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…