Context: Back in May I had asked a prominent professor whom I really admire for research opportunity. He gave me some study material to do over the summer and said he'd decide in the Fall. So in August, he "accepts me", but he also decided to let me work together with another undergraduate (who asked in August) on this project. This was two weeks ago. Today the other undergrad and I met with the Professor to discuss things. Working in a "group" basically ruined it for me. It's childish of me I know.

For these two weeks, I've been an absolute wreck. I've been so stressed about working with this other student. I've met with her, talked with her, and it is certainly possible for us to get along but I am just so so stressed and anxious. I feel competition exists now and it's simply a lot of pressure. I "dealt" with depression, (social) anxiety, self harm, and an eating disorder for 7-8 years now, and these past two weeks my eating disorder has gone completely out of control, since I use it for coping, I'm sleeping 5 hours max and I feel like I'm going out of my mind.

I've decided I really can't stay like this and want to withdraw from doing research with this Professor. I considered asking for an independent undergraduate level project but he did say he does not usually take undergraduate students and since beggars can't be choosers, I'm really afraid to ask. I have another professor in mind I can ask for research for my thesis (whom I'm more familiar with).

Sorry, I don't have anyone in real life I can talk to about this so I'm writing a lot on here. My point is, how can I tell this Professor I want to withdraw because of this social-anxiety-induced stress that I cannot handle? I don't want him to think I'm slacking/lazy/not interested because I am but I can't stay here (but maybe I shouldn't care about this). Is it "proper"/ok to give him the true reasons (group work) (better worded of course)? I dislike lying.


  • 1
    Give yourself all the time you need to get better, but also keep in mind that you might be offered other opportunities later. For example, if you are really interested in working with this professor, you might want to tell them that you need to take care of yourself right now, but ask them if you can contact them again in the future when you feel better. You do not have to withdraw from anything forever.
    – Erwan
    Sep 8, 2018 at 11:50

2 Answers 2


First, I hope you are working with a mental health expert; I always hate to see people lose good opportunities due to issues like this. As Buffy says, you should definitely see if there is anyway you can make this work (though, a clean break is better than performing so poorly he has to fire you. A mental health expert can help you weigh these decisions).

At any rate, to your actual question:

how can I tell this Professor I want to withdraw?

Clearly and concisely. In person if possible, but if you cannot face that, an e-mail will do the trick:

Dear Professor,

Unfortunately, I am going to have to withdraw from research. I really enjoy working with you, the research has been very interesting, but due to some mental health issues, working in a group is not really feasible for me. It's nothing against [the other student], and I understand that research is often done in groups, but I'm not currently at a place where I can support group work. I am sorry to have to withdraw; thank you again for your efforts.


  • Thank you, it’s a good thing we are only two weeks in, so there is not much to mess up. I’m going to use your email flow. This is the first time I’m going along with my emotions/using this as an excuse. I’ve always pushed through in the past but after each time I’m mentally worse. But thank you very much.
    – chy00
    Sep 8, 2018 at 8:12

I think that your interpretation of it as competition is probably misplaced. Can you reframe the situation as cooperation? There is no reason for either of you to feel like one of you is "in control" or dominant. Sharing research experiences can teach you both a lot. This isn't a zero-sum game where one must lose. But cooperative work (like most things) takes practice. You will be called to work cooperatively in your professional life and it is good to get some practice at it in your student years.

I think, also, that the conversation you want to have with your professor could be much simpler. Let him/her know that you haven't worked on a team in the past and have no experience with it. Let the other woman know as well. If you are extremely introverted it is also good to start to learn that you can act in "public" in a safe way, but that, too, takes practice.

Don't let these kinds of feelings, introversion, inadequacy, etc. control your life.

Know also that many people who are prominent in academia and in the workplace have felt these same things. Some people who are sought after public speakers have trained themselves to act as if they weren't as introverted, shy, whatever, as they really are. In effect, they play a role in public that, over time, becomes completely authentic.

I know that what I'm suggesting is very hard. I have some of those same tendencies myself. They cost me an extra three years of my graduate education, in fact. Had I been more self confident and bolder, my education would have been much simpler and shorter.

If, indeed, the issue is extreme introversion, see here for suggestions on how others have worked through it to a better place.

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