Should I quit my PhD? Hitting a wall and answering the big questions

By |2019-11-18T10:34:53+00:00November 17th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Have you read Joan Bolker’s “Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day”? I was reminded of a passage in that book when I was talking to a PhD researcher about whether or not to continue and finish the project, or alternatively drop the whole thing and embark on something entirely different.

The passage in Bolker’s book goes as follows:

“There’s another kind of hitting the wall that sometimes happens to thesis writers: you feel an impossible barrier between you and the finish line, the bottom falls out of your hopefulness and ambition, and your spirits border on despair and collapse. I’ve more than once heard someone with less than five percent of her thesis left to write say, ‘I’ve decided not to go on with this project.’ This is a time when the demons can catch up with you, when every one of the internal creatures who got in your way all along decides to gang up on you just this side of the finish, to remind you of all the good reasons why you shouldn’t finish your degree.”

Bolker then goes on to advise to accelerate past this resistance and just get on with it, get it done! Sound advice.

But what if the internal demons gang up on you if you are only say a year or perhaps two in? And what if they turn out not to be bad ugly demons, but friendly ones, with your best interest at heart? What if they are insistently whispering that what you are doing… is not the right thing to be working on, not the right project to spend these years of your life on? What if they are right?

The researcher I was talking to had ‘optimised’ her workday – as in she knew exactly when her best hours of the day were and worked on her PhD during those time slots, she had self-care routines firmly in place – and she was still very much into her research topic. Yet…it wasn’t happening, her chapters weren’t getting written, it was all at a stand-still. And perhaps…that was because she was finding out she didn’t enjoy academic work that much. Maybe there were better things for her to do…

Committing to a PhD is a big decision, but dropping a project halfway in is an even bigger one. Especially because of the connotation of failure. Quitting is failing, isn’t it?

Well, no. It is not. It is a profoundly courageous thing to do. The ‘easy thing’ to do is to just keep plodding along mindlessly, no matter whether all of this is still a good idea.

It can be treacherous territory: there are ups and downs to the PhD process. There will slumps and blues along the way. It is par for the course, and it is best to not get all existential over them. At the same time: if all of it is slump then maybe it is time to reconsider. Sometimes you do have to ponder the big questions.

When you start the PhD there are so many unknowns, and along the way you find out about all sorts of things. Such as whether you are well suited to doing academic work (Do you enjoy the slow, profound, nuanced nature of academic research, does it light you up to get that footnote exactly right, after editing it a hundred times?), whether you enjoy working at your university (perhaps it is just you, quite isolated, working away?), whether the whole setting of the pressures of getting published is something you can work with or may even motivate you to write your papers, or whether you’d just rather not! The same goes for teaching if that’s part of your PhD programme: you cannot know until you try.

In my PhD programme you could quit after year one, with a Masters in Research. Clever idea, because it means that even if you quit the work had not been ‘for nothing’. In theory, that is. In practice it was still a hard decision to make. That ‘failure’ thing again…

There are all sorts of ways to assess whether you should get a PhD. Unless the PhD is a requirement for a next step you want to take (say the possibility of an academic career, or certain positions), I have found a good question to ask is this one: how would I feel if I could drop the entire project?

Disclaimer as above: PhD slumps are normal and natural, so perhaps not torture yourself with this question if you’re going through a difficult stretch. You can and will make it through if you want to. But that is the question: do you want to?

I remember the first time someone asked me why I was doing a PhD. I hadn’t started yet. It was an older lesbian woman in a shady bar wearing a leather jacket who I’d excitedly told I was going to do a PhD. She dropped the big question immediately. ‘Why? Why do you want to so this?’ I have to laugh because I remember my stupid answer. It was: ‘Because I want to show them I can do it.’ She looked at me, shook her head and told me it was the wrong answer. She was completely 100% right and I hang my head in shame. It had something to do with me quite belatedly figuring out I was good at this academic stuff. But yes, wrong reason! In any case, even with the wrong reason for starting I am now glad I did embark on the PhD, and did finish it. Although I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had changed course mid-way…

As for the researcher I was talking to: she has decided it is time to take some time out to answer the big questions: ‘why, what for, do I really want to do this?’ I wonder what her decision is going to be…

Do you have doubts about your PhD? Would you like to quit? If you would like to talk things over with me check out my coaching page. If you decide to proceed (I am very much cheering you on!!!), the Stress-Free PhD Programme will get you over the finish line…

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