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I am currently a 5th year PhD student in math at an American university. I was talking with my parents recently and I told them that I had come to terms with the possibility of me not graduating with my PhD. As we all know in this community, getting a PhD is not a walk in the park. Rather, it is full of sweat, tears, and can even come at the cost of your mental/physical health.

After I told them this, they began to say things like "I'd be very disappointed in you!" ,"I never taught you to be a quitter!","That's not the child I raised!", and proceeded to hang up the phone on me. I usually talk to them regularly, but it has been over a week. I didn't know they were going to take it that personally. All I meant to say was that if I were to not graduate with my PhD due to circumstances out of my control, that I would ultimately be ok with this as there are other things I could do besides working towards a PhD. I never said I was going to quit myself.

Just a bit of background: I have an anxiety disorder and my therapist's advice to treat anxiety of not getting my PhD was to tell myself that it's ok to ultimately not get the PhD and that I am not by any means a lesser person because I didn't graduate with one. Their message is about self-acceptance and awareness and to be kind to myself. But according to my parents, that promotes mediocrity and is a conformist attitude.

I can see both my therapist's and parent's point of view. But at the same time wondered how common this is among PhD students. Am I alone on this or do other PhD students get additional pressure from their parents to graduate? I was also told by them that I needed to graduate soon, as if I was still in high school. I just want to see how others have approached this situation and what your coping mechanisms were.

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    Given your investment of time and effort, it might (but also maybe not) be worth your further effort to just grab the degree, one way or another. Yes, it's a cost-benefit analysis. (E.g., if you really can't stand being in the program any more, ... well, ... get out.) Yes, peoples' parents do both fail to understand, and pressure their kids. Not easy to ignore, but, still, parents' "advice" about PhD work is dubious... even if they have their own... So, I'd ask you, is it really out-of-the-question that you'd finish? Apart from your parents' hassling you, this is the actionable question. Oct 11 '21 at 0:39
  • @paulgarrett it is a sunk-costs fallacy to consider your investment of time and effort. That time is gone and cannot be recovered.
    – emory
    Oct 11 '21 at 2:18
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    I think the point is that OP is potentially only a year away from a PhD. It is likely that one year in exchange for a PhD is a good trade. It would only be a sunk-cost fallacy if OP decides that a PhD is not worth one more year, but does it anyway due to the time already spent.
    – cag51
    Oct 11 '21 at 4:04
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    Is part of the problem that your parents think that a PhD is an automatic ticket to a high-paying successful career, while you know that it is nothing of that sort? Oct 11 '21 at 5:48
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    @Alexander Woo: Interestingly, most students I knew when I was in graduate school, whose parents expressed a strong opinion about their pursual of a Ph.D. (and the student told me about it), held the opposite view and wished their child would stop wasting years and years on abstruse and unmarketable academic pursuits, even those in something like computer science (but this was primarily in the 1980s). Oct 11 '21 at 7:22
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I've had experienced something along those lines while undergrad and to a large part, broke off with my parents for a few years. Now, telling you to do the same would be a plain bad advice, but I do believe that now, since you're very much an adult, it is important to have some boundaries in place.

Nothing will change that they are your parents and that they are passionate about your success in life. Quitting after 4+ years in does not sound very productive to me, either - I would also advise you to continue, if just for the concern about being remorseful down the line.

But these are two separate problems.

Your struggles with PhD and anxiety is one thing, and your parents giving you some advice is a totally acceptable (and possibly even welcome) thing. Your parents engaging in highly emotional and manipulative behavior, however, is unlikely to help you in any capacity. This kind of talk is treating you as a 7 year old. You are not one for quite a looong time. So, push back. Probably tell them you appreciate their concerns but they are really not helping, and that you will do what is the best for you.

And good luck out there.

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I wonder if this could be a "simple" miscommunication. To my understanding the situation is this:

You are struggling and having a difficult time finishing your degree due to anxiety and some external issues. The simple truth that world will not stop if you don't get your PhD and you should not feel guilty in this case makes you feel better. You do not want to give up but the thought that you can helps. However, when you told your parents what they heard was that you want to quit.

Try to clear this up with your parents. I would do this in an email, since talking to them backfired once already and you gave a clear picture of your feelings in this question.

As for the contrasting views of your therapist and your parents, I think both are right and you have to find balance. It is always important to be kind to yourself but sometimes you have to do things that are difficult and push yourself to your limits. The difficulty is finding out when to emphasise what. In your case, I agree with @Lodinn's answer that you should try to finish your degree, adding this: if you can. You (mental) health is more important than a degree. Only you know if you can continue.

As for having similar experiences: my mother would have been OK with me not finishing high school if that was what I truly wanted and if it made me happy. My grandfather was pushy, asking every time when I will be submitting my dissertation and putting me under pressure. They are both professors, they know perfectly well what it is like to get a PhD. I dealt with the pressure by reframing it: it was grandfather's way of telling me he loves me and is concerned by my future. He was trying to be supportive the way he could. Try to think of your parents' reaction the same way: they got upset because they care about you and your future.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

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