I'm a year into my PhD (electrical engineering). I loved my topic from the beginning, and the direction in which my research is going. My advisor is also a really understanding and experienced Prof.. However, I am an international student here (Netherlands) and I don't like living here. I cannot necessarily point out one particular aspect of it, but life in general doesn't "feel happy" and is now getting to me. The place where I live is also kinda dull. I doubt I could go on like this for 3 more years. Normally, in times of stress elsewhere, the social aspects or something outside work always brought up my motivation, without really trying. That here is seriously lacking, at least from my perspective.

I find the university's attitude towards international students a bit indifferent. And, I dislike the graduate school. Its very disorganized. I would like to point out that I have lived in many places before (in and outside my home country) and this isn't the first time I got out of my house. I even have 3 years of work experience. I enjoyed studying in the US and made good friends easily. May be it was just accidental, I don't really know.

To make things worse, my phd is associated with a project, which is a highly disorganized, almost a bloody joke and would mostly get worse over time. I knew this earlier, but thought it would get better. It isn't. People in the project aren't thinking like engineers, sometimes ignoring physics, in short. This causes a lot of stress sometimes and could affect my research output itself. Having said that, my output for the past few months is not great either, due to stress, but I see that as a temporary thing.

I am contemplating quitting the PhD but continue to work on the research, from my home country, without a job/salary, to do justice to the topic. I haven't communicated this to my prof. yet, but he knows I have second thoughts. I came here only for the love of science, to improve my skills and not to escape my country (may be the general mentality in my country towards research, however, its not good here either). Having said that, I'm open to new cultures, people, etc. There are limits though. Reports of rising xenophobia in Europe also bother me at times, worrying about how it would escalate in the future.

In short, I feel the cons are outweighing the pros (funded phd, awesome topic, good prof.) and the cons might invoke lot more stress in the long run. I have no issues with the stress of learning and discovery itself. I understand that this is the essential stress. What I find difficult (and made me quit jobs) is the stress caused by bad policies/ attitude, peers, society, etc. And I find putting up with these things a waste of time and mental energy.

I would appreciate your opinion or recommendation on quitting in such a situation. Thanks for reading

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    You mention your advisor is very understanding. If I were you, I would talk to my advisor and see if he has any advice and if he can do something about getting the project in shape. Just be honest and take your time to make your mind up. Take a holiday if necessary to clear your mind and stress. Jun 11, 2014 at 22:06
  • Thanks. I took a holiday few months ago, when my anxiety levels were really bad, but I can't keep doing it. Contract is limited. I would be seeing him in some time. The project has bad management issues and too many partners. He can only suggest. Then again, the weather changes too much too often and the apartment situation is bad. Heating is not always working, same with the univ.. I didn't anticipate compromising basic living conditions when I moved here. With anxiety I only get more sensitive to these issues. I fear, I might suddenly quit later out of frustration.
    – Slash
    Jun 12, 2014 at 0:03
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    We can't tell you what you should do. But do remember that it's okay to walk away.
    – JeffE
    Jun 12, 2014 at 1:05
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    I can sympathize with the social aspect - how much Dutch do you know? Almost everyone speaks excellent English, but you'll feel better integrated if you try to learn the language (and the language courses are a great way to meet other students who are new to the country).
    – Moriarty
    Jun 12, 2014 at 8:35
  • I can read some and I interpolate the rest. If I focus hard, I can understand what the locals say. While I was eager to learn it and all when I got here, I realized that I barely got time to work on my hobby, playing guitar/ composing. Then again, that's mental work and can be tiring at times. I'll consider learning dutch my head's a bit free. As of now, grasping things/ concentrating, in general, has become very difficult.
    – Slash
    Jun 12, 2014 at 18:52

2 Answers 2


I am not international, but understand what you're going through. In fact, when I was in undergraduate, I had an Italian friend in your exact position who left after a year to go to graduate school in Europe...so it certainly does happen. A couple pieces of advice:

1) have a plan for where you are going before you leave. I'm not sure about the Netherlands, but the economy in the US is not completely back to normal and it can take time to find (good work)...even for well educated folks. As you said, having a funded PhDs is a pro, so don't waste it! At the very least, use this time to study all of your interests, not just your dissertation topic. For example, if you want to become a computer programmer, master some languages, contribute to some projects and document your work on (e.g.) GitHub. This can help out A LOT if you decide to leave.

2) having a good advisor and topic are the most important pros. I live in a great place (nyc area) with great friends...but my advisor and I have communication issues (I chose poorly) and my topic is not so interesting. For me, these cons (sort of) cancel out the pros as they make life miserable more often than not. On the other hand, if you live in the middle of nowhere...I can understand why you'd want to leave...but you may not find such a great advisor and topic elsewhere!

At the end of the day, of course, you have to choose for yourself. But I would say that if you are currently doing what you want to do and/or this is the kind of work you would like to do after leaving/graduating, then you should stay. At least until something comes along you know would be better for you. Plus, things could get better for you at school within the next year or so (graduate school is long) and the you would be leaving for no good reason!

Good luck!


I'll start with telling you in short about my analogous situation and how I cope with it, then I will suggest my ideas for you.
In my country we have a much loathed system where everyone participates in mass exams and the top x people who chose a particular school in a particular university make it in. This has placed me 200km from my home, which in a country about 1000km across is considered a little far from home. I hate the place I stay in but will not move out because it's practically outside the university, in one year of studies I only found one great professor in my field, the other decent professors are into areas indifferent to me (I am into software, they teach hardware), or teach math and physics. As for classes with other professors, they are generally ridiculous and to pass them you have to rely on open courseware and books. Also the school is disorganized and this has cost me, semester exams are incoherent, while it's hard to find out about any papers you might need for a class, changes in the schedule and so on. In short, I can't wait to get out of here.

My approach:
What I do to compensate is work on my own on stuff, I am aiming to get Microsoft and Oracle certifications in summer, have participated in an international contest held by Microsoft (nothing achieved but they know my name at least, and gave some good comments), and am up-first in the list of new Microsoft student partners for October (the whole Microsoft thing is because it's the only company that opens doors to students in the area). I am more specifically headed for game programming and thus have started learning the systems of Unreal and Crytek, and am trying to write lots of tutorials on my webpage, which I see many others saying that is what earned them their job.
The result:
Essentially, I see this as defying the awful circumstances and trying to surpass the diploma of CS I will get in 4 years (I also have more personal reasons), because professors are indifferent, incompetent, or anything else, and I get to forget about where I am. It is also said that when one gets through something hard, the best chance he's got is getting devoted to work. Looking back at these 8-9 months, I realize that 85% or so of the progress was done in the last 4 months, and the rate with which I advance grows exponentially (though exams have brought it to a halt currently). It has been lots of fun, I now know a few people who are graduating next year and sooner or later will be in the industry, and I have stuff to write about in my CV.

Bringing it to your needs:
Talk to the professor and see if the system there will allow you to switch to another project or work on one you pick and start yourself, this way you have a clean project and make sure the team is reliable and serious about it. You can also see if you can reboot the Phd altogether. I will insist on starting your own side projects, and try to see what the world thinks of them, it is very rewarding. It will also prove your point to the professor that you are serious about your work and held back by the others. Even if you do quit, when interviewed for another PhD you can show your work and show them the exact same thing, that you are good in what you do but will require them to give you at least a neutral environment.
In any case, see if you can change the project or the team, or if you can reboot the PhD, if you decide it is insufferable and see no way out of it, make sure you have already started your own projects and work, and look for another PhD you are interested in, since you have started for a PhD, make sure you get one, whether it be there or elsewhere, otherwise you are taking a step backwards. Whatever you do though, I insist that you start a project of your own, that fascinates you, straight away, and as soon as you have something you can show, make sure one can verify that you are indeed doing it. I hope I helped in any way, I am in a similar situation psychologically so i thought I should share my experience.

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