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TW: Depression/suicide

TL;DR Thinking of quitting my PhD; Don't want to because of the perception that I'd be closing some doors on my future, but in my heart of hearts I know it's probably in my best interest to do so for my health.

Before I get into it, I would like to note that I am receiving professional help. I'm writing this post in hopes of getting clarity from those who have maybe seen similar circumstances.

For context, I moved from the US to a certain Southeast Asian city-state to begin a PhD in computer science, of which I am only in my first term. I like what I'm doing, I enjoy research for the prospect of proposing new knowledge, and I am certain that this career path is a good fit for me over the software engineering work I've done before. My goal is to work in industry, but in a research position (i.e. OpenAI or something similar).

The problem I'm facing now is that basically everything I'm experiencing outside of my program makes me feel somewhere between unhappy and severely depressed. Even after the initial bouts of homesickness that have since subsided, I have been thinking constantly about quitting the program for my own safety. In recent weeks I have had to come to terms with the fact that I suffer from severe mental illness which may kill me if I do not prioritize it. The Covid-19 pandemic has been especially unkind to my mental health, which combined with some issues in my interpersonal life and the shock of expatriating alone has come to a head with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and a few suicidal episodes. I am receiving treatment, though I don't think it has been long enough for me to make a clear-headed decision about it, and I am seriously concerned for my mental and physical well-being. Taking a 6-month leave of absence is possible for me under the terms of my funding, but I have a gut feeling that I may not be equipped --now or ever-- to live so far from my family. Maybe it's culture shock, maybe it's the pandemic restrictions, that may only be clear in hindsight, but right now I can't picture myself surviving the entire four years abroad.

That said, I worked really, really hard for what I imagined was the only opportunity to enter this field, and worry that by quitting I'll essentially be shutting that door permanently. As myopic as that may be, I have read quite a few accounts (mostly on Quora) of people saying that quitting here would make it nearly impossible to justify to another admissions committee that I can perform the task. I know if it even is possible I'd have to take enough time to stabilize my mental health first, but what I'm hoping is that it would be reasonable to go industry/concurrent masters > PhD or industry/concurrent PhD if/when I am ready. It is probably also worth noting here that my study habits have suffered from the things listed above; while my term is not over yet, my current academic standing is looking rather poor.

I tend to muddle my own questions with too much context, so I suppose what I'm really asking is if there is a path back to a PhD if I were to quit here. Are mental health concerns a sufficient justification for failing the first time? Do I address this failed attempt when applying again (my suspicion is yes)? I have seen people suggest to others who were further along or suffering physical health concerns to try postponing their defense or taking leave, however, I don't know how long it will take me to find the stability to pursue this again, and likely never so far from home. I also know that PhD students are expected to be able to handle personal stresses and outside factors alongside the degree, so it seems like mental health isn't viewed as such a significant barrier, but there seems to be a rising attitude that we should treat mental illness the same as regular chronic illness.

Anyways, thank you internet strangers for reading this. I appreciate any insight into my situation and future prospects.

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  • "academic standing is looking rather poor" are you still getting your Master's degree or are these the PhD courses?
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 21, 2021 at 10:36
  • These are PhD level courses; I'm still in the first half of my program. I'm actually not sure if there is a concurrent MS, as the online literature for my school doesn't mention it and I haven't had the chance to talk to my director recently.
    – Roman
    Oct 21, 2021 at 14:56
  • I am not asking to suggest you taking MS courses, no worries. Your academic stand is not very relevant (nor will impact your future), those courses are more about passing/not passing and (ideally) providing you tools necessary for your PhDs, the grades are not important (nor they imply anything about your PhD).
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 21, 2021 at 15:04
  • Thank you for clarifying, that actually clears up quite a bit of worry.
    – Roman
    Oct 21, 2021 at 15:14
  • How long have you been living there? It took me about three or four months to settle after an international move. Perhaps if you give it time, your perspective on your living situation will improve. But you may not want to risk waiting that long, which is understandable.
    – astronat
    Oct 22, 2021 at 9:54

2 Answers 2

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There are thousands of reasons for which one may have to quit a PhD, they are all equally valid because you do not need to disclose them, not even in your CV.

Let's assume you quit your PhD now, not having the chance to suspend or put on hold your current PhD opportunity. You take 3 years leave (doing whatever, from being a waiter to doing internships at NASA, I do not know), you then decide you want to try to give another shot to another PhD opporutnity.

How will your CV look like?

You have many options.

You can put your time spent at the Southeast Asian in the education field, mentioning the course you followed, programs you learned, techniques you have been introduced to.

You can put your time spent at the Southeast Asian university as a "Research Assistant" or whatever title is equivalent to the job defined in your current working contract, because being a PhD is also a job.

You can even put nothing, leaving a gap. Please note: gaps in CV and their importance are a self-sustaining myth, especially when applying for a PhD, there are questions about gap year only because people thinks that gaps in the CV deserves to be investigated, because so must be. So, at the interview, when asked about the gap you can say it was for personal reasons. Or you can also go fully open, say you took time to improve your mental health and mitigate the impact of the pandemy and of your status of being an immigrant (you may want to double assess this, if you disclose it if applying again for a PhD position abroad), there is no harm in doing that, and if saying something like that harms your application, you should be grateful you avoided the chance of having horrible persons as supervisors.

Good luck, and take care of yourself.

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Your health is more important than a PhD degree. Having said that, many universities value the health of their students and employees and have resources in place to further that. These could be counselors, doctors or nurse-practitioners who are specifically tasked with finding ways to make the university work for members with health problems. These could be staff members tasked with helping PhD students with all kinds of matters.

Also consider your supervisor. Despite all the horror stories here and elsewhere, most supervisors are just decent human beings, who, upon hearing of your problems, are more than willing to think with you about possible solutions. Maybe a letter of recommendation, to make it easier for you to apply to an institution closer to home. Maybe (s)he has good relations with an institution close to your home and can arrange longer research visits to that institution so you can balance time spent at your current institution and time closer to home. Maybe something else.

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  • Thank you for your answer! I haven't yet spoken to my advisor; I am waiting until I have had a bit more time to really consider my decision before bringing it up. I was specifically wondering if a failed PhD attempt due to health issues bars re-entry at a later point, but from the second half of your answer it sounds like that is not the case :)
    – Roman
    Oct 21, 2021 at 15:03

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