Should I quit my PhD?

Last week an old friend and PhD colleague popped up on facebook. In fact I hadn’t spoken to him in eight years, since the moment he decided to quit his PhD. I remember going for a coffee together, him rather pensively stirring his sugar into his espresso, and telling me that was it – he was leaving. “One year of writing a PhD, and I haven’t been this depressed in my entire life,” he said. He also told me his professor was trying to persuade him to stay: his work appeared to be promising (and he was the kind of professor who likely saw being depressed and miserable as an integral part of academic life, and nothing to be overly concerned about).

I remember that coffee chat well, and I also remember being impressed with his decision to leave. In my mind it was a courageous decision: to not stay ‘just because’, but to actively quit because staying was simply not the right thing to do.

There are so many reasons to keep plodding along:

    1. Not wanting to ‘fail’, in your own eyes or the eyes of others
    2. Not wanting to give up the ‘certainty’ of a miserable PhD life in favour of a potentially equally miserable life outside of academia (and thus failing twice!)
    3. Not wanting to give up on something that sounds good, even though it may not feel good (again failure!)
    4. Not having to be confronted with your general cluelessness about life in general (failing full stop)

So, yes, basically just avoiding failure.

You realise of course, that I am not talking about my friend here. I am talking about myself. I thought he was courageous for leaving. Maybe I should have done the same.

I mentioned I would be giving a talk at our university in a month’s time. “You should come along,” I said. “I can tell them how to write a PhD without going nuts, and you could tell them about how to leave before you do!”

If you are doubting whether this whole PhD business is (still) right for you, consider the following:

1. Only pursue a PhD for the right reasons. In my mind, there are basically two, the first being the most important:
A. Writing a PhD is something you intrinsically want to do.
B. A career in academia is a career you are seriously considering pursuing.
(There is one exception: in some career paths – I am thinking about medicine- you are expected to write a PhD at one stage. In that case you just have to suck it up and do it, whether you like it or not).

2. If you are not enjoying doing your research, and are miserable a lot of the time nobody is stopping you from quitting. I am not talking about the bumps in the road that anyone writing a PhD has to face at some point. I am talking about semi-permanent PhD blues. There is nothing wrong with deciding that finishing your PhD is not something you are going to do. In fact, it might be a very good decision.

3. The only one who judges you harshly for the decision to quit your PhD is you! My friend thought I considered him a loser for quitting, and to be honest it broke my heart to hear him say that (my heart breaks easily). Of course I did not think anything of the sort. It is courageous to take bold decisions that are right for you. Conversely, it is cowardly to not take decisions you should take, because it goes against the conventions of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

4. Really, forget about ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and what it’s supposed to look like. You will never figure it out, anyway. (Or, if you do, email me and explain it to me – I need educating).

Are you contemplating quitting your PhD? Tell me in the comments!