When should you quit your PhD? Advice for students

Deciding whether you should finish your PhD or leave academia altogether is a very tough decision to make. It shouldn’t be taken lightly, and many PhD students want to quit their PhD at many points throughout the process. I know that I wanted to quit my PhD in the second year but I’m pleased that I stuck it out.

Quitting your PhD may make sense if you have a complete breakdown of your supervisor relationship, you are working with a poorly designed project, mental health issues are getting in the way, or you simply do not want to continue in academia after your first year.

The constant presence of failure and criticism throughout a PhD can make PhD candidates feel like they will never be smart enough and can cause feelings of being an imposter.

This article will go through everything you need to know about when you should quit your PhD and help you make one of the toughest decisions that any PhD can make.

It is important to note that people who quit are not failures.

There is a narrative in academia that can cause people to feel really anxious about quitting. However, failing to quit when it is the best decision for you is much more of a failing.

I talk about this more in my YouTube video below.

Read more to find out the insider secrets to quitting your PhD.

When should a PhD student quit?

There is no one size fits all answer to when a PhD student should quit.

However, there are some general guidelines that may be helpful in deciding whether or not to quit a PhD program.

If you are facing significant personal or health problems that are impacting your ability to complete your studies, it may be time to consider quitting.

Additionally, if a student feels they are not making progress and are not enjoying the program, it may be time to reassess their goals and consider whether or not continuing with the PhD is the right decision.

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to quit a PhD program should be made after careful consideration of all factors involved.

But you are not alone in this decision!

Here are some other people who have quit their PhD and are talking about on YouTube that you may find interesting to watch:

TibeesVida nuestraJustin Brown
Struggling but TryingizzitMichaelaphdpreneur

Here are some important aspects that you can consider if you are considering giving up your PhD.

After your first year

Before you decide to quit your PhD, you should at least see if it isn’t poor for you. Spend at least six months in your doctorate before asking yourself whether academia is the right career choice for you.

Having tried a PhD and realising that it is not for you is certainly not a failure.

The first year will show you pretty much all of the important aspects of having a career in academia. Therefore, you can base your decision on how much you have really enjoyed your first year and whether or not it is something that you want to continue for another two – five years.

Breakdown of the supervisor relationship

Your PhD will be heavily dictated by your academic supervisor.

It’s important that you maintain a healthy supervisor relationship. However, sometimes that is easier said than done.

If your PhD supervisor relationship has completely broken down and is toxic, I would recommend looking for an alternative supervisor or leaving the project altogether and looking for other opportunities in academia and outside of academia elsewhere.

I highly recommend that you have a co-supervisor during your PhD so that if one of the supervisor relationships breaks down you always have a backup.

The project is poorly designed

Sometimes the best plans can go badly.

It is worth quitting your PhD if you have got nowhere with your research after two years. Sometimes research does not reward you for hard work and it can be a very frustrating time.

Look at the progress of your research and focus on stuff that is working. Ultimately, at the end of your PhD you are expected to write up a dissertation or a number of peer-reviewed papers to show that you have contributed enough novel work to be admitted into your doctorate.

If you are unable to satisfy this, you will simply fail to obtain your PhD.

A good project is one that is relatively flexible and can pivot to other areas if one section of the plan is not working.

Mental health issues

Mental health issues are also another reason why you should consider quitting your PhD or, at least putting it on hold.

Your PhD is only as good as your mental health. You will be the one responsible for pushing the project forward when things are going badly and this takes a fair amount of resilience and persistence.

Resilience and persistence are at their best when your mental health is too.

Financial issues

Many people want to quit their PhD due to financial stress.

Earning a student stipend for multiple years can be a very stressful and miserable time for those who have got expenses and debts. Some people get a job alongside their PhD but this is not realistic for most.

Quitting your PhD in saving up money in a job may help you return to academia with a financial safety net that can make your PhD much less stressful.

The best way to quit your PhD

There is no one best way to quit your PhD as every situation is unique, and you will need to find an approach that works best for you.

However, there are some general tips that may be helpful.

First, it is important to have a clear plan and reason for leaving your PhD program. This will make it easier to stay focused and motivated as you go through the process of quitting.

Second, try to give yourself plenty of time to make the transition. This includes both mentally and emotionally preparing for the change, as well as taking care of any practical details like finding a new place to live or transferring your health insurance and all of the boring admin stuff that may occur.

Finally, be sure to reach out for support from family and friends during this time. Quitting a PhD can be a difficult and stressful experience but having a strong support network can make it much easier.

Here are some steps you can take to ease the transition.

Take some time off – Pause your studies

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to take a break.

Step away from your research and give yourself some time to relax. You may be able to give yourself up to a year off from your research. I have spoken with PhD students have done this and they are able to re-enter their PhD with much more focus and motivation.

Try to come back to your research with fresh eyes and a clear mind.

Leave your PhD amicably

If you decide to leave your PhD program, it is important to do so amicably.

This means that you should try to maintain a good relationship with your advisor and committee members. You should also let them know about your decision as soon as possible. A committee member may be able to help you find a new advisor.

Finally, it is also a good idea to write a letter of resignation. This will help you to state your intentions in a professional manner and it will also give your supervisor time to adjust or find a replacement PhD student for the project.

A letter of resignation can be an extremely difficult thing to write. However, it is important that you take the time to write one so that your supervisor and the University know that you are leaving.

What are your next career plans?

Before leaving your PhD you need to ask yourself what is next for your career.

What excites you? What job would you be excited to turn up to every day?

Most people will need to find work as soon as they leave their PhD in order to live comfortably. Think about what you’d like to do and your plans for after you quit.

This will help you consider whether or not quitting is the right decision for you and help ease the transition as you will be excited for your next adventure.

Wrapping up

If you decide to quit a PhD it can be a very daunting experience and many people wonder if they will regret it.

There are many people that quit a PhD for a variety of reasons. Ensuring that you are comfortable with your decision and that you’re excited about the next stage in your life will help ease the transition.

You can also take eight couple of months off to settle on your decision without the pressures of academia muddying your thoughts.

For many people a PhD is not the right choice and quitting is the best decision they can make. Good luck with your decision!

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.