I have been reading in different forums now and searching for the advice that can give me an answer to my dilemma of quitting or continuing my PhD. In this search I did not find any entry to why I should stay in the PhD.

Profile: Female, 29 years old. Undergraduate in agricutural engineering and MSc in environmental studies


I started my PhD on political economy 14 months ago. At the beginning I did not like the topic at all. However doing a PhD has always been my dream, as I am very curious and I love learning something new everyday. So despite my lack of theoretical foundations on this discipline, I was so passionate about politics that I considered it was the gap I needed to cover on my interdisciplinary education in order to understand the state of the agriculture nowadays.

At the start, I was not convinced of the reputation of my host university so I decided to search for a second supervisor who was internationally well-known and recognised in the field. Then, I engaged in different theoretical courses in order to acquire the background I was lacking and started working with both my supervisors.

After my preliminary fieldwork, I came back depressed, demotivated and wanting to quit. I realised that I did not have any other alternatives, so I started job hunting while I was giving my last change to the PhD. Steadily I brought the topic to a terrain I like more and I became a bit more enthusiastic about it. However it is not (and has never been) the topic I am passionate about. On top of that it implies the need for more fieldwork (1 year) and living in harsh situations that are not appealling anymore. Furthermore I realised that jumping into a new and so abstract discipline is representing to me a more major challenge than I initially expected and I feel that I am much slower than my other colleagues. I realised I am no longer the bright student that I used to be before and maybe I am not made to deal with the construction of knowledge that academia represents. I also started questioning the power relations in the academia and how hard and competitive it may become. I start feeling a lot of stress and lose more and more self-confidence on what and if I can do it. And finally I questioned if I really want to do a PhD? For what? What are the reasons that hamper me to quit? Why I am staying?


The reasons why I am staying is firstly because I love research (but I hate academia). I love learning something new everyday and engaging in discussions with very interesting people. However I hate the competitiviness that academia embodies and the constant show-off it implies. It makes me feel terribly insecure and to not enjoy the learning process. I love the people I met along the way and I adore and admire my supervisors. However the topic is not the one that makes me feel super motivated in the tough moments.

The reasons that hamper me from quitting are the compromise I felt I have acquired with my both supervisors. The amount of money and time they have invested in me makes me feel I owe them to finish... Additionally both of them are very recognised people in the field, so in case I would decide to quit this PhD and change into another one where my passion is... I wonder what my credibility as an scholar would be if I keep changing without completing things.

So I asked constantly since a long time ago: whether or not I want to do a PhD? I get to the conclusion I can work in research in many other places (i.e. think tanks, international organisations) that even if, and most likely, might be also competitive and with power relations involved, I don't have to deal with the theoretical issues that are killing me now. I realised that I am more an action, hands-on person that search for solutions to problems and don't like so much revolving around a problem for so looooooong (which is one of the things why I can not find the passion in my topic). I realised that I don't need a PhD for doing so and that the labour market can not absorb so many Doctors.

So having reflected on what I would like to do in my life (which I can not now see how it will be in academia), my fears about quitting the PhD are:

  • I don't have alternatives now. I searched for them but I see it is incompatible to be job hunting while trying to make sense of my PhD (in terms of emotions and time).

  • I am scared of regretting quitting the academia and not being able to work in research in the future.

  • I don't know if I can stand the disappointment of my supervisors for quitting.

  • I don't want to lose contact with the wonderful people I met along the way.

And why do I want to quit?

I am fed up of theory. I am not good at engaging with it and I don't understand it. This is stressing me incredibly and is becoming a very painful process. I don't want to defend myself in everything I elaborate putting all my intellectual effort, because someone else may find many things in my work to criticise. I am not passionate about the topic. I don't want to go back either to the fieldwork or to my host university. I feel I have many other skills that are hidden in academia. However when I develop those skills I feel much happier (like social skills).

So what shall I do? I would appreciate any advice (apologies if I did spelling mistakes but I am not a native english speaker)

  • 2
    A question that might be worth asking: can you reasonably expect to graduate within a reasonable amount of time? Your vision of academia/research might be very specific to your current location, and you could be happier somewhere else. However, if you can't reasonably graduate, then there is little point in staying.
    – user102
    Aug 5, 2013 at 18:26
  • How log do you have left? A great advice I was given is "JAFP-> Just A Fucking PhD". If you are somewhere near to getting something done, go for it! you can change fields later! However, If it really makes you unhappy then consider leaving it. You only have 1 life, make it a happy one. Aug 5, 2016 at 10:25

5 Answers 5


Given how little I know about the specifics of your situation, it would be inappropriate of me to advise you on a life decision of the magnitude of whether or not to stay in your PhD program -- if at all possible, please talk to people who know you well: friends, family, colleagues, advisors, mentors.

You mentioned four reasons for not wanting to quit. It seems to me that, of those four, you should disregard (at least) the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th:

  • "I am scared of regretting quitting the academia and not being able to work in research in the future" -- if you want to return to academia in the future, usually you can. There may be a cost, but note that there is also a cost to maintaining the status quo.

  • "I don't know if I can stand the disappointment of my supervisors for quitting." You are not responsible for your supervisor's happiness, only your own.

  • "I don't want to lose contact with the wonderful people I met along the way." Staying in touch with people you like is independent of earning any academic degree.


This sort of dilemmas are very common among PhD students. The reasons for this and possible solutions widely vary for different people. The best thing to do is to attend therapy. Many universities offer this service for free, and the psychologists involved with this are very familiar with this sort of problems. If this service is not offered by your university, then you may want to spend some money on this. It is an important decision and you should not take it lightly.


As a PhD quitter, I can relate to your situation. Before discussing the main topic, I’d like to state that I didn't notice you were not a native English speaker before you mentioned it. Neither am I. And I haven’t read the other answers before writing mine.

Back on topic: I was confronted to some of the same issues when I was working as a PhD student in the U.S., originally coming from France. My decisions were made easier because I believe the professor who supervised me despised me. I quit after 3 years, leaving the field of research completely. At the time the logic was:

  1. There just were not enough jobs in research, even for the top tier of students.
  2. I was slower than other students.
  3. I was not motivated and had no support from my supervisor.

If you have a tendency towards procrastination (like I do), you can spend ages staying in a position that you don’t like.

What I suggest is giving some thought to the following questions, which I think are those that matter the most:

  1. What do I want to do in the next years? Don’t limit your options yet. Think freely.
  2. How do I get there? Imagine what could be the best strategy to get there.

If point 2 involves quitting your current position, think about it as a career move. No one wants to hurt feelings, but we’re talking about your life, not anyone else’s. If you explain that your decision comes from logical thinking, this should not be an issue. Offer to leave your notes in pristine condition; offer to train or work with a new student for a couple of months. You may be surprised by your supervisors being supportive with the new direction you want to take. An experienced supervisor will certainly try to step in your shoes.

Where I currently work, we've had 4 directors (the top guy in the company) in two years, each one quitting after 3 months or less. They are supposed to care the most about the company, but they have no problem moving along if there’s something wrong.

A PhD was a childhood dream for me too. Now I don’t care. In my field a PhD means going from one postdoc position to another until the age of 35 or more. Sixteen years have passed since I quit. I’ve been working for years as an independent contractor in IT. I was recently hired by my main client, but I’m not sure if I’ll stay. (If 4 directors can resign, I can too!)

About learning every day, be sure that you can still do it at any age, whatever your job is. I never gave up doing “research” on a personal level. So many books are written on everything. The internet is a blessing. YouTube is a great source of knowledge with lectures, documentaries, video blogs.

Addressing some of the specific issues you mention:

  • There is a world outside academia. Academia is like a box, but it is only after you get out of the box that you realize this. The academic ways of thinking are very formatted. Being successful in academia requires diplomatic and political skills that are not involved in research.

  • About regretting academia: just think about the miserable times you had. This should cure you.

  • About your supervisors disappointment: don’t worry too much about them. Your mother is going to be a lot more disappointed ;-) No, just joking. When I told my father I was quitting my PhD, I was expecting he would be upset. He just said, “Oh, I see. Okay.”

  • About losing contact with the wonderful people: you will lose some contacts whether you get a PhD or not. Even if you stay around, some won’t. But you’ll stay in touch with the best.

I’m not pretending to offer a turnkey solution, only a few ideas to think about. Obviously my answer is biased in one direction: this is from my personal experience, but you really look like you have had enough of this.

  • Heh, were you in physics by chance? This 3 postdoc treadmill was standard - at least in theoretical physics. Also, the job prospects seem all too familiar.
    – emsr
    Jan 16, 2014 at 20:28
  • Yes, emsr, it was in physics indeed!
    – Matt
    Feb 2, 2014 at 14:27

Since no answers are supposed to be opinion base on this site, this answer comes with a warning: the following is my opinion. Take it for whatever you will.

A lot of the above answers seem to be aimed towards quitting, either because they think that's what you should do or they've decided that's what you're going to do (it seems this way to me anyway).

A word of advice from a fellow PhD student: Do not quit. Irrespective of how much you're enjoying your PhD, it's a qualification of your ability to research and approach a problem. Not the specific subject matter. Yes it shows you have a depth of knowledge in the specific subject of your PhD, but it's also used as a proof of your capacity for research. I'm a lowly PhD student as yourself, so this advice isn't coming from me. I've spoken to a few lecturers at different university before starting my PhD (and since) and this was the consensus. A final reason to stick with it is the human factor. As other answers have said, you shouldn't be turned down for future research positions just because you left this one - you shouldn't, but you may be. The Lecturer who's managing the future PhD is going to want to fill the position with someone who will fulfil the job. They may not say they'll turn you down because you've left a PhD before but it will be part of the consideration.



The dilemma here is more of what you feel in class than what your life should entail. I'm going to sound vague but I beg that you pick points from it. First, about feeling incapable, you should never let anything or anyone make you feel inferior. You have a life and your academia should not dictate much of it. The people you've met and those who you will meet will be in touch with you because they like you personality and not your PhD. As for your supervisor, lecturer etc, they are doing their work and you are liable to their happiness or disappointment.

Job Market

I see that you're looking at the job market while making the decisions about what you want to do; on this, kindly know that the job market is ever changing and you should therefore do what you like. The labor market may require specialist in political economy now and by the time you complete your PhD, the political economy labor market becomes saturated and less rewarding. Doing what you like has an advantage in that you can always do something with it no matter the situation in the labor market. There is this discussion among HRs that always sound vague and shallow but it is important. It is about the zeroth and first degree. These two degrees are more important than the rest (other degrees). You will most likely get a job based on your first degree (undergraduate degree) than with the PhD or Masters degree. Just in case you intend to be a lecturer in political economy, the question is; What do you intend to lecture yet you lack most of the foundation around the subject of political economy. Most foundation are found in undergraduate level. I suggest you do a PhD that will built up to what you did in undergraduate and masters level. The lack of foundation is what is making PhD more harder for you but remember that there is no easy subject in this world.


I understand how you feel after spending your time and money for this long. You're young (Only 29 years. Sorry if I sound rude) and can still start a new. I suggest that instead wasting time and money on a subject, that makes you loose what you've built for the last 29 years, you should change to a PhD that relates or is more relevant to your undergraduate and masters degrees. You will learn to love the other subject with time (Example: individual's ambitions and targets change over time after interacting with several things i.e you may find that at 10 years, you wanted to be a doctor but at 18 years you want to be an engineer). Don't base most of your decision on the money because you will end up missing the point.

You are better place for the future by studying a PhD that is more related to your undergraduate and masters degree than by studying other PhD subjects. The future is about specialization and not diversity. I can give so many reasons but think this is enough for now.


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