I am currently a third year PhD student of pure mathematics.

I've been dealing with a feeling of burn out for a long time now. Quite frankly I struggle to find interest in anything related to my branch of science right now and am all but fully decided not to pursue academic career afterwards anyway. This furthers the feeling of disinterest in my field as anything I do seems irrelevant to me in the future.

Furthermore, I have a major personality clash with my supervisor in that I would like to approach PhD as a regular job, establishing a routine et caetera, while he is a very spontaneous person, often coming up with a brilliant idea in the middle of the night and wanting to share it ASAP. Also I am sure that if I told him I want to abandon academia he would be quite disappointed in me (to put it mildly).

Because of that I find it very hard to motivate myself to read papers or even textbooks on my chosen subject. The feeling of falling behind furthers the depression and inability to progress in anything. While everyone talks about how much new skills and knowledge they have mastered throughout their PhD, I feel as if I haven't learned almost anything new since I finished my Masters. I look at my PhD and don't know what I can do to make it better and I am very unsatisfied with how it is going so far. I thought that maybe trying to just write up everything I have so far would rekindle the motivation in that I would at least see I already have 20/50/100/whatever pages worth of work, but just thinking of writing everything up is so intimidating I am unable to even start doing it.

I feel like a terrible student and a horrible person in that I am wasting so much time I am, in principle, getting paid for (from my funding). What can I do to get as much out of my PhD as possible and to finish it to satisfaction of all interested parties?

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    You are not a horrible person for struggling during your PHD. The quality of who you are has nothing to do with your PHD performance. This sounds like depression (i am not qualified to provide a diagnose) and you should prhaps consider seeking professional help.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 10:02
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  • Check out the similar question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/28257/…
    – o-0
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 11:09
  • Seems like you could make the decision between getting your PHD and experiencing happiness every now and then Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 15:03
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    @JonathanHayward His advisor wanting to share an idea might means he just sends the OP an email. You could be offline at night if you do not want to be bothered by emails at night.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 16:56

1 Answer 1


Although I agree it may be worth considering whether you're suffering from depression as Alexandros suggested in his comment, and it's something you should bear in mind. However, I think that's either a symptom or a related-but-not-the-main-problem-here-problem. This seems to be, at the core, a case of professional burnout. Possible triggered by depression, possibly causing you to feel depressed, and certainly something you should bear in mind if you feel it is affecting your life: but for the rest of this answer I'll focus on the direct issue, while suggesting you consider seeing a counselor.

You've likely been in education or academia for the last 20 years or so by now, possibly including 3-6 at your current institution, and perhaps you need a change. If you were in the working world, you'd probably be starting to look for other opportunities if you felt like this: moving on to pastures new, the next challenge, something which interests you. This is pretty common at this stage of a career, most people move on from their first job within 2-4 years of graduation (as an undergrad). If you see your PhD as employment following your degree (albeit one that confers another degree) you can draw the parallel (lol, maths joke)

Unfortunately with a PhD, you're "locked in" for a fixed period. You have a vested interest in time and, likely, money, along with a concern that if you back out of it before it's completed, it will look bad on your resume.

It's certainly a slightly tricky problem to negotiate, but let's look at your options

  1. Continue with the PhD, battle through, get it done and then look at what you really want to do. This has the advantage that you'll complete the task, which looks good on your Resume, but may be too much if you're still fairly early in your PhD

  2. Back out gracefully. Accept that you've made a mistake in your career path, apologise to your supervisor that you've only realised this now and then move on with your life in the direction you'd like to go. Your supervisor will likely be disappointed, yes, but I hugely doubt he will think any less of you. People change their mind, people realize that they're on the wrong career path all the time, and people involved in education tend to understand that. His disappointment will not be that you've upset him, but because he almost certainly believes you will be an asset to the discipline/department.

  3. Try to change the current situation - talk to your tutor and explain your issues and concern. See if there's any "wriggle room" for changing the approach and the way you interact. State it tactfully, in a "Would it be possible to try xyz, which I think will help me because abc and def" way, rather than a "You do abc, and it annoys me". This may help you to actually enjoy the PhD for a while.

My personal opinion is that you're better off backing out unless you're in the last 18 months of the PhD (in which case you've already invested a lot of time/effort and it's probably worth powering through). If you intend to move away from Academia, you probably don't really need a PhD anyway, and I think it's better to cut your losses and go find something you really want to do.

I'd also recommending this answer which covers some of what I've just said, but also some things I haven't.

  • Thank you Jon for this answer. I am past the 18 month mark so I will (try to) power through, but all these insights (and encouragement) are very helpful.
    – Severn
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 9:57
  • Past 18 months, irrespective of the time frame of the PhD? In my institution, PhDs are between 3 to 3 years and 9 months roughly. So potentially, 18 months could be halfway, which might not be 'in too deep', depending on how you would look at it.
    – A.T.Ad
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 4:08

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