Summary of my situation:

I'm early in my 4th year as a PhD student (Cell Biology), and I think I want to quit. My program is 5-7 years, so I have at least 2 years left or I can drop out and claim a Master's and say that I have an extra year of experience since I qualified a year ago.

I have an exciting project that I'm interested in, but do not feel like my advisor lets me finish experiments before expecting me to start the next set. As a result, I have very little to show for a lot of work. The paper will probably be big, but it's far off.

I don't think I'm getting what I wanted out of grad school. I see ways that I can achieve those original goals in the future, but it will be a while and I'm not sure its worth the wait.

The stress and workload leave me racked with guilt, initiate panic attacks, and have sent me into depression (maybe? I'm planning on talking to someone at my school's student mental health center). I know it's work related because when I do manage to take a day off, I feel perfectly normal, like my old self, but as soon as I walk back into lab it starts again.


Can I talk to another professor (someone on my committee, someone I'm familiar with in my department, or someone familiar with my project but not on my committee) to get advice about my particular situation, the advantages/disadvantages of quitting, and how to talk to my PI about it? Or would that be seen as going behind my PI's back?


4 Answers 4


Talking to other people including mentors is always a good idea.

It sounds like you're having trouble handling the stress of a PhD and your desires to drop out are not related to any particular issues with your advisor. It's almost impossible to tell how your PI would take it. However, I doubt most reasonable people would consider you seeking advice from others as "going behind their back."


1) I would recommend talking to someone else from your department. Keep this conversation professional. Try to identify and convey the problems you are facing. In your case: not enough depth in experimental data, need to do another set of experiments before getting a good sight/understanding/analysis of what has been already measured. When having conversation, try to avoid just complaining. Your situation is not unique, and while you might get sympathy, it might not be easy to provide a structured help. Try to make it simple to help and advise you.

2) Talk to you supervisor, be honest. You will have to have this conversation anyway.

a)If you decide to go - you will need to explain the reasons, you cannot just stop showing up in the lab. It is a good practice to maintain good professional relationship even in that case. You might restart your PhD somewhere else or look for industry position - you will need the reference from your PI.

b)If you decide to stay - talk to your supervisor. Explain what is causing the trouble. Good productive environment in research lab is win-win for prof. and students. Make clear what could be done in order to increase your productivity. You problem might be just the lack of communication on both sides - you and PI. May be he/she thinks that your data is sufficient to draw strong conclusions. Try to see, what is your PI's view on the objectives of the project.

3) Talking to counseling services is also a good idea.


You can, and you should. Quitting your PhD is an important decision, and I find that getting advice based on a few different perspectives is always a good idea when making big decisions. In addition, there are a few more reasons that warrant talking to others in this particular situation.

Ideally an advisor who is able to provide impartial advice would be in the best position to advise you on this matter, since they are the person with the most amount of combined knowledge about you, the field and project you are working on, etc. However, often the work that you do as a PhD researcher has implications for your advisor's carreer. For example, it may be in their interest to see that you complete your work and produce publications for them, so they may be motivated to keep you working. Conversely, they may prefer to discontinue with you because of the emotional labor involved in an unproductive work relationship. Such reasons may compromise their impartiality.

Regardless of whether you decide to bring up the matter with your advisor or not, if you decide to quit, you will have to talk to them. If this happens, regarding how to talk to them, I argue that you can benefit from the advice of others. It's probable that the conversation won't go very smoothly, and it is often in your best interest to retain moderation. If you get advice from trustworthy people with relevant experience, you can avoid being caught off-guard and losing your grace.

Of course, you have to be thoughtful about talking to other faculty as well. Ideally they should be people you know and trust, and who are reasonably successful in a field that relates to yours. Bonus points if they know your advisor well. If you are fortunate enough to know 2 or 3 such people, and if they have the time to talk to you, you are very lucky. I try to talk to such "mentors" as much as possible when making sensitive decisions about my work, and I for sure benefit from their advice.

I hope you can resolve this soon. I can also recommend you consult to communities like this one for specific advice on productivity and professional matters. Don't let issues with specific people hurt your health or your carreer; these are more important than what your advisor or any other individual thinks of you.


This is my own personal suggestion, do not discuss anything with anyone. You might end up building a bad reputation that might stay haunting you for long time. Take few days off, relax, dissect your problem, is it related to your judgment on your supervisor or is it related to the type of heavy load that biology PhD work faces. Do you do all your best and did not get any result.

  • 7
    I would not wish to be associated with a graduate program for which this advice is applicable. If you can't discuss things with your professors what good are they?
    – emory
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 0:57

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .