depth investigation into the relationship between postgraduate studies and mental health. Maybe someone should do their PhD on it…😉

  • blueskybrightsunshine

    What an inspiring article!
    I also recently quit university education due to depression and disordered eating.
    It really does take over your life.
    Thankyou for sharing this with me.
    Makes me feel less alone.
    Followed!

  • magnocrat

    Modern research no doubt is computerised. Astronomers don’ look through telescopes, microbiologists look at screens and reams of data. The products of research largely benefit the rich or titillate their palates. Science has been highjacked by big business for they control the cash flow.

  • seekinghedonia

    Thank you for sharing this. I had no idea that others would felt this way as well… I’m halfway into my PhD and everyday I worry about how I’m ever going to write my dissertation as none of my experiments seem to be working out… on top of that there is so much pressure to publish. As ‘being in school’ was the only thing that I was ever good at, having things not work out in my PhD really feeds into my depression and anxiety. Although quitting is an option and the decision actually lies in my own hands, I’m not sure how I can afford to actually quit. I really feel like I have no skills outside of academia and I’m a complete failure. I cannot do the only thing that I’m supposedly somewhat competent in. Sometimes I think it’s so ironic that I’m in Psychology, and yet I cannot deal with my own problems.

  • afsheenanjum

    I’d describe a PhD as taking something you love and systematically sucking all of the joy out of it, leaving you a hollow shell forcing yourself to go through the motions. ………………
    I am planning to go for PhD .. but this article scares me.. and the comments on it makes me feel more worried.

  • rissoleone

    I am at the tail end of my PhD and can not wait to get it out of my life. Both my supervisors have retired and this has slowed things down considerably. If it wasnt for the young people who so generously gave me their stories to use I would have quit ages ago. I have constant low level anxiety. The funny thing is I just did this to see if I could I have NO ambition to be an academic couldnt do that to myself. I have stopped putting things on hold until I finish my PhD life is too short. Good on you for knowing when to quit,. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Over It

    So I’m a little behind on the times, posting a good 5 months after the original topic, but hey, look what happens when you google ‘should I quit my PhD’. This rang very true to me – not so much the eating issue (if anything I’m eating too much) but the emotional lability, the sense of worthlessness… It spills over. I submitted in April 2013, got a ‘revise and resubmit’ November 2013, new due date is February 2015. 169 days to go. I find myself wondering what the point is when I feel that once I’ve resubmitted I will still have to make further changes when it comes back again. The idea that I’ve gone from ‘what the hell is this’ to ‘thanks, fix the typo on page 60 and you’re done’ is laughable, but I’m not sure I’ve got it in me to go through months more of changes. Tempted to see if the uni will give me a masters’ instead if that happens. At least it might fill the gaping hole in my resume given (as Stavvers has said) limited skill transfer.

    Stavvers, good on you for putting yourself first. We only get one life; enjoy it for what it is and do what fulfills you, not depletes you.

  • SHUTTHATNEGATIVENOISEOFF!

    Amen! Often times, loving ourselves is the last thing we do in the name of successful.

    Blessings, Emma

  • Sophia

    This resonates with me deeply. I am a MA student dealing with anxiety and a realization that I dislike acadmeia so much. Yes, getting a degree and teaching in an area I like would be amazing but I refuse to let it break me, which has already started. I can’t wait to get out and live a happier and less-stressful life.

  • modernzenchick

    My boyfriend would relate a bit to this. He says if they didn’t pay him to get the PhD, he would be gone. It’s hard to know how it really would help in the future until, well, you’re in the future. But then again, it’s also hard to have a great future if you lose your soul first in the grind. Always keep some fire in you.

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