I am a current PhD student who just finished my third year in a Computational Biology program at a respected university, and I am looking for some advice. Basically, I am trying to decide whether or not I should stay in grad school.

I have finished all my coursework and my qualifying exams, and according to previously graduated students in my lab, I will most likely require 3 more years to graduate. If I left now, I would leave with my masters.

I have had thoughts about leaving my PhD throughout the years. But I have seriously been thinking about leaving the program for the past 6 months. When I first felt like quitting 6 months ago, I decided to sit on the feeling for a while because I realized that it will definitely affect my life long term. I also know that almost all PhD students want to quit sometime during their PhD, so it’s hard for me to know whether it actually would be the right decision. On a general level, I am doing well. I received my own grant and have made research progress. However, I have lately reached a point in my work where I am feeling stuck. This has increased my work load and pressure significantly, which has made me really push to think about whether the work is actually worth it, especially if I don’t want to do this in the future.

I started my PhD straight out of my bachelors degree, and I soon after realized what research actually is. I am a highly creative person who loves to dance, draw, design, teach, and cook. I do like science, but I wouldn’t say that research is my passion. I have overall become very apathetic to research, as I feel like it squashes my creativity. My favorite part of research has been creating PowerPoints and presenting work. I feel that if I left and got a job in a different field that allowed me to be more creative, I would be much happier. My current work life has triggered mild depressive symptoms and panic attacks, for which I am now seeing a therapist.

As my project is at a critical point but in a competitive topic, I am facing intense pressure to work constantly. If I don’t take time for myself, my mental health deteriorates. When I do take time for myself, I do not work as long hours and cannot meet the high expectations. This cycle has not allowed me to take a step back and think about what I would like to do instead of a PhD in this field. I unfortunately feel like I wouldn’t be able to look for jobs seriously while I am in my current lab. I have thought about taking a break from my PhD, but I know that this will not go over well with my PI. Therefore, I don’t want to bring it up unless I’m fairly certain about leaving the program.

I know that if I left, I would be leaving a big opportunity behind, as I have already dedicated 3 years and am working under a well respected professor. However, I don’t feel that losing my mental health over a degree is worth it, even in the long run. To be completely honest, I am scared to stay because of how it will affect me mentally, and I am scared to leave because I am afraid that I may not be able to switch careers as easily as I thought. Plus, there may be no guarantee that my next job won’t induce this amount of stress, and I don’t want to regret my decision of leaving for the rest of my life.

I would like to hear advice from people who actually have left their PhDs. It would even be better to hear from those who quit and changed their field or those who quit a PhD in a related field. Is it a good idea for me to stick around, or should I move on and do something new?

Thanks for reading. Sincerely, Confused PhD student

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    Maybe this is just a matter of style (and I am not a native English speaker), but I found it remarkable that you contrast research with creativity. Maybe this is an indication that research is not for you? Most researchers I know would consider (good) research to be enormously creative. – Jakob Jul 25 '19 at 18:42
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    "I do like science, but I wouldn’t say that research is my passion." A PhD is an apprenticeship for becoming a researcher. It locks you into a research career. Not only is there limited benefit in getting a PhD if you don't want to do research, I think you'll find getting one actively makes it harder to move into a different career path later. I myself left as soon as I got my master's degree for this very reason - I wanted to go into industry, not research - and I personally am very happy with my decision. – Kevin Jul 25 '19 at 22:24

I might be the person you're looking for an answer from. I left my PhD program in 2016 and took my Master's with me into the job market. I do not regret this decision.

When I was an undergraduate, I looked at the PhD as the ultimate life challenge and the ultimate accomplishment. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it even more than I wanted to make a career out of the PhD.

My first year of graduate school was shockingly hard. I struggled to adjust to the workload and I always felt dumber than my colleagues, even though they assured me they all felt the same. After a year, I adjusted, and even began to excel. I began to recognize the patterns of graduate school, and I developed a rhythm that helped me anticipate and overcome the major challenges.

After completing my Master's thesis, I started studying for the Qualifying Examinations. This was the period where I began to consider leaving the program altogether. Aside from one exam, the second half of the program was exactly identical to the first: I'd do a bit of traveling for research, I'd spend long hours writing my dissertation, and I'd continue to TA and run summer courses.

At this point I was absolutely confident I could finish the PhD if I wanted to. I had already published three books (as a hobby, unrelated to academia), so I was certain I could complete the long-term project of dissertation writing. In fact, one night I counted out all of the pages of research I had written for articles and papers in the past two years, and the number totaled right around the average length of a doctoral dissertation in my field. Writing and research was not going to be a problem.

But completing the program would require another 3 years of my life, and I was already approaching my 30s. My fiancee had been working for years and had her career already built up. She was making real money while I was living off of TA stipends and begging random institutions for grant money. With my income, we weren't going to be able to have a family, buy a house, live the American dream, etc. Our lives were just on hold.

Then I began hearing the horror stories of PhDs struggling to find jobs. Every recent grad I knew, regardless of major, couldn't find work because our university wasn't a top 10. The only exception were the CS majors, who had no problem securing gainful employment. But my housemate, for example, a man who completed his Chemistry PhD by contributing to a new HIV drug, was unable to find a job for two years after he finished.

In the end I had to make a value judgment: was my pride worth my family's future? The answer was no. So I left. My advisor abandoned me (she won't even respond to my happy holiday emails that I occasionally send to my former professors) and some of the guys in my cohort probably considered me a washout. But I've got a happy marriage, a great job, and I'm buying a house within the next two years, so. I got what I wanted out of the experience, and I feel like I stopped at the right time.

I strongly recommend you prioritize your mental health above everything else in your life. Because if you don't have that, then you have nothing. All the money and job security in the world won't make you happy, and therapy might not put you back together. The thing about the PhD is that you have to be 1000% committed to that vision of your life. If you aren't really interested in research, and if you always feel in your heart that you don't want to be there...maybe you should listen.

Before you leave your program, consider taking a Leave of Absence, which is totally acceptable and common, especially for mental health-related reasons.


One more question for you to answer for yourself: Is there any additional benefit to having the PhD instead of just the Master's? Usually the MS is plenty for landing a job in the corporate sector, and the PhD is if you want to do full-time research (which you obviously don't) or lecturing as a professor (which you didn't mention).

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    The question of whether the benefits o a PhD is worth the lost wages is definitely an important one (including whether the changes a phd brings to your career are even benefits). But it's not a given that the program will be a massively exhausting chore. I loved my time in grad school. Long hours may be the result of pressure, or they may be because what you are doing is addictive and fun. – A Simple Algorithm Jul 26 '19 at 1:30
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    "I strongly recommend you prioritize your mental health above everything else in your life. Because if you don't have that, then you have nothing. All the money and job security in the world won't make you happy, and therapy might not put you back together." This answer is very good, and this right here is by far the most important part. – ElectronicToothpick Jul 26 '19 at 7:09
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    I am crying, because, I am 28, I didnot create family yet, I am in another PhD, I love the topic, but from inside, I want to do something I really want to do, I just wake up and find how many years I have wasted on useless masters. I dont know what I should do? – user103209 Jul 26 '19 at 12:58
  • I am crying also because i started therapy as mental health deteriorates because of the experience i had in previous grad school and I can say that nothing in life worth than your mental health, know i am sick and alone in a foreign country, i dont know why I am doing that. To return to home country, I have to get a PhD to retain my job and i didnot like at all. – user103209 Jul 26 '19 at 12:59
  • An alternate perspective on the comment "my advisor abandoned me": Many advisors put in significant amounts of time and money to help bring students up to a level where they can contribute to a research program. If you left after being trained but without significant payoff to the advisor, the advisor might be feeling like their time and money were wasted. – Nathan S. Jul 26 '19 at 15:20

If you love research and just need a better work atmosphere, consider transferring to another lab in the same institution, or to another institution. If you are thinking of quitting altogether, you should be able to walk away from your present project and start something new. Different PIs run their labs very differently, and different institutions have very different support.

Personally, I got thrown off the most prestigious project at arguably the most prestigious lab at unarguably the most prestigious institution in my discipline. I wandered between PIs a while and then spent three years abroad at another institution. I met the person I married within the first two weeks I got there. Three years later I went back and finished my degree at my elite institution on a related project with a different supervisor who was about to fail to get tenure – we helped each other out the door. The elite degree has definitely helped my career.

If the thing is that you've realised you loved taking tests and courses etc. but not the open endedness of research, then maybe change to business or law or medicine, or just go into another field altogether, like consulting. Your skills and knowledge will still stand you in good stead.

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I've been through something similar, left my masters (in my institution it was like a PhD since they are really prestigious and wanted PhD level on our research). I was depressed due to the workload and after finding out it wasn't what I felt happy doing, but then I regreted disapointing the professors and came back after recovery.

It really wasn't worth coming back, I started having the same symptoms. If it's not what makes you happy, you'll just be destroying yourself.

Taking some leave for health issues seems the best in your case. You should try new jobs as a part-timer, tutoring or volunteering at similar jobs that you feel like doing before lookingfor a job. It helped me to find my carreer today.

That is just my personal experience. Hope I helped.

All the best!

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It seems premature to drop out. Take a leave of absence and give yourself some time to figure it out. Again, do not close any doors prematurely; if you do, you may always regret it.

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I know this isn't much of an answer, but I have been and still going through a very similar. I will just share what I am going through.

There is/was an enormous workload on my back, very challenging project, lack of facilities, and lack of support and understanding of my project on the part of my advisor. This caused me to be very stressed constantly. I would wake up in the middle of the night extremely depressed and angry at my advisor/project and question if I should have spent the last three/four years doing a Ph.D and if I should quit.

I considered quitting but then decided that I would not be fair to myself if I did so. I had been and still working very hard compared to all my colleagues. I considered quitting a failure and something "I would regret for the rest of my life".

I decided that I will stay, tough it out and get my degree no matter what. I deserve a Ph.D. I have already invested three years and I am not leaving without my degree.

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    Please don't think quitting is failure. There's something called sunk cost. You know more now than you did when you started. I'm not saying you should quit, I'm saying you need to make the best choice you can. I blogged about this here: joanna-bryson.blogspot.com/2014/02/… – Joanna Bryson Jul 25 '19 at 21:01

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