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I started my PhD thesis (in artificial intelligence and ecology) about a month ago, because it seemed like the perfect choice to continue from my master's degree. The problem is, since the beginning of the PhD, I started to become more and more anxious and have insomnia and depression-like symptoms (I will soon see a therapist for this reason). Now, I think of quitting PhD because it seems obvious to me that this new place does not fit me at all, and I cannot find enthusiasm for the work I have to do.

I feel very lost because my goal was always to become a scientist after finishing these last three years, but now I am pretty sure that this does not fit me. For the moment, my plans are to stick with the thesis for a few months to see if the situation gets better, but I don't have lots of hope.

So, I have a master's degree, I do something that makes me feel depressed, and I have no idea what career choices I should do. I have been thinking of starting something completely new, which is scary but seems to be the only way...

Would you have any advice? Have you ever been in that type of situation?

Edit: thank you for you answers. I just want to clarify that I am not afraid or worried about not knowing/learning/understanding the subject. The work I have to do is clear to me. But I have the growing sensation of being trapped in it for the upcoming 3 years. I feel like this is not for me.

Edit : Thank you for all your answers. About a month after posting this I talked with my advisor who told me to take a few days to rest. I never came back, except for one last discussion with my advisor, who agreed with me that it was not the right time for me to start a PhD. He was very understanding and told me that this situation is not so uncommon and can appear sometimes. Now I have a new job and no regrets whatsoever. So my advice for people in a similar situation would be to 1) talk about this with your advisor or at least someone who went through a PhD and can understand you, 2) consult a psychologist if possible and 3) understand that if you feel very bad and things are not improving, you are not trapped, sometimes stopping is just another way to say that you start something new. Most importantly, take lots of time to ask yourself the question : why do I want to do this ? Does it help my dreams or my vision of an ideal future come true ? These may not be the best pieces of advice for everyone, but they helped me the most.

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  • 35
    take it easy. A PhD is not a sprint, it is a marathon. And writing the thesis is another marathon. You cannot be quick. You cannot do or understand anything in 1 month. Sleep well, eat well, exercise regulary, take it easy, do not expect anything good ro new or interesting before at least one year into your phd ...
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 31, 2023 at 15:09
  • How much knowledge gain you should "feel" during your PhD: openculture.com/2017/06/… Basically nothing. And that nothing will costs an enduring effort that cannot be sped up.
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 31, 2023 at 15:13

10 Answers 10

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My advice is to start with the therapist as soon as possible and discuss all these issues and your options with them.

Raise the issue of Imposter Syndrome with them if they don't.

Raise the issue of burn out with them if they don't.

Raise the issue of Extreme Introversion with them, if you think you might suffer from it and explore how to compensate for this. But even exploring it with a counsellor can be hard if you have this issue.

I suggest that you don't make any life changing decisions before you spend some time with a qualified counsellor. One that is familiar with the pressures of academia would be best, perhaps, but that isn't my field.


Personal note. I never had Imposter issues, but I definitely had issues with the other two things mentioned and both set me back. A counsellor helped me through the last, though it also took years of practice.

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    I agree that the OP should take some time to clear up his headspace before making such a decision. But I am bothered by the quickness with which the suggestion of "imposter syndrome" is usually made on such posts. There are likely significant downsides to collectively erring on the side of faith when competence is statistically rare and entrance standards have been gradually eroded over the last few decades. We can no longer be as reliant on the ability of admissions processes to filter out those who would become imposters. Nov 1, 2023 at 3:30
  • 1
    Thank you for that answer. I don't feel like imposter syndrom is an issue for me (maybe it is but I don't see it). However, I truly recognize myself in the issue of extreme introversion. I didn't know this existed, so thank you very much for telling me about that.
    – Droidux
    Nov 2, 2023 at 8:42
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You definitely should not make major changes to your life plans if you are feeling unusual emotions, relative to your past experience. Talk to a mental health professional.

Ignoring your personal situation, my advice to anyone starting a PhD is: Do not get a PhD unless you are sure you want to get a PhD. Try not to consider

  • Other people's opinions, including social status
  • Other people's needs
  • Your emotions

Do try to consider

  • Short term benefits of a PhD
  • Long term benefits of a PhD
  • Opportunity cost (It's massive!)
  • Some jobs will not hire you if you have a PhD
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  • 3
    Agreed. The poster needs to be able to clearly distinguish between 1) my dissatisfaction with this PhD path is making me depressed and 2) I am depressed and therefore am feeling dissatisfied with this thing I had previously dreamed of doing. Unfortunately that is difficult when in the midst of it without some outside help.
    – Dawn
    Nov 1, 2023 at 17:48
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    Yes, distinguishing between the two is not easy at the moment. I think there is a bit of both.
    – Droidux
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:51
  • Should it say "Some jobs will not hire you if you don't have a PhD" ? May 16 at 16:26
  • @DavidRaveh No. May 16 at 19:03
  • @AnonymousPhysicist would you mind explaining that line then? What job wouldn't hire a PhD on principle? May 16 at 20:24
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Take it easy.

A PhD is not a sprint, it is a marathon.

And writing the thesis is another marathon. You cannot be quick. You cannot do or understand anything in one month. Or in 3.

Sleep well, eat well, exercise regulary, take it easy, do not expect anything good or new or interesting before at least one year into your phd.

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Sorry my answer is not mine. I usually relate this answer to every aspect of my life, work, career, relationships.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke

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First, be aware that the beginning of new things––jobs, education, moving to a new town or house––often feels strange, uncomfortable, and sometimes wrong. If the thing (in this case your PhD program) is fundamentally right for you, over time you will find ways to make it work for you. But if it’s fundamentally wrong, you won’t adapt. So how can you know whether your program is right or wrong for you on a deep level? It sounds like you need some time off to think this through. Is this possible for you to do?

If I were in your place, I would give a lot of thought to basic and important questions about your values, your mission in life, your goals, the lifestyle you want, where you want to live, who you want to associate with, etc. Examine your interests and skills. I would write all that down, study it, and ask what career choices would allow you to manifest and use those internal drivers. A life coach could help you with this phase.

Next it’s time to think concretely about your current dilemma. I use two steps to solve problems like this. First, I think about the problem very analytically. I make charts with different solutions, the advantages and disadvantages of each one, ways to overcome obstacles associated with each solution, etc. I use a numerical rating system to compare the desirability of each course of action and the importance of advantages and disadvantages of each choice. The next step to is to test your chosen course of action intuitively. Close your eyes and imagine doing each one. Does your energy rise or fall when you imagine each one? Does your intuitive feeling match your intellectual analysis?

In hindsight, it might have been better to take a year off after your master’s. At this point you have choices. You are free to take the time to step back and contemplate your situation. Personally, I prefer life coaching over therapy because life coaching directs your attention to fundamental life questions beyond immediate events and feelings.

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I'm adding a few cents of my experience of starting a Ph.D. Even though they won't apply to the OP anymore, they might help someone else in a similar situation.

I felt really upset and depressed in the first month of my Ph.D. The reasons were, I really missed my family, even though I moved to a new country with my husband, I missed the comfort of the home I had, and I was still in a bit of a shock of resigning from my job to embark on a Ph.D. because I didn't have enough time to understand and process how big of a decision that was for me. Adding to this was a temporary accommodation which didn't feel like home, a season of rainy weather, and feeling lost of what I should really be doing as a Ph.D. student. I made a poor decision in that first month to isolate myself from my research group. My advisor was organizing a team building in that first month after I joined and the morning of that event I woke up with a sense of dread and couldn't get myself to go, and I just stayed in bed.

At the same time, I knew I wanted to do research. I've been wanting to become a scientist for many years prior to starting a Ph.D. Little by little, in the next months I pushed myself to get to know my new colleagues and to talk with my advisor about the plans forward. I started to organize my new apartment so that it felt more like "my place", I started to learn my way around the town, I found places I could go running to, etc. It started to get better, little by little, and in the end, my Ph.D. was the most rewarding and fulfilling experience I have achieved in my life so far.

So the upshot is: These feelings don't necessarily tell you the truth about your Ph.D. program or your research path. They might simply signal that other parts of your life just got different and you have to learn to navigate them, make sense of them, and get accustomed to them. Yes, for the moment, you don't have access to the joy of doing research, or the enthusiasm of the idea of becoming a scientist, but that's because some other important things need to be sorted out. Things that can help:

  • Stay engaged with your colleagues, your advisor, other Ph.D. students in your group. Spend some time to get to know them, go out for lunch together, join the coffee break, even if at times you'll have to force yourself to do that. But also call your family and friends every once in a while.
  • Talk "big picture" with your advisor. Have a meeting at which your advisor could paint some vision for what you could tackle in your Ph.D. Chances are that once you see more clearly what exciting research project you could do in the next 4 years (like, what your first paper might be on), you'll start to re-gain excitement for your work. You'll start to see the reason for why you're here.
  • Just let more time pass for you to gain familiarity with the new accommodation, new campus, new streets, new parks, new products on the supermarket shelves...

I have just recently started a postdoctoral appointment and the first month felt hard again (changing countries again, etc.), but this time I just keep repeating in my head a passage from a Grateful Dead song: "The first days are the hardest days." That Ph.D. experience taught me that some things just need time to get accustomed to. And now I'm taking every chance I have to go out for lunch together with my colleagues!

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I think a PhD is a long-run way. Try to love what you are doing. Take everything easy. And love your body! If you feel tired, take a rest. Then continue when you have recovered!

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I feel very lost because my goal was always to become a scientist after finishing these last three years, but now I am pretty sure that this does not fit me.

First of all you have to take time and contemplate why you want to be a scientist and to understand what it means to be one. Do you want to be a Professor? a Researcher? Consider what would be your work environment in the future. A researcher doesn't do research, the people below him/her/they do the actual work. To arrive to the "Researcher" point you will have to bear a lot of mental health issues in order to survive the "marathon" the fellow academics here discuss.

If you think that you can land a job directly in industry (in artificial intelligence for example) then maybe that is a way better career for your future.

Read some references: The challenges and mental health issues of academic trainees Working in industry vs academia Ten Simple Rules for Choosing between Industry and Academia

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(1) First, like others have said: 1 month is nothing in the context of a PhD thesis and you should not make any harsh decisions after only one month. Try to give it your best for at least 3 months and then reconsider. How to give it your best?

  • talk to your advisor to really clarify the goals of the PhD
  • read lots of papers on your topic, maybe write a review, think about which important questions haven’t been answered yet, loop back to your advisor to refine them.
  • in parallel, talk to as many scientist colleagues as you can, ask them about their job, the pros and cons of the job, do they have any regrets and do these seem major to you, shadow them in their daily work to gain better understanding of what they actually do. The work of a researcher / scientist is very multifaceted.

In addition, following your edit:

I just want to clarify that I am not afraid or worried about not knowing/learning/understanding the subject. The work I have to do is clear to me. But I have the growing sensation of being trapped in it for the upcoming 3 years. I feel like this is not for me.

(2) You say “the work I have to do is clear for me”. That is actually very surprising for a 1-month-new PhD student. You should instead be very confused and overwhelmed (but also excited) at this stage. This might indicate that you haven’t fully grasped what doing a PhD entails, so see point 1.

(3) Still, let’s consider the situation where you do know exactly what the path forward is and you realized that you are not interested in the kind of work that research entails (reading and understanding papers, thinking of experiments or models, implementing those, discussing with colleagues, training students, teaching, writing papers, going to conferences etc). Let’s say you know exactly what awaits you in an academic’s life and you like nothing in it. Then you should definitely look for other options and decide if those seem more adapted to your personality, abilities and life goals. It is actually better to leave early, that way you will avoid the sunk cost fallacy of working for something that is failing for so long that you can’t ever stop working on it.

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I think you should pivot your work to something that excites you and makes you want to get up in the morning and work on the problem. Just cut me in just reframing your card work into something that's more meaningful to your circumstances, or it could mean combining it with a different field. How about ecology and computer science?

I also feel you should be more specific in your goals so that you can measure how close you are to achieving them.

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