I am currently into my first semester into my PhD program and at this point I am just at a loss. At universities like mine, we can enroll into PhD programs after graduating with a Bachelors and bypass obtaining of Masters first. The advice that I got from several seniors and professors were that the content will just be more advanced than the Bachelors program, apart from the >10 hours of research per day. I was used to looking at screens for 14-18 hours at a stretch so I thought I would be fine going into it.

My motivation for going into PhD was to research on what I liked, which was cryptography and cybersecurity, and to hopefully have something of impact to society. The other reason was to dream of wearing the gown in 4 years.

Now I am into my eighth week and I have 3 coursework projects, 3 research projects, 2 courses that I have to teach. I feel that I do not have enough time to do any work and I do not even have the mood or motivation to do any work nowadays. I know that most of the time people will just tell each other to walk around and breathe in some air, but I feel that the method of reliving myself has long expired.

I hate to say this but I am quite stubborn at times with my decision and think that I will be able to persevere through, as I did during my undergraduate years but I believe that I cannot hold on to this any longer. Other friends of mine who also enrolled into PhD (albeit different courses in the same university) have told me that I look more mentally drained than usual during our lunches. My parents also are quite sad at the sight of me staring into screens the whole day not knowing what I'm supposed to do next. Passing on family outings have also taken a toll on me since I do regret not spending enough time with them during the final year of my undergraduate study and do not want it to be commonplace. I have seriously been contemplating this thought of withdrawal for about 2 weeks now and recently teared up while bringing this topic up with my mum. I feel that my mental state has been shattered and cannot see anything ahead.

I've talked with my family and they will support my decision if I do withdraw from the program. I am currently on scholarship so my estimated cost will be upwards of $10k that I will have to pay back to the university. My parents don't mind this and encourage me to borrow from the bank in the meantime while I work full-time.

My workplace I would say is far from ideal but in my country, in our local university, I don't really feel home at all. Our lab has a capacity of 100+ people but 95% of our office are non-locals and you can imagine where most of them are from, I don't want to speculate things about them here. My professor is somewhat decent but he has close to 60 PhD students under him in my office alone, and it becomes very difficult to talk about issues like this. My professor wants me to be in the lab every weekday but I don't see myself doing any constructive work. In fact, I am more tired at my desk than if I work from home. Hence, you could infer that I suffer in silence in the lab.

The constant stress and worry from all these factors is weighing me down and I think that I am starting to have a recurrence of panic attacks again from the time before I started my undergraduate studies. I have just made an appointment to see the councilor but I'm really afraid for myself and to bring this up to my professor. I would really appreciate some advice from the community on how to approach this and move on.

  • 3
    A prof with 60 PhD students? Um... Is that a prof in the European sense, where he is head of a group of other faculty that would be called profs in USA? Is he really the direct faculty supervisor of 60 PhD students? That seems fantastic.
    – puppetsock
    Oct 7, 2019 at 14:21
  • "staring into screens the whole day not knowing what I'm supposed to do next" Given how much work you said you have to do, this raises an alarm bell with me. It could be read two ways: Either (a) that you don't know how to do the work that you have. In which case, seek help from your supervisor immediately; or (b) you are unprepared in terms of time management and project management skills - which is a common problem for people who have not left the education system since they were kids, and so whose first experience of not being told what to do is a PhD.
    – Flyto
    Oct 7, 2019 at 17:26
  • 1
    (actually, third possibility, straightfoward depression. But you've already signed up to see a counsellor.)
    – Flyto
    Oct 7, 2019 at 17:26
  • Why are you passing on social activities? You should be striking a balance between your PhD and also your studies...
    – Poidah
    Oct 8, 2019 at 2:49
  • @Poidah The word "break" doesn't really exist in my university. Weekends are used to catch up on other work and you're expected to check your phone in case your prof asks you to do more work (that may not be relevant to your research). And I currently have 2 projects that need to be completed, where they tell you what needs to be implemented. The How to start, requirements, and expected results are not mentioned, so I'm lost and going in blind. Not to mention that I'm currently on scholarship and very worried that I'll not hit the grade. So this in a way puts me in an unstable position.
    – Brandon
    Oct 9, 2019 at 17:04

1 Answer 1



Sadly all that work is normal and it's only getting worse. Doing 4 essays overnight is not uncommon, research will be tossed away by professors, you wont have time for friends or family, and your health will deteriorate and you will loss/gain weight. All unless you can somehow automate things (a dictation software helps A LOT), or you can externalize the homework, which is not ethical and might not even be legal.

Oh! and your research and enthusiasm is meaningless. You could have the cure for all types of cancers but if your references are not in proper APA it all has no value. Thats academia. You are not there to research, you are there to document properly a research. (Im already expecting this answer to be downvoted a lot as it touches many sensible fibers)

In my PHD I ended up with a horrible lower-back damage that send me to the orthopedist-traumatologist, a friend got facial paralysis, around 30% of those who entered dropped, and the ones who managed to take it lightly was because they didnt have much responsibilities, work in bureaucracy and had people to do their HW for them, or similar.

A PHD is a big commitment that frankly isn't worth for many people, but a lot of people realize it only after enrolling. But hey, if you are stubborn then you already have the proper character trait for it, you just need to accept the cost of opportunity, which is that you have to set aside basically all else besides work.

If you are ready to drop, perhaps you should enter an MBA instead, the workload is almost just as bad but at least you don't have to worry about research and it's not so academically oriented, which might be more motivating. Also speak with your professor and negotiate sending your HW by mail as being in the lab is an impossibility for you, or at least negotiate only going a couple days and the rest work at a distance.

  • 1
    I'm sure that what you describe does happen, but it is not normal in any setting that I've encountered, and definitely should not be normal in any setting.Telling new PhD students that this is what they should expect does not feel helpful.
    – Flyto
    Oct 7, 2019 at 17:23
  • It is actually (and sadly) quite normal, in developing countries at least. Like grants not existing and the researcher having to pay for their PHD, or number of publications regardless of their usability counting for researcher's 'prestige'. It's simply a reality around the world. That's why I mentioned it was bound to touch sensibilities and be downvoted. But it's a honest answer even if blunt and such directness is more help than encouraging hopeful white lies.
    – deags
    Oct 7, 2019 at 18:56
  • @deags it is however, not what the norm should be and telling someone "this is it, deal with it" is the incorrect way of fighting a wrong situation. Oct 8, 2019 at 12:50
  • What a norm 'should' be is subjective when presented with the evidence of what it actually is. This is not about fighting a wrong situation. It's about explaining what is really happening, whether it irks what some people feel. In this case, the situation OP described matches reality around most of the world.
    – deags
    Oct 8, 2019 at 15:37

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