Quitting My PhD Course

During the first week of my PhD course we were told the pass rate was 95%. That is, 95% of those who make it to the end of the 3.5 years will pass their final examination, but around 40% of all people who start a PhD drop out before then. Upon being told this everyone automatically assumes this will never happen to them. After all, all you have to do is stick it out to the end, right? When contemplating quitting I’d be told things like

“Haven’t you got over half way through? Can’t you hang in there till the end and move on to something else? You’ll definitely regret quitting.”

When the remaining time feels like a prison sentence (melodramatic, but genuinely how I felt at the time) then it’s probably time to call it a day regardless of how far through you are.

What went wrong

My PhD project was an experimental investigation of the magnetic characteristics of graphene, the magical 2D wonder-material. The research field itself is fairly interesting with lots of cool sci-fi applications such as bendy phones that never happened and Windows Condoms, amongst other more important things.

The first year of my studies went OK and was fairly enjoyable. I’d gathered a reasonable amount of data and sort of knew what I was doing with regards to my experiments. Despite frequent bouts of Imposter Syndrome, things were going okay.

From pretty much the start of my second year things began to take a downward turn. In real terms I made no progress in a solid year. Copious amounts of data was taken, all of which turned out to be garbage. It turns out a solid year of being rubbish at something can really make you lose interest in it. Eventually my motivation just completely bottomed out. I showed up to the lab at erratic times, often just leaving again after a few hours of having achieved nothing but staring at my computer for a bit. Some days I’d carry out menial routine maintenance of various bits of equipment. Occasionally I’d break something. It was a riveting existence.

Deciding to quit

I read an article introducing The Valley of Shit , a common phenomenon encountered by PhD students whereby you feel trapped in an endless torrent of faeces. Through reading this article I came to realise that it would take a serious amount of time before I’d emerge from the river of dung and, honestly, I just didn’t care enough to carry on any more.

After consulting a counsellor regarding my motivation and related issues (depression, anxiety, etc.) I finally decided to talk to my supervisor about it. He was very understanding and somewhat mortified that I hadn’t said anything to him before. I’d advise anyone having similar issues to tell their supervisor about it ASAP. It’s a difficult conversation to have but they’ll probably suggest good courses of action to try and fix the situation. In my case, we agreed that I’d carry on for a month and attempt to take one more set of data in order to get a paper published.

The final month of my PhD was an interesting one. For a while there was almost a complete shift back to the “correct” mindset for the job. Things were working. Everything felt like it was getting better…

And then it all fell apart again. In less than one week I went from quiet contentment to complete despair. Actually in a single afternoon I managed to inadvertently wreck my last test device and write off my experiment. If nothing else, the exercise served as a perfect affirmation of my feelings towards the entire experience. This was the nail in the coffin. The next day I informed my supervisor that I’d be quitting.
The hardest part of the final month was not actually the job itself. Throughout the month I had decided not to inform my colleagues of my intentions, which felt a lot like deception by omission. In the end, those people were surprisingly understanding about the whole thing. Everyone at work knew the problems I’d been having and that I was clearly not having the best of times. Just hope I didn’t piss anyone off too much!


Since all of this has happened, I haven’t regretted my decision once. The relief I felt after quitting was unbelievable. Every now and then I wonder whether I could’ve finished the project. I’m fairly sure I could’ve but it would have been horrible and I’d still be doing it right now. Definitely prefer making games and travelling around the world…

4 thoughts on “Quitting My PhD Course

  1. I is great to see this perspective of a PhD out there, it is difficult to talk about and look at from different angles. I think this will be great for people to look to and see what to do if they want to do a PhD or if they are not having fun while working on one.


  2. Thanks Hannah. When I was going through all this I found a few articles and forum entries written by people who were clearly going through very similar issues to me. It helped a lot to know that there were others going through the same thing, and to see how they handled it.

    An option that was came up a lot was to write up what you’ve already done as an MPhil so you at least get something out of the whole experience. I probably should’ve done this but at the time I just wanted to get out ASAP as it was driving me nuts!


  3. Scary how similar your experience was to mine, pretty much the same but I ended up making websites instead of games. The only thing I regretted was not quitting sooner!

    I was sad to not get the title, but there are not that many employability perks in the vast majority of PhDs so it’s really not the end of the world.


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