“A PhD ruined my life” How getting a PhD changes everything

In this post, we delve into the often unspoken hardships accompanying the pursuit of a PhD.

It’s a journey that changes lives profoundly – sometimes leading to regret and unforeseen challenges.

We’ll shed light on common reasons behind these regrets and explore real-life cases where individuals felt their PhD journey was more damaging than beneficial. 

While a PhD opens doors to intellectual growth and prestigious opportunities, it can also set the stage for disillusionment, job insecurity, exploitation, intense competition, and more. Join us as we unravel these narratives, providing insights and lessons drawn from personal experiences.

Common reasons that people regret their PhD and how grad school ruined their life

Reasons for Regretting a PhDHow it Potentially Ruined Their Life
Lack of true passion for researchIndividuals who pursued a PhD for the prestige, rather than out of love for research, ended up disillusioned and dissatisfied.
Poor job prospects in academic fieldsMany PhD graduates struggled to find tenured positions, leading to financial instability and underemployment.
Exploitation and low pay in academiaA PhD often leads to roles that pay poorly, even though they demand a lot of work, leading to a low standard of living.
Extreme competitionThe competition in the academic field is fierce. Not everyone thrives in such environments, leading to stress, disappointment, and self-doubt.
Lack of practical or transferrable skillsSome PhD holders found it challenging to transition into non-academic sectors due to their specialized skills not being valued or understood.
Geographic limitationsAvailable academic positions are often in remote or less desirable locations, causing personal dissatisfaction or upheaval.
Negative work environmentThe academic world can be politically charged and, in some cases, toxic, leading to emotional distress and job dissatisfaction.
Long duration of the programA PhD typically takes many years to complete, during which the individual could have gained substantial professional experience or personal growth elsewhere.
High opportunity costThe time and money invested in obtaining a PhD could have been used for other potentially more profitable or satisfying ventures.
Difficulty balancing personal lifeThe intense demands of a PhD program can interfere with family life, relationships, and personal time.

A PhD ruined my life case studies

Here are some real-life case studies that demonstrate how a PhD programme can ruin someone’s life and show that PhDs are not always a positive step for someone’s career.

Case Study: The Unseen Struggles in Pursuit of a U.S. PhD


The subject, an international Black student, embarked on his PhD journey in the U.S. after completing his previous studies in a different culture. Already diagnosed with bipolar 2 and generalized anxiety disorder, he transitioned from a cooperative study environment to a highly competitive one in the U.S. The shift to a more individualistic and competitive culture, coupled with a drinking culture, intensified his pre-existing conditions and led him down a path of alcohol addiction. This had further negative impacts on his mental health, academic progress, and personal relationships.


Despite his struggles, the subject sought help from campus therapists and received some institutional support. However, his mental health issues were compounded by what he perceived as a lack of understanding and sufficient support from the faculty and administration. His request for extra time to complete exams due to mental breakdowns and addiction issues was met with resistance.

He was eventually dismissed from the program due to unsatisfactory progress, largely influenced by his mental health struggles and addiction. This left him jobless and unable to travel back to his partner due to visa restrictions.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Mental Health Support: The mental health crisis in the PhD student community is glaring. Institutions need to better recognize and address the prevalence of anxiety and depression among their students.
  2. Inclusive Policies: The traditional structure of PhD programs, with rigorous and inflexible examination schedules, can inadvertently disadvantage students with neurodivergent conditions or mental health challenges. Universities should consider implementing more inclusive policies that take into account students’ diverse needs.
  3. Cultural Sensitivity: Universities should also be more aware and considerate of the cultural adjustments that international students may face. They should provide support to help students transition and adapt to the new environment.
  4. Faculty Training: Staff training should include understanding and addressing mental health issues and how to provide appropriate support. It’s not only about academic mentoring but also about nurturing students’ wellbeing.
  5. Early Intervention: Implementing systems to identify students who are struggling early on can allow for timely intervention, potentially preventing further deterioration of mental health and academic performance.

Case Study: “Identity Crisis: The Tale of a Disoriented PhD Graduate”

Jane Doe was a goal-oriented and motivated individual who thrived in an academic environment. For seven and a half years, she immersed herself in two graduate programs in two different states, earning herself two graduate degrees. Over time, her identity became intrinsically linked to her role as a student; she found comfort in the structure, rhythm, and recognition of academic achievement.

However, this success story took a twist when Jane graduated and was thrust into the world outside of academia. With her doctoral hood around her neck and her degree in hand, she found herself in an identity crisis. The very core of who she was had been tied to being a student, and with graduation, she felt as though she had lost a part of herself.

Jane found herself feeling lost, alien, and a sense of persistent dread filled her days. She continued to teach as an adjunct professor at her alma mater, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her social interactions, both online and offline, felt hollow and disjointed. She was stuck between worlds, not fully a part of academia anymore, and not yet a part of the “real world.”

Even her accomplishment, becoming a PhD graduate, something less than 2% of the US population achieves, did not bring her the satisfaction she had anticipated. Her self-identity as a graduate student was so deep-rooted that she could not rejoice in her achievements or take pride in her accomplishment.

Three months post-graduation, Jane realized the root of her discomfort: she had allowed her temporary identity as a student to define her whole being. The transition from student to graduate was a jarring one, stripping away a part of her identity.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Diversify Self-Identity: It’s important not to let a single aspect of one’s life, such as a role or occupation, dominate one’s identity. A balanced self-identity is critical in mitigating such identity crises.
  2. Prepare for Change: Transitions, such as graduation, should be anticipated and emotionally prepared for. Understanding that change is part of life can help alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with major life transitions.
  3. Value Self Beyond Achievements: While academic and professional achievements are essential, it’s important to remember that self-worth isn’t solely derived from them. Jane learned to see herself as more than just her PhD, a lesson that can be beneficial to all.
  4. Adaptability: Becoming adaptable and resilient in the face of change is a valuable skill. Understanding that jobs, roles, and titles may change, but one’s inherent value and capabilities remain, is crucial.
  5. Seek Support: During such transitions, seeking support from a mentor, counselor, or peer group can provide valuable perspective and strategies to cope with feelings of loss and identity confusion.

In the end, Jane found peace in her new life and saw new ways to apply her knowledge and skills. Her journey serves as a stark reminder that while education shapes us, it doesn’t define us. Our identities are fluid and adaptable, ever-changing as we navigate the course of life.

Wrapping up – How a PhD can ruin your life

The pursuit of a PhD can irrevocably alter one’s life trajectory. 

This higher education undertaking has been a bane for many grad students who naively entered their program, only to face overwhelming pressure, mental health issues, and burnout.

Former PhD students have lamented on how the journey has ruined their life – from exacerbating pre-existing conditions like anxiety and depression, to leading to feelings of low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.

The harsh realities of the academic job market and the exploitative world of academia can lead to disillusionment, manifesting as regret over one’s decision to pursue a PhD degree.

Moreover, the potential lack of interpersonal support from professors and advisors, coupled with the often dismissive attitudes of universities towards mental health problems, can make the situation much worse.

We must scrutinise the pros and cons of the PhD system and work towards reforming the academic culture, putting emphasis on mental health support services, fair treatment of grad students, and adaptable program structures.

In retrospect, a PhD is a monumental commitment – not a hobby to be undertaken lightly. It is essential for potential students to fully understand the challenges that lurk in the journey ahead.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.