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How do I know if I should leave my PhD?


User: jxlx - 23 October 2020 09:19

Hi,

I've just started my second year of a 3-year biomedical PhD programme. In terms of research, I've managed to do quite a bit and will have finished my first chapter in the next couple of months. However, I feel like my input in this has been quite minimal, as there is a group of us working on a similar project. Now that I'm breaking apart from everyone else I'm realising how much extra support I need because of my inexperience. My Master's supervisor was always really helpful and supportive but I don't feel like I have that relationship with my current supervisor. To be honest, I actively try and avoid them because I'm scared of disappointing them and they really stress me out with their expectations (emails in the middle of the night, expecting a huge workload finished in unrealistic timeframes). I'm getting my protocols from the internet and just "having a go" at changing things to suit my needs but so far I've just ended up wasting time and money spent on consumables.

I started my PhD with the intention of staying in academia and teaching. But the more I experience academia the less I want to be here. My supervisor expects a 60h working week and there's a silent competition of who can stay in the lab the longest which I really don't enjoy. I've noticed a strong correlation between success and stress with no work-life balance, which really isn't how I pictured academia to be (how naive of me...). This mindset has really made me lose motivation, and the thought of having to go back in the lab to continue trying to make something work with no guidance on where I'm going wrong is making me feel unwell.

What's adding to my feelings is the pandemic. I'm a funded student but because of the disruption the pandemic has caused I've been told I may have to extend my PhD by 6 months, without any extension in my funding! This is something I really cannot afford to do, and it's always at the back of my mind that I will get to my final year and have to quit anyway because of my finances.

I also don't like the city I'm living in very much. I was living with my partner in another city and moved 100 miles away for this PhD. This is really difficult on our relationship - especially with travel restrictions from the pandemic.

Everyone acts shocked when I tell them I'm thinking of leaving and tries to reason with me to stay but I'm just tired of being here. Academia is no longer something I want to pursue. However, I'm really worried that I will regret it if I do leave. I worked so hard to get here and I feel like I'm doing an injustice to myself by leaving.

Everyone I've spoken to about this doesn't do a PhD, and I feel like it's hard to understand these feelings unless you're doing/have done one! If anyone has any guidance or can describe some of their own experiences, that would be really helpful.

User: rewt - 23 October 2020 19:21

Quote From jxlx:
What's adding to my feelings is the pandemic. I'm a funded student but because of the disruption the pandemic has caused I've been told I may have to extend my PhD by 6 months, without any extension in my funding! This is something I really cannot afford to do, and it's always at the back of my mind that I will get to my final year and have to quit anyway because of my finances.

Hi jxlx,

I agree with most of what you say but your funding argument doesn't make sense to me. The job market is incredibly tight at the minute and probably won't change much in the next few months. I do not recommend to anyone dropping out of a PhD without having their next step lined up. You can apply for jobs and then drop out when you have something arranged but keep the cash coming. In the meantime treat your PhD as a 40 hour a week job and develop a real social life. I understand there is pressure to do 60 hours a week but if you do the basic amount of work what can they do to you, fire you for not working 60 hours a week?

User: jxlx - 23 October 2020 23:34

Hey rewt,

You're 100% right about the job market and money. I wasn't planning on leaving unless I found a job I could go to.
I definitely don't do anywhere near 60h a week now, and I don't think I ever will. My supervisor keeps telling me that I won't finish in time yet I've spoken to others who treat their PhD as a 9-5 and they seem to be getting along just fine. Maybe it's just my supervisor... But no, they won't fire me!

User: cucaracha - 25 October 2020 02:38

Oh no what a horrible work culture, 'silent competition of who can stay in the lab the longest' ew :( sounds like you had really bad luck in the type of supervisor you got and the lab culture you're in. No decent supervisor dictates to you the amount of hours you work lol. They're meant to support and guide you, not stress you out. Do you have a second supervisor or personal tutor or head of pastoral support or some other truthworthy academic you can speak to about your issues re the meanie supervisor?

Btw is there an explicit expectation that you answer their emails in the middle of the night or are they just a nightowl? A bunch of academics at my uni specify at the bottom of the email something like, 'Under the current situation I may be working outside of office hours. Please do not feel obliged to respond to emails outside of office hours; we all have our own working hours/mine may be different to yours'

User: pm133 - 25 October 2020 02:56

Personally, I would flat out refuse to do a mandatory 60 hour week and I would have stated that during the PhD interview. I occasionally have worked more hours but I wouldn't allow anyone to mandate anything above a 40 hour week maximum. I always asked this question during interviews to avoid the sort of situation you are in.

In your situation now, I'd simply ignore that request. As others say, what can they do?
I'd also completely ignore the "who's got the hairiest chest" competition between your co-workers about who works the longest hours. It's their own health and happiness they are sacrificing.

This is a lesson for you in how to care less about what others think of you (within reason). You don't want to be a dick about this but you also have more things to consider than allowing others to make your life intolerable.

User: jxlx - 25 October 2020 14:51

Quote From cucaracha:Oh no what a horrible work culture, 'silent competition of who can stay in the lab the longest' ew :
( sounds like you had really bad luck in the type of supervisor you got and the lab culture you're in. No decent supervisor dictates to you the amount of hours you work lol. They're meant to support and guide you, not stress you out. Do you have a second supervisor or personal tutor or head of pastoral support or some other truthworthy academic you can speak to about your issues re the meanie supervisor?

Btw is there an explicit expectation that you answer their emails in the middle of the night or are they just a nightowl? A bunch of academics at my uni specify at the bottom of the email something like, 'Under the current situation I may be working outside of office hours. Please do not feel obliged to respond to emails outside of office hours; we all have our own working hours/mine may be different to yours'

I know! Several people go in on weekends but I can't (normally) do that because I go back to see my partner and our cats most weekends. Although with the pandemic my ability to do this has been seriously affected which is really getting me down :(

I have a second supervisor but he's so absent - he has no idea what I'm doing and I've only ever had 2 meetings with him since I started last year. He's getting ready to retire so I don't think he's too invested. I just wish I had someone to go to who can guide me with my research. A lot of this is new to me and often times I don't know why things aren't working. I need more feedback than just "try it again".

I'm not expected to reply to those emails in the middle of the night but I have had emails as late as 9:30pm which I've had to reply to. I understand that science is an around the clock thing but I wish I had some time to switch off.

User: jxlx - 25 October 2020 14:58

Quote From pm133:
Personally, I would flat out refuse to do a mandatory 60 hour week and I would have stated that during the PhD interview. I occasionally have worked more hours but I wouldn't allow anyone to mandate anything above a 40 hour week maximum. I always asked this question during interviews to avoid the sort of situation you are in.

In your situation now, I'd simply ignore that request. As others say, what can they do?
I'd also completely ignore the "who's got the hairiest chest" competition between your co-workers about who works the longest hours. It's their own health and happiness they are sacrificing.

This is a lesson for you in how to care less about what others think of you (within reason). You don't want to be a dick about this but you also have more things to consider than allowing others to make your life intolerable.
When I had my interview I asked about working hours and I was told "if you get all your work done in 8 months you can take 3 months off, I don't care". There was never any mention of an expectation of a 60h week. (I also asked if I would be "palmed off" to another student or if my supervisor would teach me things themselves. So far I've never seen my supervisor in the lab and everything I've learnt has come from an older student or Google).

I guess this just isn't the supervision I thought and was told I would get.

User: cucaracha - 25 October 2020 16:34

Quote From jxlx:I know! Several people go in on weekends but I can't (normally) do that because I go back to see my partner and our cats most weekends. Although with the pandemic my ability to do this has been seriously affected which is really getting me down :
(

I have a second supervisor but he's so absent - he has no idea what I'm doing and I've only ever had 2 meetings with him since I started last year. He's getting ready to retire so I don't think he's too invested. I just wish I had someone to go to who can guide me with my research. A lot of this is new to me and often times I don't know why things aren't working. I need more feedback than just "try it again".

I'm not expected to reply to those emails in the middle of the night but I have had emails as late as 9:30pm which I've had to reply to. I understand that science is an around the clock thing but I wish I had some time to switch off.

Sounds like you're really being let down by a lack of support in place :( There must be pastoral support academics, head of department or someone who you can go to? You have to fight your own corner, unfortunately, but it's invaluable to have another academic's support. Be very clear that you're not going to respond to emails outside of working hours.

At least you're trying to have work-life balance while the others are slaving away at weekends!

User: idkanymore - 04 November 2020 10:56

Hi jxlx,

Your post really resonated with me. I am having very similar feelings regarding my PhD. I am also considering leaving my project as I do not feel a PhD is what I want to be doing anymore. I guess the thing that is helping me at the moment is talking to as many people as possible. People who understand what it is like to be in a PhD. For example, I have talked to a friend who is also doing a PhD at the moment, I am talking to a counsellor, my sister and an advisor (who is a neutral party to my PhD project). Also, getting an appointment with a career's advisor from your university will help you figure out what the alternatives are.

It is a very difficult decision; I have been weighing out my choices since March. I just started my third year of my 3-year biological sciences PhD and I still feel the same way as I did when I first had these thoughts. No one can make this decision but you, and it will probably be one of the most difficult decisions you will make, so take your time.

User: MALVOR87 - 25 November 2020 15:54

I can also totally relate - i have just joined this forum and have just posted asking the question should i stay or leave my
Phd. I have done alot of research in the last few days about how people are experiencing their phd to help me decide a way forward and i have to say its awful reading. Is this what a phd is? To make people stressed out and impact on their wellbeing, to leave them feeling demoralised, unsupported and unable to recognise themselves and have their lives turned upside down? Is it any wonder the drop out rate is so big! Surely there is something fundamentally wrong here with the phd process. I have been a social worker for 27 years, and that is not a easy profession - I am a strong, confident, hard working individual and i have to say going into the second year of my phd i do not recognise myself and it ain’t good!! From what i am reading the phd process is destroying people- surely there has to be a better way or is it just accepted that this is what it is like and you have to make the decision as to whether you want to continue or leave?





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