Guest Post: Quitting a PhD

It’s been over a year since I decided to quit my PhD. There are so many things I’ve learnt from reflecting on what made me feel like such a failure, and many things I wished I knew at the time.

The most important thing to realize if you are thinking about quitting a PhD for any reason is YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. This is the feeling that stuck with me the longest and is really counterproductive to making any decisions about quitting and what you might do after. There are so many reasons to abandon a PhD, all of them legitimate, and none of them are failures. I mostly conquered this thought of failure through realizing that I am not the first, nor will I be the last PhD student to move on.

As it turned out, the environment in the lab and department wasn’t one where I could thrive, and in those cases it really is best to leave. In my situation, I:

  • Gave a progress report that I thought went reasonably well, with only minor feedback at the time.
  • Approached my supervisor for more in depth feedback than what I got initially since I wasn’t sure how to build on what I had and what they had told me.
  • At this point, I was told I would have a meeting with my supervisor and the HR department the following week. I was not told what the meeting would be about, and naturally this stressed me out a lot. I hardly slept or ate in the days leading up to this event.
  • The meeting happened, and I was told it would be best if I quit my PhD. Since I was not advised as to the topic of the meeting, I didn’t think to bring along a support person, who I desperately needed at that point.
  • I spoke to some other students in the department, and they mentioned that the first student in my lab had had similar issues regarding feedback with my supervisor. At this stage, I was advised to speak to the HoD (which I thought was a good idea to at least prevent similar events in future)
  • I had a meeting with the HOD. My words were refuted, and the HOD claimed complete ignorance of any such issues with my supervisor. At this stage, I realised that I was no longer of any interest to them and they only wanted to protect themselves, so the decision to quit was really set in stone.
  • I decided to go away for a few days to clear my head. While I was away I got a phone call from HR asking where I was. It struck me as odd that they wanted me at work/didn’t want to give me space to think about this decision at all. At the end of the phone call, I was pressured to send in my official resignation.
  • Finally, I resigned, though I had not had time to organize anything regarding my future, including my financial stability.

I’d really like to talk about the reason I quit though. Long story short, the relationship with my supervisor was bad, and honestly, it was bad from the start. I think we each had very different expectations of each other, which is easily solvable by having regular meetings and, if you feel it is necessary, to sit down and write down expectations so you can look back on that later and identify where there might be issues. Since my project was based on results the postdoc had produced, but my supervisor was the head of the lab, there was already some confusion from the start about who was most responsible for my training. Had I been a perfect PhD student, I would have recognized that this was likely to be an issue, but as a fresh new mind to science, most of us don’t really know what to expect or what to do, hence we rely on our supervisors and also on our peers. I didn’t act on my rapidly worsening relationship with my supervisor because I didn’t think there was anything wrong. Why didn’t I think anything was wrong? Because of most of the “advice” I found about doing a PhD and the relationship with your supervisor just confirmed to me that ‘it was supposed to be this way.’ Now, I’m not saying a PhD isn’t meant to be challenging, but what I’m saying is that (like most things in science, and society in general), a PhD is a team effort. If you feel like you are struggling, the only way to move forward is to ask for help. If your supervisor won’t help because they think you are asking too much of them, then maybe they aren’t the right supervisor for you.

In saying that, this realization doesn’t need to be the end of the road for your PhD. I decided to leave because my supervisors had given up on me, which seems a harsh conclusion, but a) I was asked to leave, and b) they wouldn’t consider my recommendations to fix our working relationship. Again, the aim of this is not to anger anyone or jeopardize any careers, but to honestly portray a side of some PhD narratives that don’t often see the light of day and to help anyone feeling like their PhD is not in an optimal place. Other options for ‘fixing’ a PhD include organizing a meeting with your supervisor (where you bring a support person if needed) to discuss where you might be off track and how to fix it; seeking out mediation if the relationship with your supervisor is the issue; or even seeking out a new supervisor. All of these options are things your university or research institute should be able to help you with. At the time I was going through this, I did not know I had these options, and when I tried to make use of certain ones, it seemed as if I wasn’t the priority in the situation.

This post is a reflection on the events leading up to my decision to quit my first PhD, and the thoughts and feelings I went through at the time. I’ve chosen anonymity in this case, not because there is or should be any shame associated with quitting, but because what I would like to say will reflect poorly on all those involve in this story. In saying that, as people, they are great, but the working relationship was not what it should have been and my wish is to help others in similar situations, not harm anyone’s careers including my own.

            -PhD Nomad

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Quitting a PhD

  1. I have been there, left a PhD and joined another (in USA), and then finished it. Now a postdoc. May be the details in another post/comment. I have some thoughts on this:
    1) Does not matter who called it quits, student or the advisor, I would treat this as ‘did not work out’.
    2) People get fired/laidoff from industry all the time. This is not very different from quitting a PhD program. They pay you salary to do research.
    3) The people involved are far from perfect: they fail wrong guys in qual, reject good papers in journals, give awards to wrong people, put inept guys on committees, etc. What I am saying is these things (bad decisions) are more common that one would expect.
    Now, do we want to stop living our lives because you are not allowed to work at one place? I would say use your background to pick another (may be even better) place to do your PhD, in case you have not already enrolled/completed. Similar thing has happened with my wife, she was ‘not fit’ for one group and ‘integral part’ for another group (this was for research jobs, post-PhD).

    Finally, it is quite possible that a new PhD student does not have good enough background for the group (bad hiring?). In this case, if one is still interested, some time (1-2 years) can be invested to build the background by working in industry or another lab, and then start PhD again. It is of course hard to identify what is the perfect fix.

    I feel most of the ‘serious’ issues in life are just some issues which we can deal with by just treating them as maintenance issues.

  2. It doesn’t take a PhD to figure you were not playing along with their politics and you did not sheep along with the good old boys group. But you did the right thing in not letting other people decide your mind for you. I give you 5 stars for that.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I feel you. I’m in social sciences and have just been forced out of my program by my chair. The department knows the type of person (bully) she is but have closed ranks. It really sucks. I hope you’re doing well – moving on.🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing, and I am so sorry you had such a trying experience. Congratulations on coming out of that and sharing your experience with others. I don’t think we talk nearly enough about the role of advisors in PhD success. I am fortunate in that I have a wonderful advisor and supportive committee (it’s the sole reason I haven’t quit), but many of my peers have struggled in bad advising relationships ultimately quit because they couldn’t get the support they needed and didn’t know how (or were simply to exhausted) to tap into resources that might help.

  5. Yes, keep in the front of your mind that you are not a failure. In my experience of many types of workplaces and academic departments, and even schools, if one party doesn’t feel right about the situation, the feeling is mutual and it isn’t a good “fit”. (Sometimes it has happened to me, sometimes to those close to me.) As you said, there are ways many people resolve these issues, but it isn’t always possible or desirable. Well done for making the move sooner rather than later.

    And all the very best in finding a niche that suits you well – whether another PhD or something entirely different. My thoughts and hopes are with you.

  6. Pingback: Doctoral School Drop Out | Holoholo Girls

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