I'm 22, and I'm one year into my PhD in History. I immediately started my PhD after finishing my master's, working with the same supervisor. Throughout the years, I've started to become more and more anxious when it came to writing essays and doing research. I hated working on my master's thesis, but I nonetheless grabbed the opportunity to start a PhD, because I convinced myself that it was something that I would be good at, I wanted to overcome my anxiety and challenge myself mentally, and the stipend is very decent. Now I'm one year into my PhD, and I'm constantly anxious and depressed. I feel like I've accomplished nothing, I have huge problems concentrating. My head feels so scrambled right now, that I can barely figure out my research questions and key thesis. Whenever I read articles on my topic, I feel like I can barely manage the information. I feel stupid and totally inadequate. Communicating with my supervisor is horrible, since I go mute from anxiety mid-conversation.

I feel trapped in my PhD. I feel horrible, but I also feel like I can't quit, because I would disappoint so many people and regret it for the rest of my life.

Any advice on coping with these issues, and getting back on track? Any particular advice on how to start delineating a research project? Am I already in a hopeless situation, or can I still 'save' my PhD?

Edit : My university doesn't offer counseling for PhD students, but I have been seeing a shrink for the past year. I don't know if I'm improving or not.

  • 9
    "I go mute from anxiety mid-conversation" sounds like a good point to start discussing with a mental health professional. If your university offers mental health help, start from there. You can also read How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?. It's the top-voted question here, which means you are not alone.
    – svavil
    Oct 1, 2017 at 12:15
  • 3
    Try a new therapist! Ask for a recommendation for someone who might be able to also recommend some anti-anxiety meds. If you are not sure if the sessions are helping, then it is not a good fit. Also it is normal to try several therapists.
    – Dawn
    Oct 1, 2017 at 13:49
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    How can you have finished a master and be one year into a PhD at age 22? Did you skip some years in highschool? At such a young age you can easily change to a different career or even take a year hiatus to consider your life choices and improve your mental health.
    – user9482
    Oct 1, 2017 at 18:00
  • Maybe take a break from academia for a year and evaluate and decide with your life choices
    – alex
    Nov 9, 2017 at 9:06

3 Answers 3


This is the reason you gave for pursuing a PhD:

 I hated working on my master's thesis, but I nonetheless grabbed the opportunity to start a PhD, because I convinced myself that it was something that I would be good at, I wanted to overcome my anxiety and challenge myself mentally, and the stipend is very decent.

You don't say that you were anxious about writing the thesis, you say that you hated it, which sounds to me like you simply don't like doing academic research. But that is the whole point of a PhD. Furthermore, the only career a PhD in history really prepares you for is research and teaching, and you don't say anything about your feelings about teaching.

So it sounds like you enrolled because of extraneous expectations from both yourself and others. Getting a PhD is not a merit badge, it's very specific training for a very specific purpose. There are plenty of other ways to show that you are smart. And "losing" one year is no big deal, especially when compared to spending even more time going down what might well not be the right path for you.

  • @JohnColeman The OP said that they were seeing a therapist, but made no mention of a depression diagnosis. I think you're right that I should back off "clearly not the right path," but a self-assessment that someone hates doing something is a pretty good indicator that they don't like doing it. Oct 1, 2017 at 19:20
  • Hi! I actually really like the teaching responsibilities I have. I find teaching stressful, but exciting at the same time. Which by the way, is how I used to feel when I just started my PhD. Terrified, but sort of excited. I've actually loved to write as a child and as a teen. I also remember liking to do research in my freshman year, but as time went on, I started to feel really insecure about my research and writing skills. I really feel like anxiety hit me in the face, although it's probably something that has been building up for quite some time.
    – kaliope
    Oct 1, 2017 at 20:22
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    Hi @kaliope it's impossible for a random stranger on the internet such as myself to know your entire situation, but I can say that grad school is the worst possible place to figure stuff out (or deal with mental or physical health issues, for that matter). There's really nothing preventing you from coming back to this or another PhD program after some time away, even though it might not seem that way right now. People do it all the time. Best of luck. Oct 1, 2017 at 20:37

Sounds like it's time for a leave of absence. A letter from a medical or mental health provider could be helpful in arranging this.

Lower the stakes for yourself by postponing any long-term decisions. You can withdraw from the current semester and take a break (we don't know for how long yet) without burning your bridges.

I'm not going to push medications; but I will go so far as to say that you might want to ask your medical provider about possible medications to support the psychotherapy, and then discuss the options, pros and cons, etc., with him or her.

  • Under ANY circumstances, put your health and your psychological condition first.
    Always, ALWAYS put it above your grades, academic accomplishments, or career.

  • Would it be possible for you to take a break? Can you ask your doctor(s) to provide you with the necessary paperwork? And then talk to your supervisor and the university administration on how to arrange for a break? You do NOT need to reveal to them how you hate your research. Just explain that you are having health issues.

  • A break should help you to relax. Ideally, you should forbid yourself, for some time, even to think about your university experience. After having some rest, you may want to ask yourself several questions:
    (1) What are your plans for future, at large?
    (2) How valuable will a PhD degree be in the light of those plans? (3) Why are you staying in academia? Was this YOUR choice or someone else's choice? Is any social pressure involved? Or prestige? (Could it be, say, that your parents want you to please them with a PhD from a prestigeous school, and you cannot say no?)
    (4) Why exactly do you hate your research? Do you hate research as such, and the entire academic life? Or do you detest your area, History? Or do you, perhaps, detest the topic and direction of your studies?
    Having at hand clear answers to these questions will help you to decide if you wish to continue your studies.

From the bottom of my heart, I wish you luck in your career -- but, first of all, recovery from the stress. Put your health first -- this is more important than anything.

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