I am currently in my second year of my PhD and I am having a horrible time. I feel like I am not cut out for academia and I frequently have anxiety attacks. I would like to do something else, and if it was a normal job I would definitely start looking for another job.

I'm worried I'll lose my reference (And he's a good reference to lose :() and I'm also feeling guilty. I have taken two years of funding and now I just want to leave unpublished? Ethically I feel terrible.

The trouble is it is massively affecting my mental health. I have had to seek help from the student services with this. I cry all the time. I've lost my motivation. I'd really like a job in the charity sector or in health education where I can help people and feel like I make a difference.

The trouble is I don't imagine quitting a PhD or considering leaving a PhD looks particularly great on a CV. I have so many reasons to leave and so many to stay. Any advice?

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    I am sorry that your Ph.D. is being so stressful, but I am afraid we need more information to give you advice. For example: Which parts of the work is causing you the most trouble? Is your advisor part of the problem or is (s)he supportive? Would you have a little time to volunteer in a rewarding activity (e.g., charity as you mention) while you finish? (This would require some advisor support so the previous question is relevant.) What did you like about the subject you're studying, and why don't you like it anymore?
    – Stefano
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 15:30
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    What does your psychiatrist say? This is not medical advice, but if you are having regular panic attacks, you may have an anxiety disorder which can be chronic and may need long-term management. It would be a shame to drop out of PhD program if that's not the root cause of your problem. I wish you the best of luck and highly recommend getting medical attention not just counseling support.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 15:56
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    "I don't imagine quitting a PhD... looks particularly great on a CV". For a (non-research) job in industry, it's not a problem. Industry is full of people who have left a PhD for one reason or another. See this answer for more about that.
    – mhwombat
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 16:47
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    Please close this question quickly before it attracts the usual avalanche of pseudo-psychological gibberish. This is not a site to get medical advice, God forbid.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 18:32
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    @CapeCode: Psychological discomfort or other issues are not necessarily signs of a medical condition (though, it might be the case). It very well might be (and often is) a natural reaction of our body to stressful or complicated situations. Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 20:15

7 Answers 7


1- First, you would not be losing 2 years. In those 2 years, you learned things and developed your skills. In your current mental health state, it is probably hard to view this experience as positive, but I suggest you give it a try. Maybe make a list of the skills and experience you gained with your PhD.

2- Get professional help, as stated in the comments. Once you feel a bit better, you'll be ready to take a decision.

3- I get the feeling that most of your reasons to stay are linked with advisor-related guilt (funding, no publication, no reference for future work). You would be surprised, but most advisors are human, and did a PhD. He/She can probably understand your problems and help you reach a decision. Maybe he/she could even suggest some ideas to reduce your guilt (quit the program, but write an article on the side or help another person to pick up where you left).

If your advisor is not human (which, seems to happen sometimes), there's probably a department head that could mediate discussion between you and your advisor about quitting the program. But you need to discuss with your advisor.

Good luck and take care.

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    +1 If, after applying the above suggestions, the OP still feels that some other career path would be better, two years in is a short enough time to spin on a resume as trying out the academic path and finding it is just not a good fit. Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 16:47
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    +1 for talking to the advisor. we have related questions on this site, which discuss the topic how to let the advisor in on mental-health related issues. Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 16:53

I would suggest trying to figure out what you want and not worrying about feeling guilty about displeasing your advisor or using up some funding. Remember that advisors don't use their personal dollars to fund you, and when you're funded, it's for work you are performing, not for some future promise. Also, it's your life, and whether you stay or go matters a lot more to you than to anyone else!

You can also look into whether you can get a Master's degree if you quit now. This is common at many universities. And it can help you feel like you haven't wasted two years.

As a side note, if a student of mine told me he/she wanted to quit, I would try to offer the best advice and be supportive. I wouldn't "hold it against them" ethically, and I would still write them a letter of recommendation. I think most advisors feel the same way.


If this is helpful at all, research wasn't right for me (it didn't fit my personality and it was very stressful being a grad student; it robbed me of my social and family life, my hobbies--all I did was work and felt guilty taking any time for myself or others) and so I quit my PhD after 4 years of coursework (I had finished my coursework but had not yet found a workable dissertation topic after a year or two of false starts and one change of advisors; research just wasn't for me). I received a guilt trip by my advisor for having "wasted" funding, but of course I never planned to quit at the outset, so it was not unethical to leave if it wasn't working out. Almost 6 years later I am extremely happy with my decision though it was extremely scary at the time--I felt like I was failing and ruining my life. But I found a good job at a good company, and not having a PhD freed me up to not do research-type jobs at that company (it seems that having a PhD in industry can sometimes pigeon-hole you into research jobs). I already had a Masters for what it's worth, which was plenty for what I wanted to do (computer related field in the U.S.). Also I think that just having 4 years of coursework at a good grad school really helped me get the job; no one seemed to care that I didn't finish the PhD (I think many very smart talented people start PhD's and don't finish them, so it doesn't seem to be a negative thing at all--most people I tell about it just smile understandingly, realizing that a PhD is extremely grueling and there's no shame in not finishing it).

In summary, I'm not telling you to quit or telling you to keep going, I just wanted to give my story in case it helps you in any way.


I've been in your position and am currently on my way out of my PhD program by mastering out.

When I first felt that my Chemistry PhD program was not the right path for me I was three months into my first year. I was doing rotations at the time, and everything felt wrong. I forced myself to do homework, forced myself to do research, forced myself to read papers. I had never had to force myself to do anything during undergrad, so this feeling was terrifying. I didn't enjoy any of the work I did and I was starting to realize that I didn't even like doing basic research. I didn't want to be cooped up in a laser lab for the rest of my life. I realized that I wanted out. But it's not that easy.

When you first start having the inkling that the academic life may not be for you, it can be frightening. It can feel like you are a "quitter" or you may have some reservations about what other individuals in your cohort may think or you may feel that you are harming your future career. All of these feelings are mind games that we play with ourselves and they are games that are hard to let go. I just want you to know that all of these thoughts are pointless, and quite frankly, untrue.

Another issue that came along is the guilt of wanting to leave. Since PhD students are getting monetary support in some form or another it can feel very dishonest to our advisors to continue to take support with the intention of leaving. We want to leave gracefully on good terms, but it always seems as though we're leaving our advisors in a lurch. The guilt of this dishonesty began to affect my life physically and mentally. I began having constant anxiety and severe headaches that ultimately landed me in a case of depression. I sought help from my university's mental health program and I'm back on track towards being my old self again.

The point of me sharing all of this is that this is your life. You do not have to do anything you don't want to do. When I first told someone I care about what I was feeling he said, "If I was doing something I didn't like, I wouldn't do it." A PhD is a commitment of time, body, and mind. If you are not doing what you want to do or gaining something in your future career by being in this program, then it's time to move on.

First, seek psychiatric help. Immediately. Until you start to stabilize your mental health, you will not be able to make any rational or helpful decisions for your future. I initially made the mistake of thinking that my issues were not important enough to seek help (compared to other people) and that the counselors would think I was just being pathetic. This is not true. That's the anxiety talking. Get in there and get the help you need.

Second, think about why you initially wanted to go to graduate school. Was it because you wanted to be an academic? Or because you didn't know what your next step should be, so more school sounded right? Are you passionate about your subject? Or is it something that you and others believed you were good at so you should keep on doing it? This was my number one big mistake about grad school. Make sure you are there for the right reasons.

Third, think about your personality in grad school. Oftentimes (especially in the sciences), PhD students are alone. We are in environments that foster individuality, competition, and (to be honest) very little constructive advice. It can be very alienating. Does this environment fit your personality? Personality isn't always a great factor, because you can overcome this issue if you really love your work. For me, it was just another affirmation that the program was not a good fit.

Fourth, try your best to not worry what others (including your advisor) will think of you. Try to control that guilt, that "I'm a quitter" feeling, that embarassment. You are making a decision for you. In my experience, when I told others in my cohort why I was leaving and what my next step was no one was condescending, snide or hurtful. Everyone was encouraging. As for advisors, they know. They can tell in your work. I finally let mine know, and it's been fine. As long as you're doing the work that you're getting paid for, there aren't any bad feelings. No one wants to force you to do something you don't want to do.

Lastly, start outlining what you want your future to be. I started by talking to the graduate advisor and switching to the Master's degree track and finishing the requirements. (This is very important. If you can, finish the Master's degree. You should earn something for the time that you spent in your program and this shows your future employers that when you set out to do something, you finish it in one form or another.)

I then began making a list of tasks and aspects of my previous work that I enjoyed and incorporated that into something I am passionate about. I have been volunteering at charities and non-profits to get experience. I started networking through employment fairs, county fairs, and anything else I can get my hands on. Now, I'm applying to internships and I'll have my Master's degree by December. I no longer feel remorse or am upset by my choice. I'm excited for what is coming next.

The long and short of all of this is: tell people you care about what is going on, get the help that you need, and keep your chin up. Hang in there.


In addition to some good advice (especially, the answer by @Emilie, +1), I would recommend to use one of more calm periods to analyze (and, if needed, readjust or set) your goals and corresponding priorities, both short-term and long-term. Doing that might clear your mind and, hopefully, will help you to build a pragmatic strategy, based on the above-mentioned priorities and goals. As others have said, do not hesitate to ask for any help, both professional (medical and/or psychological) and simply human support from family, friends and beyond. Just keep in mind that many people struggle with similar issues, but you need to figure out what would work best for you in your particular situation. Best wishes!


Having left grad school for stress-related reasons myself, I can tell you I don't regret leaving at all. I was very excited about the research I was doing, but upon finding a job that would allow me to do something else I equally enjoy (but without the PhD), I knew it was the right decision.

If I were you, I would start by looking at what else is out there. You mentioned going into charity or health education - what types of jobs in those fields would interest you? Are you qualified to do them? What's the competition going to be like to get the job?

Once you have a list of potential options, try doing an interview or two just to see how you can expect to be received into those fields. I guarantee you will have an easier time making the decision when you know what your options are.

Also, don't worry about how an incomplete degree looks. The company I currently work for is extremely proud of having "stolen" me from grad school, and if you leave to start a career, I bet your company will be proud of "stealing" you too :)


I've never been a PhD student myself, but I can offer this: I've worked with several people who did not finish their PhDs. In those cases, not finishing their PhDs did not count against them. In fact, I've worked with companies where finishing a PhD did count against those people (the hiring managers assumed that if you finished a PhD, you probably weren't actually interested in a job outside of academia).

It also doesn't seem to be an all-or-nothing proposition. From what I've heard (again, from my not-finished-PhD coworkers), it is usually possible to go on leave from your PhD program. There are actually many good academic reasons to do this - for example, because you want to see how your ideas fare in practice, or because you want to understand what problems practitioners in a field actually face. The change of pace might re-invigorate your desire to finish your PhD, or you might find something you care about more than finishing your PhD. I don't know your particular situation, but this might be something worth looking at.

If you have any idea that you might want to move to work in industry instead, it would be a good idea to reach out to someone who works in an area you might work in, discuss with them what it's like, what the job prospects are like, etc.

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