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I've been thinking a lot before asking this question, but now I feel it's time to seek some advice. I started my PhD a couple of months ago and now it is almost 4 months since I put my hands on this project. I joined a very small research group (I'm the only PhD) to embark on an industrial PhD in the UK. I moved away from my home country, I rented a flat and my girlfriend joined me a few months ago. Should be an ideal condition but for me, it's a nightmare.

I don't feel well. Every day a sense of depression and anxiety is constantly present thus forcing me to spend most of the time alone. I don't like my project and I don't like the environment despite having two supervisors who are very kind to me. I don't want to stay in this condition anymore but at the same time, I don't know what to do. I don't have the courage to speak with my supervisors and explain my condition. Does someone have any advice on what should I do?

P.S. I would like to add some details just to give a clearer picture of my condition. I graduated with honours during both my master and my bachelor's degree. I was the best student of my years in my course. I felt that a PhD should be the most suitable choice for me.

I decided to start this industrial PhD in collaboration with a huge company thinking that after it I would be immediately hired. But now I don't know exactly if this is my way. I'm constantly obsessed with the idea of going back to the lab every day... it's really hard and demotivating. I started thinking of getting a job where you do your hours and then you go back home without any thoughts, problems, or pressure.

P.P.S. Thanks for all your answers, it's quite an encouraging fact that some other people went through the same thoughts. I feel that I will start speaking with my supervisors to inform them about my condition. However, I have some concerns connected with the founding of the project. In the case I'll quit, do I have to return all the salaries received? Some of you have experience with that?

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    Your supervisors are nice? Put things openly on the table, the earlier the better. Unless you believe you can turn it around, things become only harder by dragging it on. You can be diplomatic and say that the project turned out not to be for you. – Captain Emacs Jan 18 at 12:15
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    Here I would like to point out that correlation is not causation. You might assume that your mental situation is caused by your work. However, it is just as likely that it is related to the pandemic, your move, or a quirk of your age (sometimes various hormones and other biological antecedents shift with age). Really get this examined/diagnosed before career decisions. – Dawn Jan 18 at 15:07
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    Why don't you look for a job in parallel? It is much easier to make a decision when you have something in your hands. Now you are just theorizing without having anything to compare. – yarchik Jan 18 at 21:05
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    [2/2] It is known that moving and starting a PhD abroad is very taxing during the first few months. Depression is a common symptom. To this you have to add the current state of matters. Be kind to yourself and keep in mind some of these feelings are normal. An idea could be to set a trial period for you to evaluate your options and make sure you don't rush any decision. – user347489 Jan 18 at 22:01
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    1.) If you are coming from a south(er) country, you might be feeling effects of winter - lack of sun. You wouldn't be the first to leave because of that. 2.) Moving to new place is hard. New everything, even if your girl came with you - no friends, relatives etc. A lot of people go back because they can't handle that part. 3.) Starting PhD is hard and the early impression can be misleading. 1+2+3.) Please don't take this as an answer or suggestion what to do, just possible considerations. Decisions to stay or leave are usually obvious only in retrospect :) – Zizy Archer Jan 19 at 11:43
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No one here should tell you whether to quit or not. But you need to find a changed situation somehow. Some suggestions...

Talk to your supervisor about the situation with your project and see whether there is some alternative that will make things better. Another project? A modification of this one? More assistance?

Talk to others in the research group about how they see the project and its likelihood of success. Are they happy or just coping like yourself?

Talk to a mental health professional about how you can arrange things so that you don't fall into depression. Many universities provide professional counseling.

Talk to your girlfriend about her wishes, goals, and plans. Ask her if she has any advice for you.

Find some "escape" activities so that you don't spend too much time working. My escape was bicycling with a small group. It had the advantage of being aerobic, but other things can help. Resting your mind can actually aid productivity.

Think about your goals as well as whatever options are open to you. Options about staying as well as about leaving. What are the pros and cons of each? How can you achieve your goals and stay sane?

The hardest part, as you describe it, is to find the courage to talk to your supervisors. But that is probably the essential step to find a way out of the dilemma. But don't just continue on, hoping for the best. Some situations need to be escaped.


The biggest mistake I made in my doctoral studies was not speaking up for myself at a certain point. In my case it was because I had an unhelpful advisor. But my lack of courage cost me about three years. I was successful after a change of institutions and only realized later how I'd missed the opportunity. There was also the issue of burnout after an intense undergraduate program.

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    All these points are spot-on and every single one of them should be taken seriously. Communicate with your advisors and seek help with a mental health professional. I spent 3 years working on a project I despised, under the supervision of someone who didn't care at all about my success or well-being. I could've saved myself a lot of hardships had I spoken clearly with them from the start. What did it for me was changing supervisor and project. Evaluate your options to see what might be the best for you. – user347489 Jan 18 at 21:52
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    One should also note that undergrad and PhD is very different. It amost requires two different skillsets. (So some transition pain is normal) – lalala Jan 19 at 9:50
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    There may also be people whose role is to support the welfare of postgraduates, in the department, the university, or the students' union. If the OP's university has any of those, they will at least provide pointers to mental health services (as mentioned), and may also be able to provide a frame of reference for deciding what's part of a normal experience and what needs dealing with (some things may fall into both categories). With the lack or reduction of face-to-face informal support, and not forming new friendships in the normal/expected way these roles are likely to be more important. – Chris H Jan 20 at 12:27
  • Starting a PhD is a major challenge at the best of times. These are far from the best of times. That may mean leaving, maybe changing the project or group, maybe gaining a mentor, maybe taking a suspension of studies, or something else which those same support people and supervisor should be able to come up with. (A lot of comment but I wanted to add to this answer rather than duplicate it) – Chris H Jan 20 at 12:30
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Buffy’s answer makes good suggestions to begin improving how you feel, but I’d like to add that, based on the information you provide here, my answer to your question is: “No, not yet.”

That’s because your question describes how you are uncomfortable in your current situation, but doesn’t talk about alternatives at all. The two points you single out are that you don’t like your project and your “environment.” Depending on what you mean by environment, they can both possibly be changed by talking to your advisers as was mentioned priorly here too, and maybe that would help.

But as long as you really don’t know what else you would do - maybe that’s not the case and you just failed to mention it here -, dealing with depression and falling into a void after quitting is quite possibly going to make things even worse. At least there’s a chance it could happen. To have something to hold onto professionally tends to help with these feelings; moving back in with your parents, or such, can further negatively impact your mood as you probably would find yourself obsessing about what to do now.

I’d follow Buffy’s advice, talk to your peer and your advisers, but also focus on thinking about what else you could and would like to do, as well as where you see yourself in 10 years. When you have a better idea about that, it’s time to choose.

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    Good recommendation, but only if waiting to quit until having a viable alternative doesn't do more harm than good. In my own case, I couldn't bear the thought of continuing my PhD one more day, so I quit and then started my job search. It helped that my wife was able to support both of us during my job search with her job. Just pointing out that sometimes it may actually best to quit first. – bob Jan 20 at 22:17
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I know your dilemma as I was in the same position in 2015. I started a Social Science PhD at University of Kent in 2012 part time for 5 years. The first couple of years were great then by the third year I started to feel more pressure because of more work responsibilities. On top of that I had financial pressure as I did not qualify for ERC bursary and had to self-fund. I spent a few months weighing up why I wanted to do the PhD and what I hoped to get out of it and balanced this against the stress and financial pressure I was experiencing. The main reason I wanted to do the PhD was to enhance my career prospects. I decided that there was no guarantee that I would get a better job with higher pay than my current job unless I stayed in academia, which I didn't want too. However, I had invested 3 years already so I did not want to make a mistake I would later regret.

In the end I chose the safe option and spoke to my supervisor about my problems (remember that they are not there to just supervise your project but also address any issues that may impact on your studies). We decided that I could defer my studies for a year and rejoin if I wanted. That was great for me and took a lot of pressure off my shoulders, as I knew I could go back to my PhD if I wanted to after a year and I could just use that year to focus on my job and save money. In the end after a year I was really enjoying my job and became a private contractor which gave me more freedom. I still had an appetite for academic study but I reasoned that unless I was going to be an academic having a PhD would not present a life changing opportunity for me.

That was 8 years ago and I was 30 when I started my PhD. In that time I have achieved all my career goals and now I am considering going back and finishing my thesis which I have kept in my head all this time. I think you are much younger than me when I started my PhD, so my advice to you is that you have plenty of time to pursue your PhD. Don't put yourself under any unnecessary pressure that might compromise your health. I would speak to your supervisor and I'm sure they will be understanding especially under the current climate in which a lot of people are suffering in silence from loneliness/depression etc. Ask if you can defer for a year and use that time to recover and do whatever motivates you and brings you happiness.

You’re a young guy. You can do a PhD anytime. Sometimes we need time to develop as a person before we commit to intellectually rigorous tasks like undertaking a PhD. Keep your head up and practice yoga and breathing exercises to clear your mind away from any negative thoughts. Also speak to your GP. Talk therapy will help you now so speak to someone you trust.

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    Welcome to Academia.SE, and thanks for sharing your story. Medical advice is outside our scope, so I truncated your penultimate sentence. Cheers! – cag51 Jan 20 at 2:23
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It is too soon for you to make a decision to leave, but leaving may turn out to be the right answer.

The first thing you need to do is access your university's mental health services (I'm not in the UK but my understanding is most universities have counselling services available). You should also speak with your GP as physical ailments can cause depression and anxiety. You can access mental health services from outside the university, however one advantage of using services provided by your university is they often have considerably more experience with students in similar situations to yourself.

Please don't underestimate the effects of mental health on your happiness and enthusiasm for your work. It could be that your PhD studies are negatively impacting your mental health (that's not at all uncommon!). It could be that your currently poor mental health is what is driving your lack of enthusiasm for your project. Both can be happening at once!

You mention that your supervisors are nice - that's great! That means that you should also feel comfortable talking to them about your situation. You are not the first student in this situation and good supervisors will work with you to help you meet your goals. Don't lead with "I don't like the project" - instead focus on the impacts on you - struggling to be enthusiastic / not sure where it will lead / worried about progress. Not liking the project might be the central issue - but your supervisors are likely very invested in the project, and I don't like your work is a hard thing to respond to.

Starting a PhD can be very overwhelming. Sometimes, finding new ways of working can dramatically change how you experience your PhD. It might be having your supervisors provide more structure for what you are doing during these first weeks. It might be them backing off and giving you more time to find your feet and work your own way. Your supervisors being nice does not necessarily mean that their way of working is suitable for you. Nice supervisors aren't always effective supervisors. This company provides some free resources for PhD students that you might find helpful https://www.ithinkwell.com.au.

You mentioned that you don't like your project. What is not clear to me is if this is a new feeling, or if you never liked the project. Is this a new feeling? Were you ever excited about your project? Has something changed? Does the project differ to what you were expecting?. If something has changed you need to work through WHY you no longer like the project and determine if that is something that can be fixed. If, however, you never liked the project, then I do not think you should stay and attempt a PhD on something that has never interested you. That being said - you should consider your Visa and financial situation (especially with travel & employment limitations of a pandemic) before withdrawing.

It may be that a PhD is not the right path for you. It may be that this PhD is not the right path for you. It may be that the way you are going about this PhD right now is not the right path for you.

So key steps before you decide to stay or leave:

  1. Get professional medical help for the depression and anxiety you are experiencing
  2. Get specific about what you don't like about your PhD - are these things that can be changed?
  3. Look into the financial and visa implications of leaving - have an escape plan that works for you and your girlfriend
  4. Talk to your supervisor
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No-one has yet mentioned the twin elephants in the room, Covid and lockdown. One of the major reasons you may be feeling socially isolated is that the UK is presently in a very weird situation where a lot of the things that a young and happening frood like you would be doing to feel more socially included can't be done. Socialisation with other people from your own country is out (ex-pat groups are a great way to cope with culture-shock), going to the cinema is out, going out for dinner and drinks with university colleagues is out, etc etc etc.

Fear not! The situation is likely to change quite rapidly now that we've begun a programme of vaccination with normality hopefully returning in the next few months. You'll soon learn why they call us 'Cool Britannia' when you suddenly find that all of the social support mechanisms, entertainments and other paraphernalia of British life (that presumably was what encouraged you to choose the UK in the first place) suddenly comes thundering back into action.

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  • The last word of your answer, "online" might not be the best formulation of what you intended. – Andreas Blass Jan 20 at 3:40
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I started an industry-funded PhD years ago. These are often regarded as being very prestigious. They often come with bigger stipends, better resources and better industry networking opportunities.

I hated it.

Some people like the structure and the guidance that comes with these sorts of projects. For me however it never really felt like 'my' project. Also my supervisor was a shithead. So I bailed and never looked back.

It came at a huge cost. But for me on balance it was the right decision.

Years later I returned to do my own project in a different field and it was the best decision I ever made.

As others have said - there is rarely a single reason to stay or go - its the kind of thing you have to consider on balance.

Fortunately there are many factors that can be adjusted, including switching to an entirely different project. Taking leave can also clear the head.

You are certainly not the first person to feel this way - and I expect your supervisors may surprise you with how supportive they are. Some are crap but most are great and are there to support their candidates.

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It seems we've driven into a similar situation but from different sites. I have no magic remedy nor try to find one for you while still looking for mine.

Just check this course: https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being

It's free. I think you will be surprised.

Bart

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    Welcome to Academia! Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference. – Anton Menshov Jan 19 at 20:50
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You are stressed by your current situation. When I am stressed, I try and remove the sources of stress, or make changes to my life, to improve personal wellbeing, to become happier. You may be suffering a little from burnout after doing a Bachelors and Masters degrees, and feel a more relaxing change is required, though normal jobs can be very stressful themselves. As others have said, you have the option of returning to a PhD at a later date. Yet, unhappiness with your day-to-day work situation means that something has to change.

You cannot continue living with stress, therefore, what are your options? Leave the PhD or get changes to the current working situation. There are consequences to both. If you leave the PhD, depending upon your situation, you may need to leave the UK. Alternatively, changes to the current arrangements will require discussions with supervisors and University support staff, you are not the first person in this situation. They will help you.

If you decide to leave it may take a few weeks to go through due processes. A compromise, if your work is suitable, is to plan to leave after one year, enough time to sort out affairs, and not make your time in the UK a waste. I.e., see if you can convert to a Masters by Research. Having a closer endpoint on the horizon would give you something to focus on every day.

To answer your last question. No, you do not need to give back any salary paid.

Although you may not always be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you can suffer by how you choose to respond to the situation. - Dalai Lama XIV

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One of the reasons to do a Ph.D is to learn self-discipline. If you find that you don't "switch off" when you get home... learn to switch off when you get home!

It's actually a very common problem in all sorts of jobs these days. The job may not require people to be "on the job" all the time but a lot of people do. Your brain will work on a task for two reasons:

  1. If you pressure it to (anxiety)
  2. If you get excited by its ideas (reward)

Set the boundaries, break the habits, remember that your work will get done even if you don't constantly work on it. Your work really will be more effective if you have good quality down time.

If after this you still aren't keeping up with the project, it's simply not suitable. Change your project, or defer, or quit.

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