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I am a 2nd-year (starting 3rd year) international PhD student at a top-10 electrical engineering program in the US. I've started this program right after BS without giving it much thought because I was very successful in my class and I though I was going to get an MS anyway (and I want to do it abroad), why don't do it as part of a PhD program? In this way, I'd be funded and if I liked it I'd go on, otherwise quit. I should also mention that I hadn't decided whether to pursue an academic career or industry back then. (Although I decided on industry during my first year seeing what kind of a life the professors have.)

So, at the beginning I chose a well-explored research topic in mixed-signal circuit design thinking it would increase my options in the industry. Ever since I started, things got harder and harder. Last year, I was able to spend some off-time (working out regularly etc) but this year I can't even do that. I don't think I ever really loved research, I was rather okay with it. Although I've had times when I felt really down and questioned the purpose of doing a PhD (especially after having a bad meeting with my advisors), I was fairly optimistic and hard-working for my PhD until recently when one of my advisors suggested that I could leave with MS (if I wanted to). He told me that although I was hard-working, he wasn't able to see the PhD motivation in me so far and maybe quitting with an MS would be a good option. At first, I though it might have been a weird way to test my motivation or even motivate me, but a few weeks later he asked what I think about what he had said before. He said he wasn't playing any games about what he had said, and we had another talk about my options of leaving. In a way, it was just like this: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1652

Ever since then, my motivation towards PhD dropped and I started to care less. In fact, I also relieved a great deal. I feel closer to quitting than staying as quitting seems much much easier and relieving. But I fear it might be just a case of "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence". And as I have no real work experience in the industry (except for a summer internship where I wasn't given any real responsibilities), I can't make a fair comparison. Right now, I realize I focus on the bad things about PhD such as the following:

  • Treatment of the professors: Feel no real respect from them. They are usually condescending and mocking.

  • The fact that virtually no collaboration or team work happens in my research. I am kind of the only one doing my stuff in my group and there is usually no one to help. When I am stuck at understanding something, the response of my advisors is usually "Go, figure it out!"

  • The fact that you can never not think about research. You can't ever turn the switch off. Constant thought of research at the back of your head, and the guilt when not working. I assume this wouldn't be the case in industry (99% of the time). I've started to value work/life balance more and more recently.

  • As my self confidence dropped drastically since I started here (thanks to occasional statements of my advisors about their lack of confidence with me taking quals), I've started to fear the quals I need to take in the next semester. Even taking the quals started to seem like a huge barrier I need to overcome.

I've talked to my friends about my situation. Some supported, some discouraged. Some suggested changing advisors or go to another university. Changing advisors do not seem like a feasible option as there are only a few other professors working in circuits at my university. So changing advisors would probably pull me back 1-2 years. Going to another university would cost even more time as I could only start in Fall 2015.

So, considering all of the above, what do you recommend? Those who quit or went through similar situations, how did you decide what to do? If I'm going to work in the industry anyways, does it really worth another 4 miserable years I'd spent in PhD program?

Thanks in advance for reading and all your comments

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11  
It seems as though you've already made up your mind, doesn't it? –  Zach Gershkoff Jul 27 at 4:42
    
You could consider going back for PhD later. That's a bit harder in some ways than just staying with academia, but you might be more motivated after you know exactly what you want to get out of it. On the other hand, the "can never not think about research" thing, combined with self confidence issues, suggests that you might be dealing with depression or something related to it, which (a) could follow you into industry and (b) may be treatable. –  keshlam Jul 27 at 5:45
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I assume this wouldn't be the case in industry (99% of the time). You probably have some misconceptions about industry. There, in many cases you'll be forced to think about the work. You may want to turn the switch off, but your boss won't let you. –  scaaahu Jul 27 at 5:55
    
The professors not respecting you is certainly not the rule. I only felt that way with a very small fraction (usually, the worst ones) of my undergraduate professors, and never from my master's on. Whether it is real or your interpretation, I cannot say. –  Davidmh Jul 27 at 8:31
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So changing advisors would probably pull me back 1-2 years. Going to another university would cost even more time as I could only start in Fall 2015. — So what? Are you in a hurry? If you want out, just go; you don't need our permission. But if you want a PhD, it's better to get it somewhere that doesn't make you miserable. Nobody (but you) will care that it took an extra year. –  JeffE Jul 27 at 12:30

1 Answer 1

So, let me sum up your questions / information:

  • You are not motivated to do research.
  • You hate doing a PhD.
  • Your advisor thinks you are not motivated to do research.
  • You do not want to stay in academia.

And the question is: Should I quit?

To me (and Zach Gershkoff ) it looks like you are not looking for an answer but a confirmation.

So, here you go: Yes, you probably should quit (after your Master's degree).

In many fields a PhD is a waste of time if you want to go into the industry after it and it is actually a good thing that you realize that now and not after your PhD.

After that out of the way let me just clear some things up here:

A professor asking if you want to stay or want to leave after your Master's degree: I think he has done a great thing and you are probably going to be thankful for doing in some years. He sees that you are not motivated, tells you that you are qualified to do a PhD but that there is no point in doing it without motivation.

[...] I've had times when I felt really down and questioned the purpose of doing a PhD [...]

and

[...] my self confidence dropped drastically since I started here [...]

That is completely normal for a PhD student. I think about 90% have that quite often. Research is very frustrating, especially if you are not used to failure.

Treatment of the professors: Feel no real respect from them. They are usually condescending and mocking.

That is very strange, but I have no idea about your university, your field or your perception.

The fact that you can never not think about research. You can't ever turn the switch off. Constant thought of research at the back of your head, and the guilt when not working. I assume this wouldn't be the case in industry (99% of the time). I've started to value work/life balance more and more recently.

As far as I have seen, that really depends on the job in the industry, in some you have the same (or even higher) pressure as in academia, in some you have lower pressure. But even if you are taking a job with a better work/life balance there will still be times (and not only 1% of the time) when there is a problem at work and even in your "free" time you will think about it non stop.

So changing advisors would probably pull me back 1-2 years. Going to another university would cost even more time as I could only start in Fall 2015.

If you want to stay in academia that should not stop you.

However, have considered this option: Quit after your Master's degree, while still trying to get as good grades as possible, talk to your advisor about quitting and the reasons why you want to quit. Find a job and after a number of years in the industry reevaluate your choices. If you have left on good terms with your advisor and good grades, it should be no problem at all to find another PhD position (at another university) and if you really decide to try again, you would be motivated this time.

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3  
Really sounds advice. I just want to add one more thing. You said you choose a research area based on what might be needed in the industry. Although a practical choice, it might explain your lack of motivation. If you are not passionate about your area, it will be so much more difficult. Keep in mind, this choice will follow you to the industry too. Find something you are passionate about (and don't mind if you think about it all the time), then the things will fall into place, academia or industry. –  Orion Jul 27 at 15:38
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Having a Ph.D. will change your what you do, not necessarily the area (implementing someone else's design vs. creating your own). The question you ought to ask yourself is if mixed-signal circuit design something you can enjoy doing for 40-60 hours a week. –  Orion Jul 27 at 15:40

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