This is a canonical question on this topic as per this Meta post. Due to its nature, it is rather broad and not exemplary for a regular question on this site. Please feel free to improve this question.

By its very nature, a PhD is stressful. If you're coping with other issues at the same time, the stress can become unbearable. Suppose a student is experiencing some of the following while pursuing a PhD, and wondering if they should quit. What tools could help them make the best decision?

  • worried they're not smart enough
  • stressed and unhappy
  • homesick
  • haven't made any friends, feeling lonely
  • suffering from a mental health issue such as depression, panic attacks, or bipolar
  • worried about a family situation (e.g., a sick relative)
  • worried about money
  • disagreements with advisor
  • 6
    I voted to close as too broad. The answer have to be totally different for the different cases and I think that there are questions here already on different issues.
    – Dirk
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 8:50
  • 4
    @Dirk please discuss your views in the linked meta question
    – StrongBad
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 11:21
  • 32
    It's completely normal to feel miserable during a PhD and to creatively waste time on this sort of nonsense. Now get back to work. Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 12:01
  • 5
    @Dirk I'm not convinced that people who come to find the answer for 'should I quit?' know which issues are relevant or otherwise. I think having this question as a way to direct them to the right place would be very useful.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 12:25
  • 3
    People suffer from all of the above even if they are not doing a PhD ;) Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 16:05

3 Answers 3


It's difficult to think clearly and make good decisions when you're stressed. Obviously, we can't tell you whether or not you should leave the PhD programme, but here are some suggestions to help you through this difficult time.

  • If you have a mental health issue, try to address it before making any big decisions.

  • Your school will generally have a counsellor to help students. Contact them and make an appointment.

  • Meditation can help with stress. There may be a meditation club, or free meditation lessons on offer at your school (this is particularly common near exam time).

  • Think about YOUR goals rather than just trying to please parents/advisors.

  • Realise that a PhD programme is very different than anything you've likely done before, so don't expect to feel comfortable in it for the first six months or even a year.

  • Talk to your advisor about the problem. If you don't feel comfortable doing this yet, perhaps visit a counselor first.

  • Try not to be overwhelmed by the number of problems you're facing. Try to think about each problem in isolation. Imagine all of the problems but one magically disappeared; what could you do to alleviate the remaining problem?

  • You may be able to take a leave of absence from your studies.

  • Try doing sports, it helps your focus and your health. In fact, this would be one on the first things to do no matter if you are at PhD or not.


This is a very difficult and subjective question to answer but I hope I can at least point you in a direction to aid in your decision. I am working on a PhD in the biological sciences so I am answering from that perspective. What you are experiencing can be lumped into about three different categories:

Normal/moderately normal for a PhD student

  • worried they're not smart enough
  • stressed and unhappy
  • homesick
  • feeling lonely

It is relatively normal for PhD students in the biological science to feel these things to varying degrees of severity on and off throughout your 5-6 years in the field. You have a lot of pressure between classes, teaching, and research which can occupy a lot of your time and perhaps all of your evenings and weekends. Much of the work may require you to be alone or with little company. You will be isolated from your social life due to the pressures and demands of research. You may be in a new country or a new city.

I would suggest finding one or two things you truly enjoy and carving out the time to do these activities once a week. You may find yourself more efficient because you will be working under less stress. If you have a niche interest, look online for meetups with others. It will be much easier to make friends when you already have major things in common.

Normal for many jobs

  • disagreements with advisor
  • worried about a family situation (e.g., a sick relative)
  • worried about money
  • homesick
  • worried they're not smart enough

If you are not in your PhD program, these items will not necessarily just go away. Struggling with a boss or having disagreements with management can happen anytime groups of people have to work together. Monetary issues or family situations will not be guaranteed to go away just because you are working elsewhere. Worry over not being smart enough can still happen in any job where you will find yourself compared to the work of co-workers.

I significantly downgraded my lifestyle when I began my PhD. You may have to find alternative ways to save money and not live as extravagantly. Remember, in many ways your PhD is an investment. This will not be forever.

Of potential medical concern

  • suffering from a mental health issue
  • worried they're not smart enough
  • stressed and unhappy
  • haven't made any friends, feeling lonely

You have to determine for yourself or through a doctor if the severity of what you feel is just due to the normal stress of graduate school or actually indicative of an underlying medical condition. While it is normal to feel stressed and lonely at times, persistent feelings may warrant medical intervention. There are counseling and medical services on many campus so I urge you to consider their opinion and suggestions before quitting your PhD.


Life will always be full of stress. You will face challenges in your career if not in graduate school. You will deal with financial stress, medical stress, deaths, and loneliness at various points in your life with or without your PhD program. What you need to determine is if the severity of these feelings is normal and something you have to learn to deal with or if it is the result of medical health problems.

For me it was the former. And the experience I have had in my program, pushing through the stress and loneliness and coming out on top, has, more than anything else, made me feel like I have truly grown up. I hope this is also the case for you.

  • This is more general, rather than related to the questioner's concerns. Regarding family problems: concerns over a sick family member won't go away, but if you are a new parent, you will probably have a much easier time outside of a PhD program, especially if you make a family friendly job a priority.
    – Karen
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 14:12
  • I would argue that, as written, the questioner's concerns are very general. Any one of the issues on the list could range from mild concern to severe concern depending on the specific context. You are entirely correct in the scenario you describe but how am I to know that is the subtext for "family situation"? There are hundreds of life possibilities for that item, all of which would require a different answer. A general question was asked so I gave a general answer that would cover all bases minimally but equally across the spectrum from "it's part of life" to "it could be mental health".
    – syntonicC
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 15:14

I agree that PhD sometimes can get stressful! But, there can be a solution (or bunch of solutions) to each problem:

  1. Worried they're not smart enough => You are smart enough, stop doubting yourself and stop comparing yourself to others! Stress triggered due to doubt can be pretty much eliminated by self confidence. Take a step back, collect data and re-analyze why do you feel this way. If it grades-related, try to improve the way you study or meet the professor in office hours to figure out why are performing badly. If it is publication-related, talk to your advisor/senior PhD student and see what's going on. Most of time the solution to each problem can be found by breaking the issue down into its basics (i.e., go back to the basics/fundamentals).

  2. Stressed and unhappy, homesick, have not made any friends => I'm lumping these together because I feel they come from the same source (being lonely and an introvert). Most of the time, if you are lonely (no friends), you will be unhappy and homesick because you will naturally miss your family and friends!! Many PhD students are introverts that think all what they need to do is finish their thesis or research. To put it into prescriptive, it takes so much effort and time to schedule an event for 5-6 PhD students than for 50 undergraduate! Just because PhD students think its not worth it or have so much to do! Do not be like that. Engage in activities or academic clubs in your school, do some volunteering (even if it was in animal shelters), join a gym (my personal preference). Re-learn how to make friends. When you walk downtown, do you think people who walk by you knows that you are a PhD student?! No, nobody cares. So, social life is very important. We are humans, humans are made to interact with other humans (not phone apps). Start dating (if single) or traveling with your significant other (for a week or two).

  3. Suffering from a mental health issue such as depression, panic attacks, or bipolar => If it is related to being lonely (most likely), go back and read point 2 above. If not, join a support group, see a doctor, fix your problem. The sooner the better!

  4. Worried about a family situation (e.g., a sick relative) => That is a hard one to deal with. I lost many family members while I was being away for my studies. I did call them on regular basis. Let me tell you something, even if you were working a regular job (9-5) right next to them, that would not have changed anything! Get it out of your head, PhD did not cause that! You can not save everybody, no one can! Life is life.

  5. Worried about money => "If you choose Academia, you will always be broke, unless.." one of my advisors told me that. He did not say unless what, he just smiled. If you mean being worried about money while being a student, then, try not to. It is not something you can fix now (unless you win an award or fellowship, your salary will be the same throughout your schooling (especially is financially supported by your advisor)). What you can do is, finding a part-time job. Keep in mind that sometimes this can not be an option (if you are in the US on an F or J visa, if I'm not mistaken).

  6. Disagreements with advisor => Why? Do not be too stubborn, be professional and flexible. Many advisors are a pain to work with/for. Be smart, avoid arguments even if that would mean to work few minutes extra here and there. On cases where the advisor is very mean, moody, unrealistic, unprofessional, try to talk to him/her, discuss it with an academic advisor, department chair, consider changing your current advisor etc.

At the end of the day, you made it this far. Problems will always occur, try to solve them. I understand that it can be way easier said than done! But, life is a journey!

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