Quitting a PhD


You are not alone

About three months ago, I finally gathered the courage to speak to my supervisors about a fear of mine. My fear of failure, of nothingness, of emptiness awaiting if my PhD is not completed. I have had some really great talks with numerous people and came to a conclusion. On June 30th 2021, I will no longer be a PhD student. After almost two years, I quit, leaving academia without a doctorate. 

I wish to hold out a virtual hand to anyone going through similar experiences. It doesn’t mean you should do what I did and quit your PhD. But if you decide to do so, I want to reassure you that that’s okay. You are not worth any less, and you haven’t failed yourself or anyone else.

You are also not alone. Depending on the source, subject and country, around a quarter to half of all PhD students drop out before obtaining their degree. COVID-19 made things even worse. According to an Australian survey, due to financial hardships resulting from the pandemic, 45% of PhD students interviewed expected to be forced to quit 

Research is Hard. Academia is Even Harder.

First and foremost, I am a passionate astrophysicist. I love manning the university’s telescope at night and looking for new data to scrutinize later. I like coming up with creative solutions for complicated problems, to try and fail until something works.  But, science is not only that. 
Science can also be pressure and a competition on who publishes first, who dedicates their life more for the cause, who works longer hours, who takes less breaks and days of vacation, who works for less, who moves around the world to countries they don’t speak the language of and they don’t know anybody in. 

I am not saying that everyone in academia acts like this, but partly, the field is dominated by people who do. This is also not necessarily a bad thing, since positive competition can be the path to a great career in science.

In the end, academia is a business, like any other. Only here, people are not coaxed into making profits by salaries, but by their love for science, and sometimes by a fear of not being as intelligent as they thought they were. 

The fact that a PhD position can be straining on your mental health is not new. In 2019, 36% of students responding to Nature’s biennial PhD survey said they have sought help for PhD related anxiety and depression. In a survey of 50 000 grad students in the UK from the same year, 87% reported levels of anxiety, a much higher percentage than found within the general population. A summary of the most common stress factors during a PhD can be seen in Fig. 1. 
Nature concludes that the current system in academia and research is ‘making young people ill’. And that the community should find a way to protect and empower them. Otherwise, they would be driven off. 

Fig. 1: The most common stress factors in a PhD. If you need help, make sure to reach out.

There will be many who disagree with me, those who are perfectly happy. And I do not believe they are all wrong. Some academics gladly give everything to science, and others find a way to maintain a balance between work and a private life. That is wonderful.

If I am not smart, what am I?

I have always put great emphasis on my personal academic performance. But this tilted from being something I just counted among inherent features of mine in school, to something far more sinister. When I began studying Physics, things suddenly got hard. I went through what most ‘gifted’ kids go through: in the real world, being smart does not cut it anymore. 
I came through. I got my Bachelor’s and then my Master’s degree. I should have been proud. 
I wasn’t. There was always something else to achieve, another title to obtain. My academic performance was no longer a side trait of mine. It became almost my sole source of self-worth. This behavior, while struggling to maintain my incredibly high standards, turned toxic very fast. 

When I got my PhD offer in 2019, I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot after the interview, crying happy tears and calling everyone to tell them the great news. I wanted this so bad. I always looked up to scientists, especially women, and thought to myself: ‘I want to be like that. I want that title, I want to do research and bring humanity ahead in its quest for knowledge’. I wanted to try. 

After I began my work as a PhD student, my life started to revolve around my own inadequacy. Anything I did, it was never good enough.
I realized I wasn’t one of those people mentioned above. I couldn’t give it all to science, nor was I able to find a balance between work and my private life. I tried to work more, take on more projects, and write more papers. I thought, if I just pushed harder, maybe then I would be happy. 

When friends told me that I had begun to change and they were worried about me, I snapped out of it. I realized I had to leave. Not because I lost my love for the field or have no successes to report, but because I must maintain my mental health and self-worth. 

I came so far, I did real research for almost two years and parts of it were incredible. I learned so much, I was able to get into the frontiers of science. I am so thankful for all that. But it is time to leave now.

Taking Care of Yourself

Actually, I enjoy life. I am so lucky. I have friends and family and I am healthy. I want to be happy again. Putting it all on quitting my PhD is not the right idea, but removing myself from this vicious circle of hateful self-talk and self-loathing due to perceived academic failure is something important for me to do now. 

If you feel the same way, please, first and foremost, take care of yourself and feel free to reach out. Do not believe yourself that you are stupid or lazy or simply not good enough. You are doing something so incredibly hard. It is okay to struggle. It is great to pull through. And it is okay to quit. I don’t call it giving up, because making the decision to go was one of the bravest things I ever did. 

There are many great resources on quitting out there, published by journals like Science, Nature, etc., universities and individuals:

Reading up on these has given me the courage to go through with my plans. It also helped me see that I am not tainted, nor shunned by the world of science. There is a problem with anxiety, depression and general poor mental health within academia and most people within it realize that. 

I am still an astrophysicist. I love science. I love astronomy. I am not leaving these things behind. They are always with me and a part of me. And of that, I will learn to be prouder every day.

Astrobite edited by Wei Yan


Du bist nicht allein

Vor ungefähr drei Monaten nahm ich endlich meinen Mut zusammen und suchte das Gespräch mit meinen Betreuern. Es ging um eine Angst, die schon länger in mir wohnte. Ein Angst vor dem Versagen, vor dem Nichts, der Leere die mich erwartet, wenn mein Doktor nicht vollendet wird.
Nach einigen sehr hilfreichen und konstruktiven Gesprächen mit unterschiedlichen Leuten kam ich endlich zu einem Ergebnis. Nach dem 30. Juni 2021 werde ich keine Doktorandin mehr sein. Nach fast zwei Jahren breche ich ab und verlasse Akademia ohne einen Doktortitel.

Ich möchte meine virtuelle Hand jedem anbieten, der gerade ähnliches durchmacht. Das bedeutet nicht, dass du das selbe tun solltest wie ich und deinen Doktor abbrechen musst. Aber falls das die Entschiedung sein sollte, dann möchte ich dir versichern, dass das in Ordnung ist. Du bist weder weniger wert, noch bist du eine Enttäuschung für dich selbst oder irgendjemand anderen.

Außerdem bist du nicht allein. Abhängig von der Quelle, dem Fach und dem Land, brechen zwischen einem Viertel und der Hälfte aller Doktorand:innen ihre Promotion ab ohne einen entsprechenden Titel zu erlangen. COVID-19 machte die Dinge noch schlimmer. Gemäß einer Australischen Studie fürchteten 45% aller befragten Doktorand:innen aufgrund finazieller Engpässe abbrechen zu müssen.

Forschung ist hart. Die akademische Welt ist noch härter.

An allererster Stelle bin ich passionierte Astrophysikerin. Das Teleskop der Universität nachts zu bedienen und den Himmel nach neuen Daten abzusuchen, die es später zu analysieren gilt, hat mir große Freude bereitet. Ich finde Gefallen daran, kreative Lösungen für komplizierte Probleme zu entwerfen, etwas wieder und wieder zu probieren bis endlich etwas funktioniert. Doch Wissenschaft ist nicht nur das.
Wissenschaft kann auch Druck und ein Wettbewerb sein. Es geht darum, wer zuerst veröffentlicht, wer sein Leben mehr dem Beruf opfert, wer länger arbeitet, weniger Pausen oder Urlaubstage nimmt, wer für weniger Geld arbeitet, wer in andere Länder dieser Welt zieht, deren Sprache er oder sie nicht spricht und niemanden dort kennt.

Ich behauptet nicht, dass alle in der akademischen Welt die Dinge so sehen, doch teilweise ist der Berufsbereich von Menschen dominiert, die es tun. Es ist auch nicht unbedingt etwas schlechtes, ein positiver Wettbewerb kann der Pfad zu einer großartigen wissenschaftlichen Karriere sein.

Letztendlich ist auch Forschung ein Geschäft wie jedes andere. Der gravierende Unterschied besteht darin, dass die Menschen nicht unbedingt durch Löhne überredet werden einen Profit zu erwirtschaften, sondern durch ihre Liebe zur Wissenschaft und manchmal durch die Angst, sie könnten weniger intelligent sein, als sie dachten.

Die Tatsache, dass eine Doktorstelle auf die mentale Gesundheit schlagen kann, ist nicht neu. 2019 gaben 36% der Studenten, die sich in der zweijährlichen PhD Studie von Nature äußerten, an, bereits Hilfte für Angstzustände oder Depressionen, die im Zusammenhang mit ihrer Doktorstelle stehen, aufgesucht zu haben. In einer Studie mit 50 000 Doktorand:innen in Großbritannien vom selben Jahr berichteten 87% von Angstzuständen, ein deutlich höhere Prozentsatz als im Rest der Bevölkerung. Eine Zusammenfassung der häufigsten Stressfaktoren während eines Doktors ist in Fig. 1 dargestellt.
Nature kommt zu dem Schluss, dass das aktuelle System der akademischen Welt und der Forschung junge Leute krank macht. Die akademische Gemeinschaft müsse einen Weg finden, diese Menschen zu schützen und ihnen eine Stimme zu verleihen. Sonst würde man sie fort jagen.

Fig. 1: Die häufigsten Stressfaktoren während einer Doktorstelle.

Viele werden mir nicht zustimmen, diejenigen die sehr zufrieden sind mit ihrem Beruf in der Forschung. Ich denke nicht, dass sie falsch liegen oder sich selbst belügen. Einige geben gerne alles für die Wissenschaft und andere schaffen es eine Balance zwischen der Arbeit und ihrem Privatleben zu finden. Das ist großartig.

Wenn ich nicht klug bin, was bleibt dann?

Ich hatte schon immer großen Wert auf persönliche Leistungen gelegt. Doch das veränderte sich über die Zeit von einer Selbstverständlichkeit während meiner Schulzeit, zu etwas düsterem. Als ich began Physik zu studieren wurden die Dinge plötzlich schwer. Ich erlebte das, was die meisten ‘klugen’ Kinder erleben: in der echten Welt reicht klug sein nicht mehr.
Ich biss mich durch. Ich erhielt meinen Bachelor und dann meinen Masterabschluss. Ich hätte stolz sein müssen.
Ich war es nie. Es gab immer noch etwas, das erreicht werden musste, ein weiterer Titel. Meine akademischen Leistungen waren keine nebensächliche Eigenschaft meinerseits mehr. Sie wurden praktisch zur einzige Quelle meines Selbstbewusstseins. Natürlich wurde dieses Verhalten, während ich verzweifelt versuchte meine eigenen unglaublich hohen Standards zu erfüllen, sehr schnell toxisch.

Als ich 2019 das Angebot für meine Doktorstelle erhielt, war ich überglücklich. Ich erinnere mich, wie ich im Auto danach Freudentränen weinte und alle meine Freunde und die gesamte Familie anrief um ihnen von den guten Neuigkeiten zu berichten. Ich wollte das so sehr. Ich hatte immer schon aufgesehen zu Wissenschaftler:innen, vor allem zu Frauen, und hatte mir gedacht: “So möchte ich auch sein. Ich will diesen Titel, ich will Forschung machen und die Menschheit voran bringen in ihrem Durst nach Wissen.” Ich wollte es versuchen.

Nachdem ich mit der Arbeit begonnen hatte, begann mein Leben sich mehr und mehr um meine eignen Unzulänglichkeiten zu drehen. Egal was ich tat, es war nie gut genug.
Ich verstand, dass ich nicht einer der oben genannten Menschen war. Ich konnte nicht alles der Wissenschaft opfern, noch war es mir möglich eine Balance zu finden zwischen der Arbeit und meinem sonstigen Leben. Ich versuchte mehr zu arbeiten, mehr Projekte anzunehmen und mehr paper zu schreiben. Ich dachte, wenn mich nur mehr anstrengte, vielleicht würde ich dann glücklich werden.

Als meine Freunde mir nach und nach sagten, ich würde mich verändern und dass sie sich Sorgen machten, riss ich mich von dieser Idee los. Ich wusste, dass es Zeit war zu gehen. Nicht weil ich meine Liebe zur Astronomie verloren hatte oder keine Erfolge zu vermelden hatte, sondern weil ich meine mentale Gesundheit und meinen Selbstwert erhalten musste.

Ich bin so weit gekommen. Ich war fast zwei Jahre involviert in der aktuellen Forschung und viele Teile davon waren großartig. Ich habe so wahnsinnig viel gelernt als ich an der vordersten Front der Wissenschaft wirkte. Für das alles bin ich dankbar. Aber nun ist die Zeit gekommen, zu gehen.

Pass auf dich auf

Tatsächlich genieße ich eigentlich mein Leben. Ich hab es so gut. Ich habe Familie und Freunde und ich bin gesund. Ich möchte wieder glücklich sein. Alles daran zu hängen, meinen Doktor abzubrechen und zu hoffen, dass damit alles gut wird ist natürlich naiv. Aber mich aus dem Teufelskreis gehässiger Selbstkritik und Selbstverachtung zu entfernen ist ein Schritt in die richtige Richtung.

Falls es dir ähnlich geht bitte ich dich darum, an erster Stelle auf dich aufzupassen und dir Hilfe zu suchen. Glaube dir nicht, dass du schlicht zu dumm, zu faul oder einfach nicht gut genug bist. Du tust etwas so unglaublich schweres. Es ist in Ordnung damit zu kämpfen. Es ist großartig es durchzuziehen. Und es ist in Ordnung abzubrechen. Ich nenne es ungern aufgeben, denn die Entscheidung zu gehen war eines der mutigsten Dinge, was ich jemals tat.

Es gibt viele wunderbare Ressourcen über das Abbrechen, veröffentlich von Journalen wie Science oder Nature, Universtiäten und Individuen:

Diese Dinge zu lesen gab mir den Mut meine Pläne umzusetzen. Es half auch dabei zu erkennen, dass ich nicht gebrandmarkt oder verbannt bin von den Wissenschaft. Es gibt ein Problem mit Angst, Depression und allgemeiner schlechter mentaler Gesundheit in der akademischen Welt, und die meisten Menschen innerhalb verstehen das.

Ich bin immer noch Astrophysikerin. Ich liebe die Wissenschaft, ich liebe Astronomie. Ich lasse diese Dinge nicht hinter mir. Sind werden immer ein Teil von mir sein. Und darauf werde ich eines Tages lernen stolz zu sein.

Astrobite korrekturgelesen von Wei Yan

About Jana Steuer

I spent almost two years at the LMU Munich, working for the University Observatory (USM), which owns the 2.1m Fraunhofer Telescope Wendelstein. My field of research is exoplanets. I hunt for traces of them in data from big surveys, like the TESS mission and then follow them up, using spectrography and photometry. Mainly, I focus on long period planets that may potentially harbor life. Now, I am a full-time science communicator, working in a public observatory and making content in all its form to tell people about astronomy! I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan and act as a DM for several Dungeons and Dragons groups. I love cats and do kickboxing in my free time.

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  1. Kinda wish I had that courage years ago, honestly. As a kid I wanted to be “an astronomer,” without—of course—really knowing or understanding what that meant. By the time I’d finished my bachelor’s degree however, a part of me had realized (due to some undergrad research work) that I didn’t really enjoy research but I eventually silenced my misgivings and got accepted to a PhD program several years later. A few months in I realized—again—that I don’t enjoy research and don’t want to go into academia, but I chose to stick it out rather than quitting in a country halfway around the world and am now just a few months from submitting, having spent the past ~3.5 years feeling pretty miserable on balance. I’ll finish at this point for the degree, but good on yah for having the courage to make a clear-headed decision to pursue something better-suited to you!

    • You could always come back to research/academia should you change your mind later on.

      • Currently trying to leave mine. My university are making it very hard to. I’ve been wanting to leave mine for over a year now. Even took leave for 6 months. It is just causing me so much anxiety and stress. None of my family understands and all call me a failure. This has really helped. Thank you.

    • Dear Jana,
      I can relate with what you shared with us. Once I felt like you do currently. I fell into severe depression while doing my MBA. I completed my coursework in 2005 which were 12 physical exams which drained me mentally. I returned in 2009 to complete my research and had a setback again when I saw 101 comments from my supervisor. Again, I decided to quit. In 2012, a friend of mine encouraged me to attend to the 101 comments. Within one month I attended to all the comments and managed to submit my thesis, and I graduated one month after my final submission in 2012. But this was not the end. I got a job at a university and started with my PHD in 2018. I finished my coursework in 2019. Then I finished my chapter 1 during Jan 2020 and currently I am working in Chapters 4 and 5. But the beauty of this journey, is that I am emotionally stronger. I enjoy what I do and have fallen in love with my research topic, as I see my job as educational technology as a hobby. I personally think that you just need te take a break and not to quit everything. There will come a time that you may experience the urgency to complete your research. Your field of research is complex and certainly not for me….for that I salute you! Take a break, Jane…..you can always achieve your goals…maybe not in the timeline you planned. But you’re going to get your PHD. Sooner or later. All the best and keep safe.

      • Hi, thank you for sharing your thoughts!
        I think everybody’s journey is different, and I do not yet know what the future will look like. Maybe, some time ahead, I will go back into research. There are so many different experiences when it comes to science, it all depends greatly on environment, colleagues, supervisors, personal conditions, etc.
        I think one thing that becomes evident when looking at people’s stories about wanting to or quitting academia, the diversity of the times after that is striking. You never know. You are a wonderful example.

  2. You are not alone. I quit an Executive DBA, mid way through in the year 2002 and it is ok. May be you will have the courage and time to pursue your dream, sometime in the future.

  3. You could always come back to research/academia should you change your mind later on.

    • Hi Jana, I can relate to you on so many levels. I completed my PhD recently, only after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I was first diagnosed in 2015 and I still take medication.
      My absent supervisor, lack of proper guidance led me to do everything single bit by myself. Now I am struggling to get postdoc as I have only one first author research article published.
      But how do I tell the recruiters, it wasn’t my incompetence.
      Two of my fellow students left PhD after 5 years, only because of our supervisor.
      There should be a system for scoring supervisors too.

  4. Hello Jana,

    I left medical school feeling like it wasn’t the right fit for me. I felt a similar empty feeling afterwards. For me the field had changed since I was a child. Following your passion and having a balance in your life is the key. I am glad you were able to make this tough decision.


  5. In the current situation covid-19, India govt. taking steps only for 10th &12th class students. But it is true that, no any favourable action has shown by this govt . towards students those are doing hard work in field of PhD. in IITs,NITs, and other reputed University of India. Students are found haresh and decide to quit PhD.
    In this connection the higher education department of India to take any favourable step towards the concerned students,so that they are able to make their bright future.

    • Mental torture and harassment is the main problem for quitting PhD…and not work.

  6. So now you are writing all these things to console yourself??

    • No, I write these things in order to contribute to creating awareness about the conditions many PhD students find themselves in and in order to let people know, who feel similarly, that they are not alone. Feeling alone is a major factor when falling into depression or developing anxiety.
      Also, quitting is still a very scary thing to do for many people and I felt like I benefited greatly from personal experience reports of people who did something I was thinking about doing but felt uncertain about.

      • I really can relate, my mental health got worse for the last 8 months. I am unable even to read articles or even right although I used to love studies as you said research is far stressful and tiring than studies. Plus, I am unable to make a balance between my personal life and research. I am thinking to quit my PhD but my case is bit complicated as my stay in the country I am currently residing in depends on my PhD

        • Hello Yasmine, I was feeling the same way. What country do yo live in?

    • Hmm…an anonymous ill-intentioned comment?
      Keyboard warrior, why don’t you put your efforts into something more productive?

      Jana, a fantastic article. Thank you.

  7. Great article! I quit my PhD in Health Science program during COVID and it was the best decision ever. No regrets. I have my physical and mental health back.

  8. Hi Jana, I too have a similar past. I dropped out of my PhD in theoretical physics. It took toll my mental health. But quitting something that you grew up to do requires huge courage. But since 2020, the time I left PhD, life has been nice.

    • I’m in the same boat too. Thank you for your courage to share. I still shy away from telling people I’m quiting and feeling as you’ve mentioned, not good enough but yes, mental health and physical health is important. There’s more to life than a piece of paper. The years of slogging off and misery isn’t worth it. Thank you for writing. So I don’t feel so alone.

  9. I feel you. I am going through the same trauma. Although I am doing ok and can finish my doctorate if I just stick around, but I dont feel happy. I have published a few articles and just about to start writing my thesis, but there is something missing. I feel a part of me is lost in the process and I cannot continue losing my sanity like this. I always liked challenges , but this is a vicious cycle, number of articles, IF and citation counts haunts me as my worst nightmare.

    I understand how you feel and wish you good luck with wheres your heart at. Perhaps, I wanted to read this article to muster up some courage in taking a similar decision.

    • I think it’s not quitting. I think it’s an act of reprioritizing, redirecting, and regaining control. And isn’t that what every life is about. Good luck to you

      • Such a positive message. Thanks for adding it for our edification.

  10. Jana, thank you for writing this. I’m in year 3 of my PhD, struggling with some of the same issues you mentioned. I needed to read this today and am thankful that you shared your story. I’m proud of you for making this hard decision and doing what was right for you, defying the guilt, shame and silence that are part of academia’s abusive cycles. I hope you find joy and purpose in your next steps.

  11. I completely feel you. I am in the same state of mind currently. It’s been two years with losing myself everyday. But I worry about the consequences after quitting PhD. I don’t have a Plan B. What am I gonna do after it?

    • Thanks for the nice read. I keep circling back to the same gut feeling that I made a mistake. I didn’t take a gap year. I went into a Biomedical Science program right after undergrad and during the beginning of the pandemic (yay class of 2020.) It feels soul-sucking and I feel trapped. Once I leave, would I ever be able to go back? I’m just not sure what to do anymore…

      • 1000 Dank für deinen Artikel. Das ist das, was ich gebraucht habe! Ich bin gerade in derselben Situation: Ich würde gerne aufhören, aber weiß noch nicht so recht, wann ich welchen Schritt gehen soll. Wie hast du es mit der Kündigungsfrist geregelt? Hast du einen Aufhebungsvertrag geschlossen? Wann hast du deinen Betreuern Bescheid gegeben?

        • Ich habe zusammen mit meinem Doktorvater beschlossen, einen Aufhebungsvertrag abzuschließen. Das beste ist, zunächst erst mal allen Bescheid zu geben, die davon betroffen sind. Das sind deine Betreuer:innen, Professoren:innen und auch deine Mit-Doktorand:innen.
          Ich bin mir sicher, dass durch ein offenes Gespräch das meiste geklärt werden kann. Es schadet bestimmt auch nicht, dich schlau zu machen was theoretisch dein nächst-möglicher Kündigungstermin wäre, laut deinem Vertrag.
          Es hat ca drei Monate gedauert, zwischen dem Zeitpunkt an dem ich meinen Betreuern Bescheid gegeben habe und meinem letzten Arbeitstag.

  12. Thank you for this article. I’m doing my phd in a country where you get salary and benefits, so have non of the financial concerns. I’m mid-way through and thinking that perhaps I should quit too. I’m not being productive enough and find it boring and unstimulating (spent 3/4 of it during covid, so that might have an impact). Gearing into thinking of it as a first job you tried out. I’ve written reports, held presentations, been part of a team and done some teaching. Work stuff. If you hated your first job, no-one would judge for looking for a new job, so why would someone judge you with this particular job? It’s a job, finding a career elsewhere is fine.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story Jana. I quit my PhD after 3 years in the program in 2019. It’s 2021 now and there are good days when I feel proud of making a brave decision, and bad days of questioning my self worth. Like you, I quit for my mental health and am working towards healing and recovering from that painful decision: quitting, failing to complete and achieve 3 years of time, money and hardwork. But at the end of the day, it’s true what you said about your mental health is an expensive price to pay and in this short life, you deserve to be healthy, happy and thriving. I’m happy for you Jana!

  14. I’ve been writing my dissertation for several months now and to be honest, it’s a difficult one for me. It’s mentally draining, isolating, and there’s always guilt for the times I didn’t write or wasn’t able to write. I also question myself and felt that I’m not good enough and that I don’t deserve to be here. The whole time, there’s also this feeling of wanting to quit. I’m not happy anymore and I know that I will not even be pursuing research after this. As of now, I guess I will try to pull through but who knows, maybe one day I will change my mind and have the courage to walk away.

    Anyway, thanks Jana for sharing your experience. I wish you well on whichever path you’re in now.

  15. Thanks for sharing your experience Jana. I am currently enrolled in a PhD program but am just miserable. Quitting really scares me, and your words gave me some comfort, whatever the end result will be. Thanks.

  16. Jana:

    Ich habe in Deutschland gewohnt, von 1953 bis 1964 und auch mal von 1966 bus 1967. My Mutti wahr Deutsch, geboren Berlin.

    Ha! That’s all I can remember. I apologize if it is mispelled. I lived in Bad Tolz, and I attended Munich American High School, in 11th grade, way back in 1967.

    Your article is fascinating. I found it when I Googled, “Giving yourself permission to quit your doctoral studies.” Back in 2010, at age 59, I began my DBA in Organizational Leadership, while working full time as an Assistant Professor at my institution. In order to achieve a full Professorship, I was required to achieve a “terminal degree.” In the US that is a doctoral degree.

    In 2012, I finished all my course work with a 3,84 GPA (I had one grade that was not an A) and successfully completed my comprehensive exam, “with no required changes”, on my first attempt.

    In 2015, I became ABD, when I ended my pursuit of my DBA. The reasons are not relevant to this exchange, but suffice it to say, it was not related to my ability to do the work. I had completed Chapter 3 of 5 on my dissertation journey.

    I am popular with my students and am one of only a couple of faculty that is capable (because of life and professional experience) to teach in three different programs, nine different courses, undergraduate and graduate level. However, since I did not achieve my terminal degree, I was demoted to “instructor.” My income wasn’t affected that much, and I continued to average low 6 figures annually.

    In January of 2022, at 71, I decided to “start over,” since this was one of the only “failures” in my life. After 7 years of not using APA regularly, it has been an uphill climb, but I am now two weeks away form completing my first course in what was to be my new doctoral journey. I say “was to be” because I have decided not to continue coursework after this course is successfully completed .

    I did an old “Ben Franklin T Chart” and I came up with the fact that the ONLY two reasons I have for completing my doctoral degree is for:

    (1.) Personal pride of accomplishment and
    (2.) Positioning myself for consultant’s work, after retirement. Period.

    The reason to discontinue my studies are:

    (1.) Cost in dollars (although while I am working, that is NOT a real concern)

    (2.) Cost in Time (in the past 8 weeks I have been working, studying, writing papers, eating, and sleeping. Period.)

    (3.) No Fun in my life. Every weekend is devoted 100% to writing papers and quizzes.

    (4.) No valid reasons…no promotion objective, no increased income objective…no requirement form employer to retain my position…just ego needs.

    (5.) Mental health considerations. Self imposed pressure, stress, and no real collegiality or cohort interaction, since it is 100% online. In addition, serious concerns over the ability to find an appropriate mentor/advisor at an institution where attendance is 100% online.

    (6.) Most likely, there are other avenues for doing other course work that would benefit me and my college, including other designation programs that would increase my value to my students, and increase my ability to teach additional courses in additional programs. As an example, there is a 15 month Masters in Management available at my college which I could access tuition free and that would definitely increase my value to my college, and not take 3-5 years and a dissertation.

    (7.) My need for life long leaning could be addressed by taking language course, or history courses, etc. I spoke German as a child, so I know I have the ability to learn foreign languages.

    (8.) Lastly, since 100% of my teaching is online, I can do it from anywhere. This allowed my wife of 48 years and I wo travel for 2 months last year, and I was teaching “on the road.” This is not possible when I have papers due weekly and discussion posts weekly and quizzes , weekly…in addition to the 2-3 classes a week I teach in my “day job.”

    I will most like still have depression and shameful feelings for “quitting,” but I am determined to work though it, because I know in my heart, I can do the work; I am simply not willing to sacrifice the years needed to do it, considering the limited time I have left to enjoy in my lifetime, considering my age.

    Thanks again for your wonderful article.

    PS. My son-in-law is an Associate Professor of Astro Physics. His telescope is smaller than yours but his love for the field is beyond measurement.

    • Love this so much. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Hi Jana,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I feel you, just quitted my PhD after 2 1/2 years. That was the toughest decision I had to make given that in Germany quitting a PhD is (allegedly) seen as a sign of no stamina, no willpower etc.

    However, the tradeoff was between my (gradually worsening) mental health and finishing my PhD. This was the first time in my life where I prioritized my mental health before my (academic) achievements. And I can tell you all, it was worth it; perhaps I will regret it in couple of years (for that case, write a letter for your future self).

    I wish you the best for the future, Jana.

  18. Hi Jana,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I feel a sense of happiness knowing you (and others in the comment section) went through the same. As for me, I quit my PhD after 4 years in the UK. I was supposed to submit my final thesis. But i could not because of my anxiety. i had to seek a psychiatrist help. So I had 1 year gap to pause my study for my mental health (2019 was my 5th year). By March 2020, I was infected with the Covid19 but recovered (stage 3 with mild pneumonia). I think i had a blood clot problem (eg. DVT) within 6 month after that.

    That long Covid gave me pain/pressure in my upper left chest, headache and tingling in my feet after sitting for a long period. This is not good for anyone who is doing a PhD in Computer Science. I did not submit my thesis by the given deadline March 2021. Fast forward.. today, my husband knows my condition and I am living with our daughter and a son. Petting a cat helps too! So, that’s my story, which I had to choose my mental health over PhD. It is like a white water rafting of my PhD journey and caught a rope for safety and sanity at the very last minute.

  19. Thank you for this interesting article!
    I also quit my PhD for mental health reasons, in early 2022, in my third year. It was a tough decision. Sometimes, it’s harder to accept that decision, since I am still not sure what to do now professionally.
    I would be interested in knowing how you get prepared for job interviews after that, especially if you wanted to find a job in academia/research (as a research assistant for example).

  20. Hello Jana, Thank you for sharing your thoughts and making us feel less lonely in this academia world. I feel a sense of belonging after reading all the comments as I am in my third year (an international student in
    a country where I don’t speak the native language) and already had a series of mental breakdowns. My boss micromanaged me to the point where I feel so underconfident and small. I was a excited kid when I entered the research field and now I feel lost and confused. I have been thinking of quitting since the beginning of second year but never able to gather the courage and now I feel its too late but at the same time, I don’t want to feel this way in my last year. I am 29 years old and I feel like I have wasted so much time on this and should finish this but every cell in my body is mentally drained and exhausted. I am sorry I am just venting out here. Trying to find some courage by pouring down my feelings. Any words of wisdom?

  21. I needed to see this! I’ve started a four year studentship and am coming to the end of a second master’s before starting the PhD (supposed to be, in a matter of weeks), but have had some major set backs and doubts. My supervisor was a nightmare – a micromanager, and seriously messed things up, including my mental health – so I’ve been completing the MA by myself with little guidance whilst looking for a new supervisor. I felt let down/unheard by my department, and I’ve struggled to fit in with the workaholic culture. There are so many reasons as to why I feel stopping before it starts is the right decision, for one I’m 28 and want to start a family with my partner, but I get so many disapproving looks from my fellow students. “how could you give up such a great opportunity to have children? can’t you just do that later?” … For now I’m taking an extension for the MA to submit the dissertation, and a break to figure out whether or not to continue, but this article was really helpful to me as I recognise those self-sabotaging thoughts you had in myself. It’s comforting to know others found themselves at this crossroad and don’t see themselves as ‘failures’ for making a decision for their own health and wellbeing!


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