I'm a fifth year graduate student in the life sciences. To cut to the chase, I hate this PhD, I hate research and I hate academia. It didn't used to be this way.

I have been juggling three different projects and none of them are at the stage where something can be published. One of them was a pilot project, something that my lab or even my advisor has no expertise or basic knowledge for that matter. I have pretty much figured things on my own until we got a collaborator who really helped train me and has gotten this project off the ground. But now my advisor has decided to give this project that now has all the resources, grants etc to a new student.

I'm left with two other projects that are about 3/4th complete but there are quite a bit of holes to fill in. I could probably finish it in the next one year or so and that's what I thought i will do.

But my advisor is not an advisor at all. She thinks I have wasted my time and now I'm left with a lot of work to do. She has told me that several times - that I'm not a hard worker and I am not like X or Y in the lab who pretty much live in the lab and have no life outside. I work 10-6 pm everyday and I know that's not a lot in the PhD world, but I feel like I am not productive beyond that. I also work on most weekends. In the past year, I have really tried to motivate myself and get as much work done as possible. Everyone around me says I'm so close and I should just stick it out for another year.

But my advisor keeps telling me that I will never graduate if I don't pick up my pace. No matter how much data I give her, she says this is not fast enough. Also she makes me re-do a lot of it if the data suggests something she doesn't agree with. She has a very narrow mindset and hates being wrong. She always chooses, seminars or committee meetings to tell me that my data is shit and my interpretations are meaningless. And of course, that I am a slacker and I'm useless.

My self-confidence is at an all-time low. I'm depressed and anxious all the time. The thought of lab or my advisor makes me want to run away from all this. To make things worse, my husband just got a job across the country and I see him once a month at the most. Ours has always been a long distance marriage so I'm not a rookie but I think I'm at a point where I really need a support system outside of lab. I have no family around as I'm an international student.

I'm so miserable all the time and I just want this agony to end. I finally gathered the courage to tell my advisor I want to quit with a masters. She is furious - she told me she is disappointed in me (no surprise there) and she has spent a lot of grant money on my stipend and I owe it to her to publish. My department requires advisors to pay a stipend to every student. And it's not like I have not worked at all. She has added guilt and shame to the wide range of negative emotions I'm already feeling. She says I have wasted her money and done no work.

Anyway, I'm trying to negotiate a masters so I can get out and try to find a job. I need to do something that makes me happy and regain my confidence. I don't even care what I do anymore, I just don't want to feel this way anymore. She is making it hard for me to leave. There is no one in the department that I trust will really help me out. My advisor is powerful and i don't know if anyone can change her mind.

I can't take a break, that is not an option. What do I do? I just want to be told it's okay to leave. People leave jobs all the time but there is so much shame associated with leaving a phd. I also want to know if I can still find jobs in the industry. Please help. Thanks

  • 27
    I just want to be told it's okay to leave. — Yes, it is OK to leave.
    – Mad Jack
    Mar 21, 2015 at 13:41
  • 10
    "There is so much shame associated with leaving a phd". No, there is not. Many people drop out of their PhD all the time.
    – Alexandros
    Mar 21, 2015 at 13:47
  • 6
    It would be helpful if, after cooling off for a few hours, you could edit your question to organize it better. I suggest focusing on a brief description of your situation and solutions you are considering, as opposed to a lengthy "wall of text" narrative of complaints. The goal of this site is to collect questions and answers that can be a useful repository of information for future users. I don't think the current form of your post achieves that. Mar 21, 2015 at 15:48
  • First of all, I would like to thank everyone for taking time to offer advice. To clear things up, the pilot project took a lot of time to take off. It's probably not the best one to work on if I want to graduate in the near future. So I get why she decided to pass it off. My problem is that she seems to have forgotten that it still did take a lot of my time and energy. Also, my husband is very supportive. He has seen me become a sad, miserable person with very low self-esteem and he wants that to change. He is okay with any decision as long as it makes me happy. I just don't want to sacrifice
    – xyz
    Mar 21, 2015 at 16:13
  • 3
    Now we're almost a year after :) If you chose to stay, you're into your 6th year already, this is hard I know - and I hope everything is fine with you. Whenever I read such kind of question (questions about dealing with negative situations or negative emotions), I have a feeling that any advice you take, any change you decide to make, any paths you decide to take... they all take some times to show where they lead to :) Sometimes the asker come back and give their update(s) right in the question. If possible, it would be nice if you can share your journey after asking the question :)
    – Jim Raynor
    Mar 9, 2016 at 9:43

4 Answers 4


"I work 10-6 pm everyday and I know that's not a lot in the PhD world, but I feel like I am not productive beyond that."

This is a particularly important insight.

When I had successfully defended my prospectus and was officially "all but dissertation" (with the privilege of working on my own self-selected and self-directed topic, with input from my committee) I discovered pretty quickly that for this research—about which I was both intellectually and emotionally passionate—I had about 4 to 5 hours of productive work to give to my dissertation each day. Moreover, simply sitting at my office desk not being productive did not actually measure up as "productivity".

So I adjusted my expectations to 4 to 5 hours of productive work, and gave myself license for other pursuits for the other hours of my day. Some of these other pursuits were academic: that software I wanted to write; the syllabi for those courses that I wished I could have taken, but they didn't exist, so I wanted to teach them some day; reading to learn new theories, methods, and substantive research; taking courses and attending intensive workshops. All of these "extra" activities have parlayed directly into my subsequent academic work and hires.

Some of the other pursuits were not academic: I walked in the park, went to museums, engaged in art, sport and activism, maintained interpersonal relationships. All of these extra "extra" activities have indirectly parlayed into my subsequent academic work by supporting my mental and physical health, and my development into a well-rounded individual who brings a good deal of experience to the classroom, to the research team, and to my work-fellows. These activities have also sometimes parlayed directly into subsequent academic work through the development of what would become collaborative relationships, introductions to professional networks, and by planting the seeds of research or pedagogical substance.

The idea that you must be a soulless drudge in the academy is certainly a perspective that has its exponents. Academic and activist David Graeber has an interesting perspective on labor time that I think is apt here (and I think it is important that we not forget that we are also labor):

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho- syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.

—Frank, T. (2014). David Graeber: “Spotlight on the financial sector did make apparent just how bizarrely skewed our economy is in terms of who gets rewarded”: David Graeber explains why the more your job helps others, the less you get paid. Salon.com, Sunday, June 1st.

To situate my response: my doctorate, completed in 6 years (about median for my cohort) was from Harvard, I readily obtained a post doc, and just as readily obtained a tenure-track faculty appointment in which my "extra" activities alluded to above have contributed in recognized ways to my evaluation and tenure process.

So this answer is not telling you to leave or to stay. Neither is it telling you how to proceed should you stay. But it is attempting to give you license to both value your academic and researcher self as part of a richer and more whole human being, and to reject value systems that tell you otherwise.


From what I read in your question, l am not convinced that you hate research. You have spent four years in a lab under an adviser who has given you negative feedback only. This would drive any but the most emotionally hardened person unhappy and insane.

As comments have said, yes, of course it's ok to leave. And yes, people dropping out of a PhD find jobs just like everyone else. You might face a bachelor/masters level salary that doesn't reflect those possibly lost 4 years, but that is not too bad, and not that significant as you still have 30 something years in a future job. And maybe that won't even be the case.

But like some of your friends, I am not convinced that this is your only option. I realize that being in, say, a biology lab means often being surrounded by people who work themselves to pieces. In my experience across fields though, those who are successful in the future often work a regular schedule which I call academic 9-5, as long as you're focused during your time in lab or office. They typically also pursue other interest to step back, such as sports or arts or just reading. And this also applies in (some) labs, even if the PI is by their nature different. The probably favorite postdoc of my wife's PI works almost exactly your hours, and she still does yoga, etc, for a break from lab during those 8 hours. She is 100% focused of course. So you do something completely reasonable, and have faced hostility over it for 4 years. Obviously, you hate your life.

You don't mention your country, which impacts this a lot. If it's the US though, I warmly recommend to at least talk about your situation with someone (anyone) among your other faculty - not to finger-point or complain, but to discuss that given that your and your adviser's personality seem mis-matched, if they see any way in which a change of lab might be possible. Given that you're in life sciences, and after a possible change of adviser you might find it hard to bring your research with you into a new lab, this might not be possible, but you might later regret to leave without ever having this even as much as brought up with your faculty (I changed adviser exactly 4 years into my PhD, mine was also (very) powerful, but I was a theoretician in another field than yours and so it was easy to bring my research). What do you have to lose? You seem willing to leave without a masters, and that's really about a worst case scenario that talking to someone cannot make worse. From what you write (pushed several projects successfully - only to see one taken away from you, what is that about?), you seem a productive student with significant experience, and maybe some other faculty would love to have you if a way can be found to do this without alienating your current adviser. Just make sure to, this time, approach one or some faculty who you like, and feel are compatible with.

I just mention this possible attempt because nothing in what you write makes me feel that you hate research. You're in a bad place, but it strikes me more as "sometimes bad things happen to good people."

  • 1
    Very likely the argument of the professor for taking away the project was that she (the professor) thought there was no progress and the new student would work harder.
    – Olorun
    Mar 21, 2015 at 15:38

I recommend an intensive 4 or 5 day break. Ideally? Travel - just get on a plane, even pick somewhere random. For one, you will be able to 'live out' the very position you feel you are in, except now you will be stuck in say- Chicago, or a desert in Nevada, or who knows, maybe you'll travel to Delaware for 3 days and rent a bicycle and just bike on that flat land, get a tent.

In fact, yeah, go to the woods, outdoors for a few days. Get a true break back to neolithic mode of being.

Sounds to me like you need a short abrupt several day break, and if you can't do 5 days, make it a weekend.

Last resort ? Sky diving ! heh.

Hope you regain your footing.

Tim Miltz


Your adviser sounds like a really unpleasant person. Join the club. Academia tends to attract people like that. Having said that, you write: "I'm left with two other projects that are about 3/4th complete but there are quite a bit of holes to fill in. I could probably finish it in the next one year or so and that's what I thought i will do." Having spent this much time on it, and being so close, I would recommend gritting your teeth and finishing. Of course, I don't know your particular circumstances, but hey, you asked for advice from a bunch of strangers. :-)

But first, perhaps, take a step back and a deep breath. Take a few days vacation perhaps. You say you work weekends too? That doesn't seem like a great idea if you are doing it consistently. It sounds like you need to spend some time doing other things you enjoy. Maybe cut back slightly on the hours you are working, though if you finish at 6 pm you could easily go off and participate in some activities. I have recommended dancing as a good form of relaxation to various other people in various other places. This, however, might not be an option, depending on your location; which you didn't specify. It is good for unwinding from strenuous and demanding intellectual work, it is (generally) friendly and social, and it is also good exercise. It can be a good place for meeting people. Yoga is another good option, though it is less social. What you don't want to do is go home after work and sit in front of the TV, especially given the mental state you describe.

One more thing - you didn't mention how your husband feels about all this. That's probably relevant.

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