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Introduction

I know there are a lot of questions about quitting a PhD and I'm sorry for bringing this topic up another time but I really need some input and would appreciate every answer!

Background

I am pursuing my PhD since about 1.5 years in a research institute in germany and I am really not that happy since about autumn last year. I know its normal to have some sort of crisis during this time but I really can't motivate myself any more to continue working. My advisor is not very helpful (but at least very nice) and I have a really hard time to feel included with the colleagues. Partly because most of them work from home, partly because there is no lunch time together and maybe even because most of them have a physical / chemical background. (My background is electical engineering). I am working alone most of the time and I am really, really sick of it. The topic is doable, but to be honest doesn't interest me very much.

Since personally I am very insecure I have a hard time connecting with other people in the institute and I am someone who asks a lot of questions when handed a task. I wonder if pursuing a PhD is a good idea for me at all. Right now I feel left alone and feel like it's just too much self-organisation at this point. (I have reached out more than once to my advisor asking for help and regular meetings, it helps a bit, but not very much).

Question

I really doubt that working in academia will be fun for me later because of this experience, but I am curios to know how it felt for someone in a similar situation. Like you do not really like the topic, have a crisis and think about quitting. For anyone who has pulled through despite heavy doubts: Are you happy with your decision? Did you find a job you like? Or do you regret not quitting?

Edit 23.06.22

Thank you everyone for your comments and answers! It gives me a lot to think about and I think expecially the answer from @cag51 is very solid piece of advice!

TBH I am leaning towards quitting though because while thinking about the possible solutions I feel like I may not have the drive to pull this through, visit different groups or change enough so that I have fun at work again. I would like to update this question then, if it'll still be possible.

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    Ask your advisor to visit another group working on similar topic (do your homework, try to find 2-3 groups beforehand) for a couple of monhts. Since your background is different than your colleagues, use that as a leverage. It may help you to have some fresh air, to understand your possible contributions and to get additional feedback on your work. And stop working more than 40h per week on your PhD!
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 20 at 7:57
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    Welcome to Academia.SE. I added an answer; I hope you find it helpful. That said, we actually don't take "survey questions" like "are you happy with your decision?", only "answerable" questions like "how do I X given Y?" So, you may want to rewrite your last paragraph to avoid your question being closed.
    – cag51
    Jun 20 at 19:22
  • Hey @cag51, thank you for your comment. I understand, but I find it really difficult to rewrite the last paragraph since this is exactly what I wanted to know...
    – x3b7z99
    Jun 23 at 7:22

3 Answers 3

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I don't think I've had a "crisis" as you describe, but I may have some thoughts.

I really can't motivate myself any more to continue working...The topic is doable, but to be honest doesn't interest me very much.

Two pieces of advice here. The first is that research is more fun when it's moving quickly and you're getting results. If you get into a cycle of procrastination, it will seem less and less interesting. So, resist the temptation to slack off: work 8 hour days and be as productive as possible during those hours.

On the other hand, there is some flexibility with how you spend those eight hours. It seems like your advisor is giving you a pretty long leash, so I would recommend you exercise your academic freedom. Follow your interests where they lead you, even if they're not directly related to your assigned tasks. Anything that could reasonably be considered "work-related" is fair game. This could mean studying a new domain, or learning a new computer language / software, or building a new widget to improve some process, or developing statistical techniques for interpreting your analysis. If you take the time to build a new hammer, you'll find lots of nails you can use it for, and some of these might even be related to your main work. And if you pursue several of these avenues over the next few years, you'll get a better sense of what you like and what you don't.

Since personally I am very insecure I have a hard time connecting with other people in the institute....I wonder if pursuing a PhD is a good idea for me at all...Right now I feel left alone and feel like it's just too much self-organisation at this point

I would suggest there are two different issues here that we should try not to conflate. One is the "job of research," the other is your "degree of isolation." These are largely orthogonal: there are plenty of research jobs where you do work in teams. So, I would avoid making decisions about your career trajectory based on your current feeling of isolation.

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  • I'm accepting this answer because I think this is very solid piece of advice! So thank you!
    – x3b7z99
    Jun 23 at 7:23
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Not sure this answers the question, but at least I think I can provide some food for thought:

Your description of the situation sounds to me as if it may be substantially worsened by Covid regulation first asking and in many places still suggesting far more work from home than previously.
(I may say that this disconnect from colleagues has also affected my performance during the pandemic (whoopee, we have conferences again, in person) - but compared to you I do have the advantage that my PhD is long over and I am sure for myself that it is not a general crisis towards my work.)

(Also, I've made some experience in several groups from which I learned what amount of interaction with colleagues is good for me: having a more-or-less single place in a lab, but regular coffee break with the colleagues if I liked to; when I was "promoted" to my own 1-person-office abroad, that wasn't enough connection with the people there - they also had no space for coffee together - I moved into a 2 person office, and that was very good. 3 people with back to the open door - no good. 7 person office, no good at all, I went for lots of WFH... I've worked a lot online already before Covid, but I learned that I do need some amount of offline interaction as well, and I've sorely missed the random professional discussions that happen e.g. at conferences in person, but are extremely rare online)

The additional separation due to Covid may add up with the "disconnect" you describe by having a different background and the general stess of a thesis. While all three together may very well be too much, so something needs to be done, I wouldn't be sure from your description alone that quitting is the right step for you. This is something that should be considered carefully.
OTOH, it is possible to move away from public research and back into academia later on. (In particular, universities of applied science (FHs) like to see their staff, including professors, to have industry experience)

Now, in my experience, some groups are more "connective" than others, but I think with the substantially increased WFH it has become more difficult everywhere.
There are surely groups that are still more including with Covid regulations around than others have ever been. I cannot tell from your description whether your group is particularly unincluding or not.

More thoughts:

  • Will you be attending a conference this summer?
    This is not only a great way to connect to people - and if your direct colleagues are not so connecting for whatever reason, you may find a group there that is more welcoming and including.

  • You can also try to find out how things work out at their "home base" and try to identify a group you may visit for a small "sub-project".
    (You write your supervisor is nice - ask them to help with this)

  • Is there someone or a group of people with whom you could put in some holidays? (already 1 or 2 weeks can do a lot of good, as employee in Germany you have a right to take at least 3 weeks in a row once per year.)

  • Do you have a solid peer group outside work? It cannot completely substitute the lack of connectivity with your research group, but it may help sufficiently to get you along.


For anyone who has pulled through despite heavy doubts: Are you happy with your decision? Did you find a job you like? Or do you regret not quitting?

Let's put it like this: the application problem of my PhD thesis was not something I thought would "rescue the world" - although the topic [cancer diagnostics] was sold like that - what a PhD project could do (and what improved diagnostics could do to survival) was definitively oversold there.  OTOH, there were "side aspects" that are much less fancy (and much less able to get one a grant) which I still hold as very important (rather basic statistics on model validation and dealing with ever-too-small sample sizes). My heart was more in that (and after I had told my professor for 3 years that I think this important, he started to say that at conferences, too ;-) ), and I learned and developed things that I still use in my everyday work now.

I also wasn't sure whether those two letters would be really that much needed. And in a way I was right: I got a job offer and moved on before handing in (many of us did). I did like science, and I stayed in research, though.

I handed in my thesis years later at a different university. I'm still not sure how much that PhD "title" helps me (though I do suspect that other people look at it more than I do). (But it's not a question that bothers me one way or the other - nor was it bothering me as much as others [institute directors/professors who paid me post-doc wages without me being a proper post-doc] when I hadn't yet handed in)
But the research experience gained is definitively valuable and important for my work.

I found a job that I like: I stayed full time in research for some 10 years, then started my own business which is still very close to research.

I don't regret anything.

I even got myself a (part time) contract again at a research institution a year ago due to the described disconnect caused by Covid rules: employees could basically choose to go to the lab, but the same institutions would not allow (or strongly discourage) contractors on premise. So I decided a side job as employee (at a research institute) would be good, and it is indeed.

No regrets :-)

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Most PhD students have some sort of crisis. Mine was different from yours, but I worked through it for almost two years. I am proud to have finished my PhD. I left academia right after my defense and found a job in industry that makes me happy. Industry jobs are different, less lonely and other people are relying on your work as you have to rely on work of other people. The feedback cycle is much shorter and you depend less on successes that cannot be planned (science is difficult to plan). It is more just do the work and everybody will be happy.

I am looking back and would not like to miss my time as a PhD student, but I enjoyed my work and my group. I don't regret to have invested the two difficult years.

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