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I am a second-year CS PhD pre-candidate in a top PhD program. During my first year, I published a first-author paper at the best conference in my area, which I know is a big accomplishment. My advisor is famous in his area and also very caring and supportive, and my labmates are great too.

The thing is my second project didn't go very well, which caused us to change the entire story right before the deadline. I worked more than 70 hours per week and gave all I could, but there was not enough time to get everything we need in a good shape, and my advisor was frustrated with the progress and pointed out problems that I hadn't seen everywhere. I continued to work, but found myself too frustrated and suddenly lost all interest in research, stopped caring about papers, did as best I could to avoid talking to anyone, and want to leave this place and never come back. I know most PhDs somehow have this feeling, but I notice that this time it's quite serious:

  • Forcing myself to work resulted in a breakdown every night with the feeling that all I did was nonsense and meaningless.
  • My first paper has now become a joke, laughing at me that I could never publish with my own efforts.
  • I have no intention to participate in lab communication and truly don't want to talk to anyone. I can't even bear to hear others typing due to the feeling that I am the only one who doesn't make progress.

How can I know if I truly have lost my interest in research (and should drop my Ph.D.), or if this is something that I can overcome? After all, if this is the best I can do, why not go somewhere else and use my skills to actually contribute rather than wasting everybody's time? I am so tired of receiving new tasks at 4 am or 11 pm due the next day. I would highly appreciate your advice!

marked as duplicate by henning -- reinstate Monica, Coder, Buzz, StrongBad Sep 12 '17 at 13:35

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    Imagine your future life away from research and the academic context. Does that bring you joy or sadness? – TheWanderer Sep 10 '17 at 17:00
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    Counseling can help a lot with things like this. Maybe it would help to look into that before doing anything irreversible. Also, there may be a possibility to take a leave of absence, so that you can go back if you change your mind in a year or so. – Nate Eldredge Sep 10 '17 at 17:01
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    " receiving new tasks at 4am or 11pm due the next day." Is this the norm in top phd programmes? – Marko Karbevski Sep 10 '17 at 18:07
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    @tpg2114 And I hope that your answer was: "Then you should've told me 6 weeks ago. Now you're welcome to do it yourself" – Massimo Ortolano Sep 10 '17 at 20:34
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    This seems more an issue of burnout than of interest or disinterest in research. Get professional help! Psychologist etc. and/or talk to the respective university counselor if there are any. – Frank Hopkins Sep 11 '17 at 0:46

11 Answers 11

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If available, I would immediately seek out the university counseling services (as mentioned in a comment by @Nate Eldredge ) The things you are mentioning could be symptoms of depression. Or, you may just need some strategies for coping with failure. Often people with your accomplishments haven't experienced much failure in their lives!

Taking advantage of the (usually low-cost or free, if you are in the U.S.) counselling services at the university will help you sort out which of these things it is. Your counselor can also help you come up with strategies to make well-reasoned life decisions for yourself (or with your committee). Regardless, don't make any rash decisions.

In the U.S., it is very common for PhD students to deal with these issues and to seek out counseling. An informal straw poll in my PhD cohort revealed that 90% of us had done so, and approximately 60% were on anti-anxiety medication or continued treatment regimes at any given time. The older students even began to organize a yearly workshop to talk about stress and how to get the help you need!

An update: This 2018 study finds that graduate students are 6x more likely to experience depression and anxiety, compared to the general population. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis

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    A word of caution: having counseling services is maybe standard in the US universities, but it might not be commonplace everywhere, and it might not be generally common for PhD students to seek out counseling. The OP doesn't specify their country (though we can guess that they are probably from the US). See also this discussion. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 10 '17 at 18:13
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    Good point! Specified US in revision. I Saw "top CS program" and good grasp of English, and my mind said US. But obviously that is not a certainty, I apologize. – Dawn Sep 10 '17 at 21:29
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    I have put some thought into it and I realized that my cohort was a bit of an outlier. Among the students in general I think the percentages may have been closer to 60-70% and 40%. International students were definitely less inclined to seek out counseling services, but also felt the stress. One of the international students actually led/organized the pro-counseling workshop for the department. I think her attitude was "This is an American thing, but it is really helpful and we should not be wary of it!" – Dawn Sep 11 '17 at 12:16
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    60%!! There is something profoundly wrong with this system! – Strawberry Sep 11 '17 at 13:10
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    @MassimoOrtolano: your difference in experience may well be a matter of age as well as the culture you come from. Increase in the availability and usage of mental health services has been a big trend over the last couple of decades — at least in the US and much of NW Europe, and I guess many other places too though I haven’t seen it myself. – PLL Sep 11 '17 at 13:27
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Some amount of burnout is very normal, especially just after working really hard for something that didn't pan out the way you hoped it would. The timeline isn't totally clear from your question, but if this just happened, give yourself some time to relax and cool down! Take a few days off from research: go for a hike, cook a good meal, whatever. Then, when you're ready, ease yourself back into it: maybe talk to your advisor about putting this frustrating project aside for a bit and trying something else out.

If, after a while, you still feel this whole thing sucks and you don't want to do it anymore, then it's worth thinking more about that. Especially if you think the high levels of stress and/or feeling bad about things are more persistent, definitely look into meeting with counseling services if they're available at your university or elsewhere. Or you might eventually end up deciding that you're better off dropping out of the program: many people do that, and for many of them it's the right decision. But now, in the aftermath of an unluckily bad experience, isn't the time to make that decision.


I can't even bear to hear others typing due to the feeling that I am the only one who doesn't make progress.

If you can't talk to a counselor right away, it also sounds like you could do some reading up on impostor syndrome. It affects all of us, especially those like me who really aren't good enough to be in academia, but more so at times when things happen to suck.

I am so tired of receiving new tasks at 4am or 11pm due the next day.

If this is your advisor constantly giving you research tasks to do immediately, this is something you should talk to them about. In a CS setting, this kind of request is only at all reasonable if it's very infrequent. Most things should be predictable farther in advance, or not be so urgent.

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    "do some reading up on impostor syndrome. It affects all of us, especially those like me who really aren't good enough to be in academia"....Ah the irony. – SH7890 Sep 12 '17 at 12:45
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    @SH7890 Yes...though of course that doesn't mean there's not some truth to it too. – Dougal Sep 12 '17 at 13:00
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Get an appointment with your thesis committee (advisors) or PhD support office (if there is one) stat. These things can happen, but you need to address them with counselors immediately, before they get out of hand.

Whatever you do, don't make a rush decision. Good luck!

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  1. You are right about it being common for Ph.D. students to wonder if it's worthwhile continuing. Every single doctoral student I've talked with has had the same thought at one point or another. I completed a doctorate myself and was in that place several times...especially after submitting my research project as a conference abstract in the spring, trying unsuccessfully all summer to get it to work, and at the point I was going to get in touch with the conference organizer to tell him that I was not going to be able to attend I had the key breakthrough. Sometimes I wonder if I would have had that breakthrough if it weren't for the pressure and urgency and sleepless nights and frustrating days.

  2. "Bad planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." I have worked in IT for 30 years and the only time that getting tasks at 11 pm or 4 am due the next day is even remotely acceptable is for a production problem. Are you getting those tasks as part of a research assistantship? If that's the case, you have to ask yourself if it's the job or the program, and if the former if there are other options. I was never paid for research and worked my way through teaching recitation classes and later lecturing. It might be time for a talk with your advisor to clarify expectations, as well as with your committee and department secretary (or other graduate student liaison that helps you to navigate the process) to get advice and keep you focused on what I would assume is your goal--finishing the degree.

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A few points in addition to other useful answers:

  1. The negative experience you've had is not with research in general, but with a combination of a certain project, a certain advisor, and the settings of being infinitely overworked and pressured for a certain period of time. So you've been depressed and demotivated by that not by "research" in general. And while you should certainly avoid being in that situation again, don't confuse the specific with the general.

    Also, even if you decide you've had with your current project; or with your advisor; or with your university; or with your sub-discipline of CS - that does not mean you should necessarily quit.

    Note that the fact you've not exhausted all options does not mean that you absolutely have to stay. If you don't find a setting in which you're satisfied to work (after some emotional recovery and some attempt at reconfiguration); or if it becomes clear to you there's something else you want to be doing - it's perfectly justifiable to quit and go elsewhere, even if some people frown upon it.

  2. You did not say anything about why you're doing research in the first place. That's enormously important in my opinion. I'm against being in a Ph.D. program just looking to get ahead. Do you not have something concrete that interests you? That you want to discover or get to the bottom of? Your Ph.D. research should be about doing that. And that should be your key motivation - not chalking up merit points for publications or conferences etc.

  3. When I was feeling down due to my research not going well, I found my teaching work to be rather consoling and satisfying. I'm not sure what it's like for you, but if you haven't tried that, consider it.

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Your expectations were set based on the great success of your first paper, and now you're frustrated that you've put so much more work into a second paper but it failed in comparison.

This is a life lesson - not in your career path, but in workload management. You burnt out and exhausted yourself. Had the 2nd paper turned out brilliant, you probably would have gotten away with it, because the feeling of accomplishment would validate all the extra effort. But it didn't turn out so well - you are feeling the stress collapse inward now that it isn't bolstered by your high expectations.

There are two very helpful things you should do. First, take a vacation and get away from work for at least a week, preferably two weeks. Second, you should set your next project up to be something small, easily manageable, and something you enjoy. You need to learn workload management, and that will prevent 80% of the burnout you currently feel. Very few people can sustain a real 50+ hour workweek in an intellectual field. Most (notably doctors) have a lot of mentally de-tuned time, which allows them to manage long hours better. The supposed 'executive' 60-hour workweek includes meals, exercise, travel, and sometimes even family time in that 60 hours. The Americans’ Use of Time Project has estimated that people who claim to work 55-59 hours per week actually work about 42-47 hours (http://fortune.com/2012/10/16/how-hard-do-executives-really-work-today/).

You won't hit a home run every time you're at bat, so don't set yourself up to always be at bat with all the bases loaded. Give yourself some time to recharge, and bat some easy singles against the warm-up pitcher.

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First: stop working 70 hour weeks

I find it sad how little attention academia pays to the huge amount of research into productivity[1]. Working absurdly long hours does not make you more productive but does kill your creativity, ramp up your stress levels, and sooner or later makes you burnt out

Second: take time off

You have holiday entitlement as a PhD student, use it now. If you're in Europe you'll likely get a sensible amount and can take a couple of weeks off. If you're in the US, you're probably restricted to a smaller amount but you still have entitlement you should be using. In your state, a break is necessary.

Third: learn to say no to completely unreasonable requests

I am so tired of receiving new tasks at 4 am or 11 pm due the next day.

Any task received outside of normal working hours should be considered unreasonable. Reject them. Any task received without reasonable time to do it is unreasonable. Stop accepting them. Write back - in work hours - with what you consider a reasonable timescale in which you can achieve it, taking into account your other work.

Fourth: seek support from the University

Your university will have student support and counselling service available to you; find out what they are and use them.


A PhD is a long and hard process, and research is - by its very nature - a hard slog, with variable success and, sometimes long, periods of failure. If you knew how to do it already, it wouldn't be research. It is normal, therefore, for PhD students to have periods of doubt during their PhD programme. Before deciding whether you wish to leave, take the time to get yourself into a clearer mental state so you consider it properly.


[1] For an enjoyable introduction read The Mythical Man Month and Peopleware. Actually, if you're in CS read them anyway.

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Aside from the very good advice of getting counseling and balancing your work and life(!) a popular saying comes to mind: When you fall off a horse, you've got to get back on.

Probably you need some well deserved rest first, but IMO the best way to get rid of the sour taste of your previous experience is to venture into a new project. This will allow you to rediscover why you're doing what you do and help you keep your mind off your previous disappointment (this will require effort!). A variation of this idea is that if you eventually decide to quit, try to do it with a good taste in mouth.

If there's something I've learned during my PhD is that personal growth is as, if not more, important as the actual technical aspects of it. In this case you're dealing with a major disappointment. However, it's within you to make this a valuable lesson and demonstrate to yourself that you can overcome this and other obstacles that might (and will certainly) come in your life.

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"[I] found myself too frustrated and suddenly lost all interest in research, stopped caring about papers, did as best I could to avoid talking to anyone, and want to leave this place and never come back."

This sounds exactly like a psychological reaction - avoidance of people, and seeking ways to not think of the upsetting thing. I would say absolutely, seek counselling help, and view these as appropriate and mature steps to take, because this is something that could also be playing out in other times and places, causing you distress.

I can't say if you have actually lost interest, but I don't think so. I think it has hit you hard and the reaction against that perceived lapse might be misinterpreted as lack of interest.

It's a very common reaction to avoid that which we feel we have done wrongly, and this sounds much more like that reaction. Also to feel that taking the pressure off is acknowledgement of a kind of failure - it isnt.

The good new is that when that aspect is looked into, many people feel renewed vigour and energy on resuming.

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Speaking as a person who reached burnout and left, to the islands no less. I truly believe in retrospect, the greatest life lesson would have been to push the doctorate thru. I did change course in life and my degrees are not directly relevant to my current path, yet they will always have tremendous value. You did succeed in the first year of the program, this is not your first week, you have significant time (and success) invested. Get this doctorate, you don't necessarily need this doctorate or any other to eventually succeed in whatever career path you choose, but this doctorate and all its prestige and benefits will be there for your life. The great lesson you are going to learn here is not about subject matter, it is about your inner self. Can you push thru after major disappoint, learn from failure, regain composure and conquer seemingly insurmountable pressure, or will you run, give up by saying you lost interest? Either path you choose will define you for life, your inner self, and only you will be experiencing the consequences every single day thereafter.

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    Speaking as a person who reached burnout and instead of leaving, tried to "push through". Next thing I knew I was in hospital for a week. Then I left for good and never once have I missed the "prestige and benefits" of the doctorate I didn't get. Burnout is a serious issue. Working 70-hour weeks is detrimental to your health even before burnout (which is just round the corner anyway if you do it continually). You're picking between your health and "this doctorate and its prestige and benefits". – laszlok Sep 12 '17 at 6:59
  • Note I'm not saying you need to leave for good. Maybe coming back after a break is going to work for you. But I'm pretty sure you need to stop killing yourself with 70-hour weeks, and think it likely that you need weeks or months off. – laszlok Sep 12 '17 at 7:01
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Just get your PhD and leave afterwards. Most published research is irrelevant anyway. The science community has a serious problem with their "accomplishment" metric: h-index / number of papers etc. They do not allow for failure or dead tracks which, however, are quite natural if you are doing real research at the brink of current knowledge.

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    "Just"? That's not a "just". That's incredibly difficult, emotionally, in such a situation. You don't "just" get PhDs. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Sep 11 '17 at 13:03

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