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I'm over half way into my PhD in psychology and neuroscience in the UK. I think that leaving the programme is the best decision but I'm unsure whether my reasons are good enough. I have gained some valuable experience: computer programming, applying basic mathematics, addressing software and hardware issues etc.

I approached my supervisor and the director of research 4 months ago about quitting and I was encouraged to continue, but these 4 big issues with the project have persisted, which are sufficient to make me think quitting the programme is the right decision:

1) Before starting, I was not aware how involved the post-doc would be in my project, who is overbearing and has been very difficult to work with from the very beginning. The post-doc is more concerned about being right and getting his own way than being helpful. This hinders my progress because I have to wrestle with what their idea of what my PhD should be. If I had known this, I would not have applied for this PhD. However, I think it's too late to point out this problem and my supervisor would probably think I'm using it as a scapegoat for my own problems. For now, I'm treating it as a 'training exercise' because you can never choose your colleagues in the real world - but this is a bad reason for staying on with a PhD.

2) My passion for the subject is gone and I have no intention of carrying on in academia afterwards. I don't think my PhD has a use in the real world, so I will definitely be applying for jobs in in the real world. However, if I quit prospective employers will think I'm 'a quitter' and will be put off employing me, but carrying on comes at the expense of experience in the real world, which I think is more valuable.

3) I have found the PhD experience very alienating and I find what I do for a living embarrassing. I'm reluctant to talk to new people because what you do for a living inevitably comes up and I like to avoid talking about it.

4) There is a some mathematics that I have to teach myself (I'm ok with this in principle), with no support from the department, leading to uncertainty as to whether I'm doing it right or whether I'm qualified enough for my position. This combined with reason 1 is slowing down my progress and I'm afraid I won't get enough done and fail the programme.

Do these reasons seem sufficient or should I bite the bullet and carry on?

Thanks.

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    In your first reason, you said "but this is a bad reason for staying on with a PhD.". Do you realize that this is also a bad reason for quitting PhD? Your second reason is fine to me. Don't do anything you have no passion anymore. – scaaahu May 13 '15 at 12:14
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    Is it possible for you to switch to a different lab so you don't have to deal with the post-doc? Also, doing research is intrinsically full of uncertainty. If you cannot handle teaching yourself new stuff, will you be comfortable creating new science? – Drecate May 13 '15 at 12:56
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    I don't know, we all have been there -- difficult people, horrible self-learning statistic, Matlab, EEG and FMRI stuffs, encounter problems that no one else in the department really know.... if you are still passionate about your research question, these time will pass.... but if you are no longer interested, then doing a phd without passion, if not impossible, is super painful.... – ceoec May 13 '15 at 13:16
  • If you have no passion for your field, does that mean that you wish to find a job in another field? Do you have the required skills? If I were in this situation I think I would try to switch to another major and get a M.S. before hitting the job market. – somerandomdude May 15 '15 at 3:29
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    One quick point: if you had a passion for these topics but have lost it, that may be burnout talking ... or it may be clinical depression, which is an illness and is treatable. You may want to ask the school about mental-health resources available to you. – keshlam May 15 '15 at 21:10
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I agree with you that, regarding 1) - difficult co-workers - you very well might quit and have just as overbearing a boss outside academia. Although it is difficult, that shouldn't be a key driver in your decision. (Note that pride is strongest within academia, so working with people who always think they're right is pretty normal!)

However, reasons #2) & 3) - having no passion because you don't think your work is useful to anyone, and being embarrassed about what you do - are very good reasons to seriously consider changing jobs. This would probably be true in or out of the academic world.

Reason 4) - the fact that you have to learn something difficult all by yourself - may be pretty normal for many different research fields. However, the thing that often propels people through these difficulties is a passion for what they're doing, either because it's enjoyable or because it feels like it'll be really useful later (to yourself or others). If you don't feel either of those, then learning the new topics might be quite painful.

Depending on your situation, another option may exist - assuming you, at some point, were really excited about starting research in this field, perhaps changing projects (or changing the particular aspect of your project that you pursue) could reinvigorate you?

It should be noted that just about every PhD goes through a time similar to what you're experiencing - the end not in sight, too many hurdles, just want it over, along with the constant fear that you're underperforming. For me, I realized that at least I could say I loved my daily work, and thought it was really cool. If I hadn't had that passion for what I was doing I wouldn't have been able to make it through the slump(s).

5

I'll answer because I've had a similar struggle, and maybe just hearing how someone else is thinking through his/her experience will help you.

I've grown to really loath my time at graduate school. The PhD program is not at all what I imagined it would be. I went to an applied department with aspirations of making a difference with my work, doing "real" research with "real" people, being on the front lines of the biggest issues our country is facing, etc. From the onset I had no aspirations to pursue "the life of the mind" or to be a professor. I wanted the PhD so I could impact policy outside of the academy.

What went wrong?

A lot of the same issues you are facing.

Realization 1

The first frustration I faced was realizing that the process of getting a PhD was not something I could push through based on my own hard work. The reality of working for an advisor and in a lab, and maybe this is unique to the social sciences or my experience, is that I found my timeline for getting through the program totally dictated by the needs of my advisor's projects. Fine. I could deal with that. Maybe I'd work on projects I didn't like or what not. What I had a problem with was working hard and trying to move my own work along in the face of this context, only to have my timeline for moving through the program constantly moved. We don't have funding... suddenly I went from graduating next year to 2 years from now. When you are already struggling on a stipend it is just totally disheartening.

Realization 2

I focused on honing the very skills most graduate students in the social sciences struggle with... statistics and programming. I'm very good at those skills and I have put in and continue to put in substantial time, study and practice to stay on top of those skills. As I ultimately became one of the 2 or 3 default stat persons in my department I found myself feeling a bit more taken advantage of in my lab. Unrealistic work deadlines, needing to take on more and more work simply because others could not handle even beginning the tasks, and being micromanaged on projects where the person managing me couldn't even do the project by him-/herself themselves, and feeling like in the face of that when I'd express concerns about the pace and quality of work I'd just be ignored, all left a sour taste in my mouth. If this was a job and not linked to getting the degree in the end I would have simply left my job without hesitation.

Realization 3

A total loss of faith in the quality of published research. I simply couldn't replicate results in our field and I was tired of doing my own research and feeling pressured to find the p-values that would conform to the narrative people wanted to hear. When you see confirmation bias in vivo over and over again it just gets discouraging. I don't think that the people I was dealing with have any real malice about it, it's just that there's too much pressure to "get the next grant" or "find the results that will help get the next grant" that it just becomes part of the greater context that you have to exist in. Read Andrew Gelman's blog. He likes to pick on social psychologists, but the problems he points out, in my opinion, are systemic in other fields, and at the least all of psychology.

What am I doing about it now?

Like you probably have done, I'd chat with my closet friends in the program. Some of them would understand my frustrations other's seemed to just totally buy into it all and seemed to care more about being Dr. so and so than I ever would. I got the mix of feedback: maybe you just need to talk to your advisor, maybe you need to change labs, maybe you need to take a year off, maybe your are depressed and should talk to someone.

I thought long and hard about it all. I wasn't depressed. I'm super happy in all other aspects of life, have a great partner, family and friends. I have all sorts of passions outside of academia. Maybe I'm just not passionate about being a scholar. Talking to my advisor hadn't worked in the past when I had tried to come at it indirectly. Moreover, the biggest predictor of future behavior is what has been done in the past. So, I truly felt like no matter what the conversation was that we had, when the deadlines came marching in everything would go back to what it was like before. Taking a year off became more intriguing.

I settled on just not working for my lab. I'm in the midst of looking for a part time position that would pay me more than I make as an RA, and would leave me 20 hours a week to focus on just MY work. Honestly, when I've chatted with potential employers no one has thought of me as a quitter! You might want to even consider the fact that by getting a PhD you will be over-qualified for what it is you want to do. PhD does not = job.

Anyways, it sounds selfish, but it's the only way I'm going to get the space to move my work along. Further, by removing myself from the context of working and being in the lab all of the time I'll realize whether or not I truly love my research or still care about getting a PhD. Maybe my advisor won't be happy with that decision, but I'm not happy, challenged or getting any personal or professional growth with my lab responsibilities and that's what should matter the most in all of this. The process of getting a PhD is your experience and no one else's.

So, that's what I'm in the midst of doing.

You know what? Second to the decision to propose to my fiancee, I've never felt more happy and at peace with a decision in my entire life!

3

Let me offer you my two cents, as a recent Ph.D. graduate, who was in the program for a very long time due to serious family circumstances. Generally, I think that decisions of such nature and scale are highly personal and significantly depend on various factors and circumstances that nobody on this site is aware of (your brief description of the situation IMHO is not enough and, this, I wouldn't count on it). Therefore, I would advise you to take all advice here with a huge grain of salt. I think that the best advisor in such situations is... you, meaning your gut feeling. Having said that, keep in mind that your gut feeling might change over time and due to changing a perspective, when looking at a particular subject or matter. Now, I will briefly address your concerns/reasons, as they appear in your question.

1) You're right in considering your difficult to work with postdoc as a real-life test. Plus, it is a temporary situation and, hopefully, further in your career (in academia or beyond) you will be working with more cooperative and nicer people. Moreover, even from this difficult situation you might take some really valuable experience from interaction with that postdoc (for example, his perspective, thoughts, approaches, skills, etc.).

2) While your feeling that academia is not for you might be the right one, it is very well might be the wrong one. Speaking about your lost interest in the topic, this might be permanent, but, as well, you might regain interest in that topic, if you could look at it through different "lenses" or via different perspectives. The world is not black and white.

3) While working on Ph.D. is mostly alienating or, rather, lonely experience, the research (or other work) that follows afterwords, is mostly not. Quite the opposite - it often represents collaboration. As for "embarrassing", I'm not sure why you use this term - I find research (as well as teaching) a respectful, even noble, activity, as it involves seeking the truth and expanding humanity's knowledge horizons and, even, producing some practical and, often, immediately useful results.

4) It's a valid point of concern (but IMHO should not be considered as one of the critical factors, when making the decision). I can relate to that, as I remember my sense of being completely lost in the ocean of statistics, when I decided to use certain statistical methods for my quantitative dissertation research study. I might have gotten some statistical support from my advisor, but I have decided to ask help from an external consultant, who not only was very knowledgeable in the methods I was employing, but also in R statistical environment, which was very helpful and, even, crucial to the success of my research, considering that I was writing software in R for data analysis. However, recognizing this consultant's significant help, I think that, ultimately, it was me, who pushed myself forward to the success, via long hours of reading books and papers, immersing myself into statistical topics as much as possible, participating in discussions on StackOverflow (R-related) and Cross Validated (statistics-related), as well as reminding myself periodically about the larger goals and aspirations.

One more aspect. I'm not sure how your studies in the Ph.D. program are handled financially, but, seriously consider the financial aspect, especially, if you have some family responsibilities. I was thinking dropping out of the program after some very serious life-changing events, but, considering all the efforts (mine and my loved ones), time, money and, most importantly, larger goals and personal promises, have decided to continue and complete the program (plus, I was farther than your mid-way point in the program, so that also impacted my decision). However, now I face serious financial issues, which I have to deal with, hence my emphasis on this aspect. RA or TA positions, grants, fellowships and other means were not accessible to me for various reasons, but, if you can use any of them, strongly consider that help. Hope that my answer is helpful. Good luck!

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    The over-use of different emphasis styles makes this answer hard to read. – Mangara May 16 '15 at 7:20
  • @Mangara: Sorry that it was not an easy to read answer for you. However, generally, I disagree with you for two reasons: 1) the amount of emphasis is rather a matter of personal style (meaning that what you consider an overuse, other people might consider appropriate); 2) "different emphasis styles" represents no more than two: bold and italics, which is a standard nomenclature for emphasizing concepts or ideas. – Aleksandr Blekh May 16 '15 at 8:01
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It's been a long time since you posted this question, and I hope that you are at a much better place now. God forbid, if you're still at crossroads, I'd like to recommend a book by Cal Newport - So good they can't ignore you. The book busts the 'follow your passion' approach and encourages a 'craftsmanship' approach wherein dedication, and hours of deliberate practice helps you invest in your career capital, so much so that you get so good at it, that it will make you feel good about yourself, add to your self-worth, and in turn make you love your job because of how amazing it makes you feel about you... You will have turned your work into your passion then... Please don't quit! We as humans are fickle, our desires, even our basic natures change, what you are passionate about today, might be something you loathe tomorrow... Follow your heart is terrible advice, the heart can't be trusted!

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