I've been studying for my PhD in Sweden (I moved from the UK in January 2014). It's been alright. I've had difficulties before, and I've thought of quitting it, but I pushed through. I don't speak the language, but I'm in an academic environment where everyone speaks English anyway. I've got on with people here, but being back with my parents for Christmas has made me realise just how much I miss things here.

I can't afford a city apartment abroad, so I live with a family as a lodger in the countryside. I can never quite relax there. It's an old house with thin walls and easily damaged doors, so I have to take care with everything. I have a small room and I don't quite feel comfortable expressing myself around somewhat-strangers. We get on, but I never feel comfortable speaking with them, and they don't really know me. I can't really move out either, since I would be moving on in six months as per the program, and would it really be worth it to find a new place for that amount of time?

Folks at work are nice, but I've never felt completely comfortable around them either. We just have different interests and are different ages. They're nice, but I've felt the urge to prove myself and do well and that's isolated me. There is a LOT of support available, but somehow I still find things difficult. Socialising outside of work is very hard due to the language barrier, the distance from the city (which makes weekends abysmally dull unless I want to spend all day on a trip to the shops) and the way things are organised there. It's not impossible, but it takes great effort.

It's not necessarily the work which is getting me down, but I've realised that I've gotten by this year by devoting myself to work. I've made many mistakes (not all of which can be cleared up), but my supervisor doesn't really mind and still thinks I've done well enough. He's probably right, but as I'm so focused on work I notice all the possible small mistakes, and when they could come back to bite me. And that sucks. I do dread going back to work, as I will have to finish this project somehow, and it won't be as good as I had hoped it would have been. But I will finish it.

Some of the later projects (in my department we work on several different but related papers for a PhD) so seem better, and I can usually get back into things, but I don't have a burning passion for the field. I took the PhD because I was struggling to find a job, and I was considering academia. The PhD was related to what I considered that I wanted to study in the future, and my old masters supervisor recommended it.

As I've said, this isn't the first time I've had doubts. Last year I had a very bad period when I wanted to quit too, but it passed when I felt like I was doing better. Every time I'm back in the UK for a few weeks or longer I feel even more rubbish going back, because things are so much easier here. I know my way around, I speak the language, I have friends I can easily relate to and family nearby that loves me... And it'll only get worse when I have to move to Australia in six months for the next part of my PhD, as the PhD is jointly hosted with another uni in Sydney.

I really feel like I want to come back to the UK. I'm not even sure a PhD is right for me; sometimes it feels okay, but it never quite feels wonderful. It feels more like a job than a life. I'm already on medication for depression/bipolar, and I'm autistic too, if that makes a difference. I get the feeling that I just want to be around folks who get me, which for me seems rare to find over there in an environment so devoted to work.

I feel so lonely right now. I have such an empty life, and it sucks so much. Even this kind of work feels kind of wrong for me too: I don't want to be stuck in an office doing facts and figures forever, especially not for four years. I always thought it was what I wanted, but now I feel like I'd much rather go out and help people somehow as my life's work, or find a boring-but-menial job and focus my life outside of that. Even without my work problems, I've felt like this for at least six months. My PhD seems like a temporary thing to me now, and after it I hope to do something else. But four years like this? I'm not sure if I could handle that.

My passion for my work has gone, I suppose.

There are other things to consider too: I'm transgender, and still struggling to get hormone replacement therapy. Sweden is supportive, but they're told me it'd take a year to begin due to the necessary psychological tests. Which I've already done in the UK. Every time I go somewhere else I have to start the whole thing again.

I am scared that I just feel this way because I'm afraid of how my project will turn out. I'm going to go back and get it done, and see how I feel then, but even then I think I'm afraid I'll just slip back into feeling generally miserable again.

  • 2
    Hi, and welcome to Academia.SE. I think your question may already be addressed by How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student? and some other similar questions on the site. Although everybody's experience is unique, the kind of discouragement you are facing is very common, and you may find useful advice in the questions that have already been asked.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 17:47
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    I'm already on medication for depression/bipolar, and I'm autistic too, if that makes a difference. Based on what you've described, you should probably check up with your doctor to get evaluated. I know that incorrect dosing either way tends to turn people wonky from personal experience, and the amount of stressors you have in your life right now is higher than normal as well.
    – Compass
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 18:33
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    As with other comments and the answer, it sounds like the issues are not about the PhD itself, but about dislocation and other larger psychological issues. Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 19:24
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    On the bright side, if/when you move to Australia, the language barrier will pretty much go away. This may make it easier for you to feel connected there, although it may take time to develop those connections.
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 20:36
  • 3
    @jakebeal I don't think it's a duplicate - this question is more about the experience of being a student in a foreign country. The answers to the other question on discouragement about research don't fully apply. I think this is probably an issue faced by a lot of international students.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 22:21

6 Answers 6


The other answers are excellent, but let me add one thing:

I don't speak the language, but I'm in an academic environment where everyone speaks English anyway.

Believe me - this is a great misunderstanding (though it is a common one). I work at a University (and did my PhD there) in another country as well - but i do speak the language, just as many - but not all - of my international colleagues. Also in our department, most official stuff is done in English, and people are happy to speak English with new colleagues who don't speak the local language.

But this can actually be pretty dangerous as well: It creates the false impression that learning the local language is not neccessary. Technically speaking, it indeed isn't. But actually, it is. It is simply impossible to feel at home if you cannot do any normal stuff without everyone else having to make an effort they wouldn't make if you weren't there. Yes, people might be fluent in English. But that it something different than actually wanting to talk English (= your mother tongue, not theirs!) all the time. To be honest, I think it is perfectly understandable if you go out for a beer after work and you know that inviting person X to join would result in having to speak another language the whole evening, that people don't invite X.

You are the only one who can decide whether to quit or not. But let me give you an advice: Learn the language. In fact, the very act of taking such a class gives you many new contacts as well, and you might find some friends there as well.

Good luck and all the best!

  • 7
    I really agree with this answer. I can't imagine how to become integrated without at least trying to learn the local language. Even without actually speaking the language, learning it is a huge advantage and provides motivation.
    – TZDZ
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 15:08
  • Extremely good point, which too few people are aware of. However, I gave another answer my upvote here, because if I were a betting person, I would not bet on this resolving this particular OP's situation. Reason being that--and I speak from experience--as a native English speaker living in a country where English is huge as a second language, especially among educated folk (which OP is), if you really want to learn the local language, you must be extremely self-motivated and relentlessly persistent, as you cannot rely on the situation to force you, or even necessarily on others'
    – laur34
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 12:44
  • help and encouragement. And unfortunately, someone who is depressed, homesick, autistic (issues with socializing makes this even harder) and already does not feel at home for other reasons, plus will be leaving in a matter of months, probably does not have it in them. But I could be wrong, of course.
    – laur34
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 12:44

Even before you mentioned it, reading your detailed description made me wonder if you might be dealing with depression.

A lot of what you feel is likely due to that. A depressed person is unlikely to feel passion (or what you think that might be) for anything. Feeling a burning void, a lack of purpose, are common, and would probably be with you whatever you target (I am depressed and empathize).

Yes, going home helps, as you say, as you have a support network there. Sweden must be among the better countries to actively support uncommon life circumstances - transgender, depressed, autistic; and you indicate that you feel tolerance (I don't know as much about Australia). Before you drop out, and fall into a possible alternate void in part because of how your mind is wired, I'd strongly consider finding an analyst in Sweden, and working on opening up and finding support in Sweden (transgender groups, other depressed people, people at your school, giving your guest family a shot, and talking to your adviser). I don't know how hard that is considering you say that you are autistic too, but it really is essential to not feel alone; and I see no way around trying.

I would make that my primary focus for the next 6 months, also considering that - for some - depression peaks in winter. If you still feel the same then, I would consider asking for a break of your PhD first before completely dropping out. If granted, try to work as an intern or such in one of the other fields you mention, and see how that feels. My guess though is that it wouldn't necessarily be all that different as long as your depression is strong, but you would have an actual point of comparison.


You are the one who gets to decide what constitutes a valid reason for dropping out of a PhD program. Feeling lonely and uncomfortable is a valid reason for ceasing to do almost anything if the feelings are intense enough.

The situation of studying abroad in a foreign country where you don't speak the language and don't have an ideal living situation is well known to be difficult. I was an American living in Montreal on a work permit for two and a half years (as a postdoc, not a student). This is certainly the easy end of the spectrum -- how many people living abroad can take a bus to their hometown? -- but it was more difficult than I was expecting it to be. That said, this is a relatively common difficult situation which many people do get through and even come to enjoy.

You also mentioned that you are bipolar, autistic and are transgendered. Not only transgendered but in a transitional state which is being impeded by your living in a foreign country. Wow, that's a lot of stuff to deal with at once. Again, you are the one to decide whether it's too much stuff, but I have little doubt that it would be too much for me. If it were me, I would only continue as a student if the PhD program were going amazingly, excitingly well, to the extent that I could clearly see the wonderful academic career that these personal hardships and sacrifices are setting up. It doesn't sound like your program is going that well, and more importantly it sounds like the prospect of a future academic career is not a source of deep pleasure and satisfaction to you.

In summary, you sound like you are quite unhappy, and you are in a situation in which those feelings are more than justified. What one life change, however large or small, would make you more happy and fulfilled? That's a tough question and one worth really thinking over. If the answer is "Dropping out of the PhD program and moving back to your home country": great, because you can absolutely do that. If it's something else, try doing that first and see what happens.

Good luck.

  • 2
    Yes, coping with (if not "solving") one problem at a time is already toward the limit of human capacity, so to feel over-loaded, in the first place, is entirely reasonable already with just 1+ issues, not to mention 3-or-so. One should not be pointlessly lazy or self-indulgent, sure, but also not go to the opposite extreme of demanding trans-human strength, focus, etc. One cannot hold one's breath forever, for example. The living situation alone, offering no genuine respite from the alien-ness of the larger environment, would be hard for me to take... Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 23:05

Don't sweat it, what you feel is perfectly natural. I moved to the US when I was 19 and the first year did suck. It just takes a while to get used to the country, meet people you have things in common, get a car etc, etc.

You already spent a year, I think you'll soon find that the worst is over, just stick with it, get your PhD and with that in hand you can do pretty much whatever you want. You can go in academia, you move to the private sector or whatever.

If you are worried about your job, go talk to the manager. I'm sure you are doing just fine, everyone makes mistakes, even seasoned professionals who should know better, just be honest about it and fix it.

Try meeting other English speakers, I would imagine that Sweden has a sizable British, Americans etc community. Check with the local universities, embassies often have mixers where you can meet people.

I would seriously consider getting a car or moving somewhere closer to town. Get a roommate if you can, that way it's cheaper and you get someone to hang out with. Having a place to go home where you can feel comfortable is super important, it will make you feel much better.


It's normal to feel this way at the beginning, but once These Feelings persist for longer than a month or two, then they cease from simply being the normal 'moving to a new environment' jitters. I say, if it does not suit you, and the programs benefits are not worth it enough for you to stay (e.g. you may be more likely to get a secure Job, but it may be in Sweden, still away from Family and/or you may not be happy with that Position, as is already what seems to be the case from reading your Story), then I do not see the harm in either taking abreak or stopping indefinitely. Sure, the work that you have already completed would have lost its value, but in the Long run, you will thank yourself tremendously for making a decision that would inform your happiness. Another alternative is to enjoy your own Company and seek out at least one like-minded individual by joining an Organisation or speaking to someone within your course of study about going out for Drinks, etc. Never allow your emotions to control you, rather, you control your emotions by doing what is best for yourself in both the short and Long run. Hey, maybe sacrificing a bit of happiness now may yield your happiness for the rest of your life once the program is over and you are more financially stable. True, Money does not bring happiness, but lack thereof is just as burdensome.


Phds are seldom easy. It does get better afterwards (postdocs/professors have way more say in what/how they do stuff). Indeed, what I'm doing now has little relation to what I did during the phd...

All these doubts and insecurities are common. But I'll reinforce the advice: go for professional psychological support. I know from experience that helps, and you have a lot going on :) And, maybe, a hobby, something to take your head of stuff for a while... If you go to australia, try to get a more confortable place to live. For me at least, it really helped...

IMHO, the decision of continuing or not is almost irrelevant. You will do what you think its best and live with it, which is nothing new for you. I would only say that it wouldn't be very wise to decide stuff that is that important while feeling that bad. Clearheaded decisions are always best, but not always possible :)

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