I need some help figuring out what to do with my life.

I have been working on my PhD for 4 months and I have not really done much. To be honest my mental health an self confidence is super low and it makes me feel like everything I’m doing is wrong. I’m not sleeping and I have mental breakdowns all the time. This consumes so much of my energy that I half-ass everything to move on with my project, but then have to go back and so the same tasks over and over again. I haven’t read much articles either, because I get stressed that it takes too much time. I feel like my personality type is well fit for doing s PhD but maybe not at this point in my life. I want to gain more experience and confidence in my skills first from working in the industry. At the same time I’m so exhausted at this point that jumping into a new job seems like too much stress. I want to take a break from everything, but I’m afraid it will look bad on my CV. If I found a job now I would not be dependent on using my supervisor as a reference, but if I take a break before applying for new jobs that would be more natural. I don’t want to be to dependent on my current supervisor as my reference because I don’t think I’ve left a good impression (I’ve cried in front of him and expressed feelings about my insecurities and work) I always try to be honest, because it in general releases some of the pressure, but this time I think I made a poor choice.

The whole situation is just very embarrassing and I don’t want it to affect me later in life. Do you have any advice?

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    academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2219/… Does this help?
    – Allure
    Dec 13, 2021 at 4:41
  • Yes, thank you. I can’t decide wether I want to stay or leave because I like the topic but I’m suffering on a personal level.
    – Unknown
    Dec 13, 2021 at 6:08
  • Very common. Don't worry too much. Keep thinking, reading and work even at small projects related to a topic (your topic or the big and more general one of the group). Indeed common at least in hardcore science. Take some more time. I had nothing to work for 6 months even. I can assure my PhD was very successful. The same happened to many many colleagues.
    – Alchimista
    Dec 13, 2021 at 8:57
  • I already know what to do because the has already been outlined for me in great detail. I’m cooperating with other people so we have outlined what type of data we should be giving eachother and when. I know I’m in a much better position than other students based on that, but the anxiety around all of it is holding me back. If someone has any tips on how to handle this it’s very welcome.
    – Unknown
    Dec 13, 2021 at 10:15
  • Half-assing things isn't a negative, it's a strategy. CEOs of companies for instance are experts at choosing what tasks to half-ass. You have so much resources (time, energy, money), and you have to carefully distribute them into the tasks in front of you. That means you'll half to do bad on some things, and do good at others. Dec 13, 2021 at 23:14

1 Answer 1


Feeling lost at the beginning of a PhD is not as uncommon as one may think. I would advise you to keep going and worry less, but you're talking about anxiety overpowering you, lack of sleep and breakdowns, so it might be that burnout is the actual issue. I don't know what these breakdowns are, but since you mentioned them, I think it would help you to talk to a therapist who can tell you if what you're experiencing is more than just burnout.

Assuming is not bad enough that you need to quit graduate school, the first thing you should do is take minimum one week long break, far from computers and books, and as close as possible to people (the nice and quiet kind) and nature.

You should also try to fix your sleep patterns. It's easier said than done, but, if you implement some rules of sleep hygiene, it should work. For instance, decide upon your ideal wake up hour and stick with it for a few weeks. The hour you go to sleep could be adjusted such that you feel fully rested the next day. You should also make sure you don't touch your electronics half an hour before going to bed and you should install some software to adjust your screen colors according to the time of the day.

Also you should avoid consuming alcohol or taking any kind of recreational drugs, because these are known to affect the health of your brain.

Another thing you could do is to start setting aside the time to do things that make you happy. Go out with friends, practice sports, see new places, etc. But, in my case, these only increase my anxiety if I have deadlines and work needs to get done. What I do when I have a deadline I can't meet is I simply tell whoever is waiting for me I can't finish the work on time and either ask for an extension, or tell them I won't finish at all because of good personal reasons, such as the ones you describe.

If you get to talk to a professional and they believe your mental health is really bad, it's a really good idea to take a longer break. I don't know where you are based, but in some places you could freeze your PhD for a while, until the issues are resolved. In some places, where PhD students have some worker's rights, you could even go on medical leave. There isn't much of a point in hopping to another job, if you don't really want to leave the PhD. Also, worrying about the esthetics of your CV, at this stage, is not justified. Once you have your PhD diploma, no one will care that you needed to take a few weeks/months break to heal your brain sometimes during the PhD.

Related to anxiety, what I do to manage it, when I have a stressful project with a tight deadline and many unmanageable unknowns, is plan for the worst possible outcome. I also try to estimate the time I need to complete my tasks and break those down to clarify if the project can be done at all. I also include the warm up phases when my mind has to switch modes for tasks that are too different from each other. If the time needed for something I have to do exceeds the 40 hour week limit, I take into account refusing the tasks.

Reading papers anxiety is also common among students and postdocs. I have it myself. There are plenty ways to read papers to get most of them, but the best is to read them as needed for the project you work on. In other words, if you don't feel like learning a lot from a paper, it's better to abandon reading it. You can always return to it later when something written there turns out to be directly useful in your work. In other words, you should spend time only trying to figure out what the paper overall message is, and only commit more time to it if you find a clear use for what's in it.

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    Too much of this is dangerously close to a prescription from a non-professional based on scanty evidence. I'd probably down vote it except that you do, also, recommend taking to a therapist.
    – Buffy
    Dec 13, 2021 at 22:42
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    @Buffy You have enough privileges to delete the answer, or to edit it down to "See therapist ASAP". I will delete it myself if you can explain with arguments that it could do a lot more harm than good. But your arguments should be written somewhere on the site as a standard answer to this type of question which pops up quite often on this site. Dec 13, 2021 at 22:52
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    Actually, I don't have such powers. But too much is just easy to say but hard to do: get more sleep. Get more exercise. Take a break of at least a week. The things of value here are, however, lots of people share this syndrome and see a therapist. If the things you suggest are things that work for yourself, then say that, but I doubt that you are a medical professional.
    – Buffy
    Dec 13, 2021 at 23:02

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