How to know when it is time to quit your PhD

Since last summer the situation in Claudio’s lab deteriorated rapidly. His supervisor became stressed and anxious when his case for tenure was denied. The pressure on the entire team is now enormous, even to academic standards. Every Sunday Claudio feels this pit in his stomach when he thinks about the weekly team meeting on Monday. His sleep and digestive system are in total disorder. He tried addressing the situation with his supervisor, only to be yelled at and reproached for not being up to it, whining, and being unable to prioritize. Yet, he does not dare to quit. Doing a PhD is his dream! He is already half way. And his parents are so proud that he is now working in this world famous institute. He does not want to disappoint them. And besides, he does not know exactly what to do after his PhD, so what should he tell them anyway?


Early Career Researchers under extreme pressure

Research from the SoFoKles Institute shows that 76% of tenured faculty at Dutch universities experience a high pressure to perform. The situation is even worse for early career researchers, who mostly work on temporary projects. They are rated according to their publications within a highly competitive grant system. This means their current job and indeed their future academic career depends on funding which depends on publications. High publication pressure plus high pressure to obtain funding equals exponentially high career pressure. Yet, this CWTS study shows that most postdocs (>85%) want to continue in academia, while tenure track offers are extremely rare (<3%).


Sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live

For a long time, Claudio had the same academic future in mind as most of these postdocs. He imagined being an independent researcher, coming up with solutions for his own scientific problems. Last week Claudio’s supervisor ordered him to help fix some serious issues with two papers of his lab that just got rejected. “You cannot work on any of your PhD experiments for the next months. Forget about your plans”, he told Claudio. Then, Claudio realized he was stuck in a dead end. On Sunday evening I got his email: “I am quitting my PhD, and I am informing my supervisor tomorrow. I quit as a choice ‘pro-me’ rather than ‘against-my-work’. I don’t want this situation for me anymore.” Act of bravery to live

Seneca writes this to his friend and pupil to console him in a time of severe illness. Of course quitting your PhD is not a matter of life or death. But it can certainly feel like your PhD situation is keeping you from living life. To turn this situation around takes courage.


What to do when you think of quitting your PhD because of stress?

  1. When you experience too much stress in your research work, the first step is to see if you can distinguish external factors from internal causes. What aspects of your working environment induce stress? List them. What can you change to get some relief? You need to brainstorm and be creative here: include every idea that you get, even the ‘impossible’ and ‘crazy’ ones. You’ll evaluate your ideas later, when you choose what to implement.
  2. Step two is to start another list: what stress factors can you discover within yourself? Perfectionism, strict devotion to a pie in the sky, and unrealistic expectations are a few infamous stressors. Bookshelves and half the internet are full of tips on curbing them. If you find it difficult to manage them in practice, get help and learn how to truly master them.
  3. You may conclude that these stress-curbing measures do not sufficiently solve your situation. E.g. you continue to feel like life is slipping by and you keep fretting whether you should quit. In this case, do not get stuck in the dilemma of sunken costs, contemplation of opportunity loss, etc. These are, in themselves, prudent considerations. This is reason trying to help you not to panic. But they also represent mostly reason, not necessarily your heart. Now what does your heart whisper? Or does it perhaps shout without you listening? It may be very difficult for you to hear the voice of your heart, because stress narrows your perception.
    So step three is to re-establish the communication with your heart. You need to stop living in a permanent state of “fight or flight” to give this any kind of chance. Yes, it is really possible. I’s not rocket science, nor is it vague bullshit. But yes, it does require courage to let go of rational control.

This is exactly what Claudio did and within 2 weeks he was able to decide an issue that had racked his brain for more than 6 months. He is now becoming aware of the positive effects of his decision to quit, on his physical and emotional wellbeing, on his creativity, on the relationships with his girlfriend, his parents… “I am following my heart and starting to live instead of waiting another two years.”

If you are stuck fretting about the dilemma whether you should quit your PhD or Postdoc project because the stress is simply too big to handle and is taking its toll, do not just buckle down or hide and wait for better times. Do not continue to sacrifice your health and happiness. It’s just not worth it. Seek help.

For instance, ask for a free Right Question Session here. In a 30 minute Skype call I help you determine your exact question and clarify the next step you can take to answer it. To ask one good question is often more helpful than a fast given answer.



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3 antwoorden
  1. Next Scientist
    Next Scientist zegt:

    In my case there were 4 factors that helped me not to quit my PhD:
    – I defined my PhD goals and my post-PhD dreams.
    – I worked with (and not against) my personality qualities and pitfalls to increase productivity.
    – I focused on the process and not on achieving the outcome.
    – I worked with a PhD coach.

    There is more info on this post about quitting your PhD.


    • Claartje van Sijl
      Claartje van Sijl zegt:

      Hi Julio,
      Thanks for honestly sharing your story of how you did not quit your PhD, and what helped you do so. The inner sadness you describe in your post is gnawing away at too many PhD candidates. The culture of high performance, success, and potential is so overbearing that it takes real courage to face this inner sadness head on and to be humble enough to realise that you need help. Stories like yours and mine, with real life considerations and the help we sought, demonstrate how this can actually work; they cannot be told often enough.
      Here’s to supporting more PhD candidates navigating their PhD!


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