I was kicked out of a programming-oriented PhD program at the end of last summer because I failed one of two qualifying exams; the department is keeping me on assistantship for a semester while I finish a master's thesis (which I've done).

Now over the past few months, I have developed a strong depression and even feel suicidal. I feel that I've been given many great opportunities and squandered them. Applying to jobs in my field didn’t work out either due to lack of interest from the prospective employer or the employer getting a negative impression from my interview.

I've had many jobs throughout my life, and without exception I have struggled and usually failed due to extreme anxiety. Honestly, I don't even know if I would want a job even if I was offered one, because I feel that I would waste the employer's time and cause myself greater suffering, and ultimately fail.

How can I deal with these issues?

EDIT: Thank you all for your kind advice and support; for any of those interested, I'm on a more even keel now than I was when I wrote this question, and I have taken steps toward mental recuperation.

I should also say that I won't be checking in on this question anymore, so any further comments are unlikely to reach me.

Thanks.

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    It sounds like you're going through a really hard time. I'd really like to help you, but unfortunately, we're not well-equipped to do so here. Your best option is probably to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. People are on call there to talk to people struggling with the same kind of issues you are, regardless of location. US: +1-800-273-8255. If calling's not good, they can chat with you live online. Just go to this site, and you can talk with someone online from 10PM-6AM UTC: – Zenon Nov 29 at 5:38
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    If you are not in the US, here is also a list of numbers in other countries: suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx – Zenon Nov 29 at 5:38
  • Answers in comments and presumably obsolete comments have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Dec 1 at 12:09
  • I have removed all follow-on conversation, as it was—and remains—off-topic. Thank you to those who flagged this as "in need of moderator intervention"... suicide ideation falls under that category, and Stack Exchange provides moderator tools to inform the proper parties about this so it can be addressed by professionals. – eykanal Dec 4 at 19:36
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    As the current top meta post on dealing with suicide seems to be outdated, I'm asking around for a better explanation of the process. I'll post on Meta when I get a response. – eykanal Dec 4 at 19:37
up vote 140 down vote accepted

Seek clinical help! The fact that you are here means that you are someone who believes that you need the help of others and that is very respectable. The problem is that this community, with all the good people in it, is not a good place to provide the help that you can actually benefit from.

In your question, there are a few points that are important. Suicidal thoughts are always serious and must be considered seriously. Failure is not easy to bear and nobody can say that they can have a good time failing their goals but normally, people do not think of self-termination when they fail. If you are having this thought, please seek help.

Also, you mentioned that you have failed multiple times in your life before. If the number of this failures is a lot, maybe you are suffering from some underlying problem that is inflicting your performance. Conditions like anxiety (as you mentioned), depression, ADHD, ... can have a drastic negative impact on performance and the sad fact is that in many cases, people who suffer are not aware of it. If this is the case for you, look at the bright side of your situation which is the potential of finding the root cause, elimination of which can improve your life dramatically. Again this is something that can only be confirmed with help of clinical professionals. Please seek help.

Remember that failure is hard but also remember that even Einstein failed to procure an academic position many times so it happens and it happens to everyone. As Churchill once said:

Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.

Give it some time and move on. That is the most important part.

I repeat myself; please consider the fact that self-termination thoughts should be considered very seriously. Based on your country of residence, conditions may differ but nevertheless, accept the fact that, in any country, there exist people who are trained to provide the type of the help that you can benefit from. Please find them.

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    Thank you, MxNx, for your kind words and advice. You have no idea how meaningful they are to me; I really feel a world better after reading the words on this page. Thank you so much. – Bryan Ex-Academic Nov 29 at 7:30
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    @Bryan Ex-Academic just remember, though: feeling better is good for a while, but actively going for professional help is better! – henning Nov 29 at 9:29
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    Very much this. A long time ago I had some things go seriously wrong, making a mess of university. It took me close to 30 years to admit these things while seeking help for the problems it had heavily contributed to. And I really wish I had sought help far earlier (not that it really was available then). It would likely have prevented a lot of misery. Anti anxiety medications can help, even in just the short term while you reset yourself. – Kickstart Nov 30 at 9:13
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    Also from Churchill: Success is not final, failure is not fatal - it is the courage to continue that counts. (p.s. I myself have depression and ADHD and have failed many times, so I'm aware that dropping a quick self-help phrase shouldn't magically sort everything out, but things like these are important to keep in mind.) – Marc.2377 Dec 3 at 3:46

I've almost been in your shoes. I wasn't thrown out of a PhD, but I was on the verge of failing one: Having difficulty focusing on work; not making any progress on anything for more than a year; watching my colleagues advance, sometimes brilliantly, even though I did not consider myself inferior to them intellectually. Even later in life - I've felt my post-doctoral stint was semi-squandered, not having been able to put papers in places I wanted, or needed, to put them in. I also struggled, initially, to find work coming out of Academia.

And throughout some of those years I was also struggling with depression, anxiety, and the sense that that's it - I've blown my chance in life; I've let myself down, as well as the expectations of others.

... so, were you thinking I was going to tell you how I've overcome adversity and gone on to flourish and succeed? Eh. Maybe. But I don't want to sell you that. Instead, it's a matter of being able to cope with failure - which is very difficult for those of us that are used to things going our way in life.

Here's some of what I did that helped me (or didn't do initially, and regretted it later); not in order of significance:

  • Not-super-strenous aerobic physical exercise (walks outside, yoga, possibly jogging or other stuff). Definitely helps emotional stability and the sense that living is worth it even when you're just, you know, living. (Yes, do this even at the expense of time available for research / job search / etc.)
  • Keep in touch with friends and family (but with those who are supportive rather than overbearing and order you around). Try not to maneuver yourself to be alone all the time. (Yes, even at the expense of time available for research / job search / etc.)
  • Make a conscious effort to sleep enough hours a night (if you can help it, that is).
  • Get recommendations for a psychotherapist, if you can afford one, or see some kind of "social worker" if you can't. This depends on there being some sort of health care system available or you having the money.
  • Consult your doctor (your GP) about possibly going on anti-depressant medication. This is not an easy choice to make, since doing so feels like admitting failure, that you can't "handle it on your own"; or that it's a sort of an embarrassing crutch. But if you get professional advice to use an anti-depressant, remember that crutches help people get back up on their feet while they heal; the same may be true for you. Caveat: There are different kinds of anti-depressants; their effect is not uniform on everyone; some have adjustment periods; don't just take something without medical oversight.
  • Find something (or several things) to work on that's independent of being employed or in academia. It could be a social/community cause; a hobby; a free software project; some sort of construction work; etc. Even though this will not be ultimate purpose of your life, it helps to have something to look forward to and plan ahead for, rather than the major stuff that's not working out right now.

I realize some of these suggestions sound trite, or cliché; but frankly - so is your situation. What you're describing happens, with some variation, to lots of people (well, "lots" relatively to the small number of PhD candidates of course). Do some of what I've suggested, and you'll pull through, like almost all of them. Of us.

PS - I haven't given any "career-wise" advice. It's not that I think this is unimportant, I just focused on your emotional well-being in the here and now. A longer answer than mine could have been in order here.

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    Been there too! – henning Nov 29 at 14:07
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    I wouldn't say that taking anti-depressants is "an admission of failure and weakness". The implication being that all people who take antidepressants are failures and are weak. I would suggest rewording this section. Taking medication is a means to an end, it can provide the extra chemical boost required to get over a hurdle in life. The fact is that everyone's experience is different and a key thing for the OP to understand is that there is no universal measure of success or failure, strength or weakness. These things are relative and highly subjective. – Kai Nov 29 at 15:54
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    Nothing about taking anti-depressants or any medication is an admission of failure and weakness. That's a very unhelpful statement. – Designerpot Nov 30 at 8:45
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    @Kai: I said "feels like". Tweaked the phrasing. – einpoklum Nov 30 at 9:04
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    All good points. Following advise like that of this post lets you set up routines that lead to more emtional stability. I'll add another point: read a book about depression and anxiety. Understand why you feel the way you do. It is not just due to external events, but also because of human psychology. You can learn the science behind it. Knowing how emotions work gives you a more flexible perspective. – Asdf Nov 30 at 13:50

I recently became depressed when I retired. A lot of our value can become attached to what we do.

After contemplating suicide I rang a helpline and they said to go to my doctor. My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist who gave me some pills but also referred me for psychotherapy.

Note: I'm lucky enough to live in the UK where we have the NHS.

However many Universities have free counselling services so check that out.

Psychotherapists vary enormously in ability (just like anyone else) so just because one of them isn't effective, don't take that to mean the problem is insoluble.

I was incredibly lucky in that my therapist was a good one and we tackled my problems between us, each listening to the other.

The point is that it is possible to get through hard times although sometimes the effort required can seem as much as doing a Master's!

Anyway despite a lot of c**p that happened in my life, I'm still here and feeling happier than for a long time!

Best wishes.

It sounds incredibly difficult for you! I think MxNx's answer is very good; I'd just like to re-iterate the part about seeking professional help (please do!) and compare what you're going through to my own experience.

My anxiety is, from the sound of it, much less severe than yours. But it has still had a serious influence on my life. I've had a job that I basically had to quit because it was giving me panic attacks on a daily basis. And for some time after, I've felt like I wouldn't want another job because I thought I would fail, just like you're describing.

Currently, I have a job that I very much enjoy. I still get anxious at times, but it is much less than it used to be and it doesn't affect my work. Once or twice I've felt that the strategies I use to deal with anxiety have actually helped me out in stressful situations.

What's really important is to remember that anxiety is not something rational; your worries sort of spiral out of control and things that you don't need to worry about all of a sudden become incredibly real and scary scenarios. But that's just your anxiety playing tricks on you! Many of those scenarios do not materialise or when they do, the results aren't as bad as you imagined.

You may worry there's no job out there that you will do well and even enjoy. But those are not rational worries - there are jobs out there that you will thrive in, I'm sure.

The most important thing is to learn to deal with your anxiety. A professional can help you identify what things trigger your anxiety, recognise early warning signs and can help you develop strategies to deal with anxiety.

Best of luck!

  • I have the same relatively problem as OP, but I do think the problem is that because of the repeated unpleasant situation make your mind distracted and leads to make an improper decision in our life. It easy said, but it is hard. I think the main help is finding supportive people who can instil faith and confidence initially, I am also suffering from OCD and other mental health problems, but I am fighting myself to get on the right path which is very hard for me. I wish the OP can restore his/her passion and find happiness again. – Monika Nov 29 at 15:46

If it helps, my story was that I got my PhD in the US in 2009 right after the big crash. So lots of people applied to academic jobs. Industrial jobs were difficult too especially because I was not a citizen.

By I quirk of personal circumstances I ended up having to leave the academic track and the US as well for personal reasons. I went through intense feelings of uselessness & desperation similar to what you describe.

Now let's roll forward to 2018. I am in a lovely profession, freelancing, travelling the world and making good money for myself. My job has little to do with what I worked on during my PhD but a lot of those skills proved useful.

My advise to you is, life works out in strange ways. Don't despair and work hard at some other opportunity or industry.

A few years later your current crisis will fade and you will have had success in other ways. There's more than one ways for things to work out, the problem just is that which ways those are is often not obvious from where you are.

You rarely pick a career, very often a career will end up picking you.

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    "You rarely pick a career, very often a career will end up picking you." Well said; – Jay Nov 29 at 22:37
  • A career won't be able to pick you if you run away from it every chance you get, though. ;) – mathreadler Nov 30 at 14:53

You will need to learn to rewrite the narrative and change your attitude. Maybe you will need professional help to do this, maybe you won't. But the sign that you are on here asking about it points in the direction that you might.


You still learned what you learned on your journey.

What actually happened is that someone else failed to pass you through and someone else higher up the food chain thereafter consequently failed to acquire you.

Honestly, I don't even know if I would want a job even if I was offered one, because I feel that I would waste the employer's time and cause myself greater suffering, and ultimately fail.

Question, how old are you?. And since when to take job is optional?. And how do you live?.

Anyways, the cure for the depression is not acceptation but a big kick in the butt.

My story, I was kicked out (bachelor), then I revived (I was re-accepted) and I finished the university as a mediocre student (it's hard to study and work at the same time). Then, I moved to another city (alone and without money), and lucky for me, I landed a job, it was a mediocre job but it was a job. Then, I jumped from job to a job. And now, I own a business and, the irony, now some universities paid me to train their personal, and I don't have a Ph.D. So, Am I satisfied?, never!.

My advice, it is time to abandon your safe place. Like some company says, NEVER SETTLE.

As an addition to finding a good therapist (which you absolutely should do right away!), you may want to consider practicing mindfulness.

I've been in a similar situation a couple of times throughout my life, with depression and suicidal thoughts eating me incessantly over what I then perceived as missed opportunities, failures and losses, and it helped me realize that all the anxiety and suffering I was experiencing were coming either from the memories of the past or the thoughts about the future. In other words, I was suffering only because my brain was telling me to suffer, replaying the same distorted scenes over and over again.

Mindfulness helped me realize that right here, right now, I was absolutely fine (and so are you!), and that no matter where I was or what I did, there would always be things around me to cherish.

As far as the books on the subject matter are concerned, Peace Is Every Step was the gateway for me, but there are many other great options.

There are many excellent and comprehensive answers given. I just want to add one point.

It seems like the real source of your problems is your anxiety/depression. Those conditions do respond to treatment, and you deserve to get help to live a happy life. Hundreds of studies show that therapies like CBT, DBT, medications, and others work. People can be cured and live life more fully than they ever believed possible.

I don't know you, and I don't know your circumstances. If you can get competent professional help, that's wonderful. However, you might be among the many people who cannot get access to competent professional help due to finances, location, scheduling, or various technical matters.

If so, there is still help available. If you have an internet connection and a Smartphone, you already have access to help. Here is a non-exhaustive list of resources that may help:

  1. Mind Over Mood has books, worksheets, a website, podcast
  2. The free apps WYSA and YOUPER both use AI to provide personalized therapy. You text the app and it listens and responds using various excercises to help you.
  3. BetterHelp.com provides online therapy along with discounts based on need

If you can get access to competent professional help, that would be idea. But if not, there are still many resources that can make a little bit of positive difference.

If you are really struggling, especially with suicidal thoughts, and you are not currently working or tied down to anything, you might want to try an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) which offers intense and comprehensive help to people who struggle. They tend to accept all insurances, so it may be an affordable option. These programs can help people recover quicker and learn lifelong skills in the course of a month or two.

protected by Wrzlprmft Nov 29 at 9:51

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