When Do Most PhDs Quit?


One of the first things my advisor told me when I started my PhD was that at some point everyone wants to quit their PhD. There will come a point in your PhD journey where you feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and possibly like the whole thing is pointless. You may have this conversation privately with yourself, you may even walk into your advisor’s office and announce that you are quitting. If you do the latter, you may be surprised that your advisor is not shocked at your announcement. It is not because they want you to quit, but because they will have had this conversation with their PhD candidates before.

PhDs are a long arduous process. They are difficult, they are emotionally draining, and they are different from any project you have undertaken before. If you are thinking about starting a PhD or are currently sitting in front of your computer thinking that it might be time to quit, you should be aware of what factors contribute to making PhDs feel like this. Understanding why you feel like you want to quit can help you address some of the issues you are facing in your PhD that are making it feel overwhelming.

This post was written by a recent PhD graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. For more on this topic check out this video:

*Just as a caveat the issues discussed here are not all inclusive of the reasons PhDs quit and do not include legitimate emergencies, health issues, etc. that may force a PhD candidate to quit. This post is meant to address some of the more intangible mental and emotional reasons people feel like they want to quit their PhD.

Why Does Almost Every PhD Want to Quit at Some Point?

To put it simply, a PhD is a long, often lonely, mentally, physically, emotionally, and sometimes financially taxing process. PhD candidates often spend many lonely hours working on their projects, and while they usually find their research exciting, the solitude, the time commitment, the emotional commitment, and the duration of the process can have adverse effects on a person. They may find that they are sacrificing time with friends and family as well as free time and extra financial security to pursue their degree. All of these things can lead to a general feeling that the PhD itself is just not worth it and make PhD candidates feel like the best option is to quit. Check out this video, if you need help dealing with loneliness:

Is It a Motivational Issue?

Usually when people feel like they want to quit their PhDs it is not because they lack the will or motivation to make it through the process. People who make it into a PhD program have already shown that they are excited about their subject and can meet and exceed the academic standards necessary to gain their spot (i.e. High grades, a good research proposal, etc.). People who make it to the PhD level are often highly intelligent and very motivated to research their chosen topic. Usually when a PhD wants to quit it is not because they have suddenly lost interest or the internal motivation that brought them that far, rather it is a host of external issues, pressures, and problems. Below are some of the common factors that contribute to PhDs wanting to quit.

PhDs Are Long-Term Commitments

As you went through school your learning and any research usually had immediate outcomes. You wrote an essay and received your mark in fairly short order. You followed the steps of an experiment and the outcome happened immediately. If you undertook an independent research project in your last year of undergraduate or during your masters even that was finished in 1 or 2 years. A PhD in North American, on the other hand, usually takes 4-7 years (Check out this blog post about why it takes so long). As one person told me, a PhD is a marathon not a sprint. You will not see the fruits of your labors for sometimes several years and that is a change from how your education has been up until that point. This long-term waiting can make you feel like you are not progressing, and that you have failed somehow.

 In addition to the time, a PhD is also a different kind of research with many of its own obstacles. Unlike in tried and true high school chemistry experiments, your experiment or project is new. You don’t necessarily know what the outcome will be. Obtaining this new information is going to result in many missteps, inconclusive experiments, false starts on results, and likely a few dead ends. The process of learning something completely new (remember an original contribution is at the heart of PhD research) is going to be a difficult process and you may often feel like your work is going nowhere and what you are doing is pointless.

What Can I Do?

Getting through this part of a PhD takes refocusing of the mind. You have to remember that this is all part of the process. New discoveries aren’t easy, and they don’t just appear (for more on combating boredom during your PhD see this link). They require a lot of hard work, time, and effort. You might feel like your research is going nowhere, but even your failed projects are results in and of themselves. There is no magic way to get through this part of the PhD, you just have to remember that research is a process, and that everyone hits dead ends sometimes. It’s all part of the process and you are not failing as a PhD student.

External Factors

While you are doing a PhD, you are not cut off from the rest of the world. You will still have external responsibilities, and the world of academia is not isolated from the influence, both good and bad, of the outside world. Your research may be going reasonably well, but you still feel overwhelmed, alone, and/or hopeless about your PhD due to a variety of things outside your actual research. Here are a few of the big ones that I have encountered during my time as a PhD candidate.

Work-Life Balance

PhDs are very time consuming. Research is a very time-consuming task, as is writing. Of course, during your PhD your actual research and dissertation writing is not all you are doing. Many PhDs also teach, serve on committees, and work other full or part-time jobs (see this post on what PhDs do all day). It is a lot to balance. In addition to the sheer amount of commitments that you have both on and off campus, you will also likely feel the pressure that is prevalent in academia to always be working and producing (see post). These commitments and this pressure can make it hard to maintain a good work life balance.

You may feel during your PhD that you are missing out on spending time with your family and friends because of your research. You may find that you are missing important events or holidays. This feeling is even more prevalent for PhDs who are also parents, especially parents of young children. You may feel that you are neglecting your children and your spouse just to meet your commitments during your PhD. This is of course an awful feeling. I went through periods where I felt like I was neglecting my partner simply because I had so much to do. While partners and family members may be understanding, the general feeling of missing out often leaves PhDs feeling depressed, lonely, and guilty. They wonder if completing the PhD is worth the time they are missing with their family and friends. Many PhDs struggle to establish a good work-life balance.

For more on setting boundaries during your PhD see this post.

What Can I Do?

Unfortunately, there are going to be times during the academic year (usually around exams) where you are just overwhelmed with work, and you are likely going to have to sacrifice some time at home. However, during the rest of the year make sure you are setting boundaries for your work, sometimes saying no to being on a committee or taking on X project and making sure you are taking off at least 1 day a week. This will prevent some of the feelings of loneliness, keep you connected to your family, and make you feel like you still have a life outside of your PhD. (see post)

Gender and Ethnic Biases

Although many of the current theories of gender equality, and many equality movements originated in universities, academia itself is not immune to ethnic and gender issues. Universities in North America, until fairly recently (1960s and 1970s) were the sole purview of middle- and upper-class white men. Like in the rest of society the university is still facing issues related to race and gender. While there are many movements inside and outside of academia to rectify this, often some people face additional difficulties because of their physical traits.

Even if you are not facing outright discrimination, there are often wearing little things frequently that build up over time. During my master’s degree I was one of three women in a class of 25 in a department where 90% of the faculty were male. I did face some gender discrimination on the part of one or two professors who felt that women had no place in my field, but mostly it was a lot of small things. Surprise on the part of faculty members that I wanted to research x often male dominated subject and feeling a bit out of place in otherwise all male classrooms.  

What Can I Do?

Unfortunately, this is a vastly complex issue with no simple answer. These are society wide issues that are going to take years (decades) to change. There is a growing awareness in academia of these issues, and many are making moves to help combat outright biases in their fields (i.e. Getting rid of all male panels “manels” at conferences and decolonizing curricula). In the meantime, though, know that you belong in your PhD program. You have just as much right to be there as anyone else, and you are not odd for wanting to research what you want to research or even being in academia at all. Your research and your contribution are important.

Financial Issues

Often committing to doing a PhD is committing for another 4+ years of living on a student’s budget. Unless you are super lucky, your funding package is not going to allow you to live a life of luxury. Likely your funding package will cover your tuition and very basic living expenses. You will likely have to supplement your funding with other work, whether on campus or not. This financial situation is another layer of added stress on an already very stressful situation. It’s hard to be excited about your research if you are worried about how you are going to pay your bills.

Finances were one of my biggest stressors during my PhD. My funding package was alright, but the area where the university was, was very expensive. Additionally, the funding was only guaranteed for four years. I was often on the lookout for odd jobs, but I had a bit of a catch-22. If I worked more outside jobs, my research was slowed down, and the I possibly wouldn’t finish in four years, but not working extra jobs left me with very little money. Money was a constant bit of stress for me.

What Can I Do?

Again, there is no simple solution here. There are all kinds of advice out there about living on a budget, but that falls a bit short when you are simply not bringing in enough money to cover very basic needs (rent, food, and bills). My advice here is to do what you need to do. Live with a roommate, get a part-time job, and explore all the funding options you can. Just because your program says you should finish in fours years doesn’t mean you have to, do what is best for your and your PhD journey.

Emotional Toll

PhDs take a large emotional toll on people, usually for all the reasons listed above. They are time consuming, you often feel overwhelmed, like you don’t belong, or have financial issues. PhDs often feel overwhelmed, depressed, lonely, isolated, and like they are staring down an endless process. These emotions can manifest in many ways, and often leave a PhD candidate feeling like the long process towards an uncertain future is simply not worth it, and they want to quit.

What Can I Do?

The first thing you can do when you feel hopeless about your PhD is to recognize that you are not alone in feeling this way. Every PhD candidate feels like this at some point. A PhD can be a harrowing journey. Likely other members of your cohort are also feeling the same, and it is hugely important to remember that you are not alone in this process. You have friends, colleagues, an advisor, and family members who all want you to do well and feel well. Talk to other people about how you are feeling and let them reassure you that it is normal and reasonable to feel the way you are feeling. Remember that as a PhD candidate you have access to all of the campus services such as medical clinics and counseling centers. If you are really struggling with these feelings it might be time to seek the help of a professional.

It might also be helpful to try to get to the root of why you are feeling overwhelmed by your PhD and like you want to quit. Are you feeling discouraged by your research dead ends, are you not spending enough time with your friends and family, are you having financial issues, or is it maybe all of these factors? By working through these feelings, you may be able to address some of them and feel less overwhelmed. Understanding what is making you feel trapped or overwhelmed by your PhD is the first step to not feeling that way anymore. Unfortunately, most of the issues facing PhD candidates that make them want to quit are very large and complex problems with no simple solutions. However, recognition and taking your own steps to redress them can get you back on the right path towards completion.  

Check out these other blog posts that you will find helpful:

  1. Don’t hack your way through your PhD!
  2. Moving during your PhD. Most of us go through this experience.
  3. Going to an academic conference. Congrats!

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