Why I Quit the PhD?

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Just 6 months ago, I was ashamed whenever I told someone that I quit my PhD. I felt like a loser, not-smart-enough, not-persevering-enough and someone who gave up easily. Because of this stigma, I did not tell many people my story of why I left my PhD programme two-years into the thick of it.

Today, I share my story in the hope that it can help someone who is thinking of doing a PhD or quitting one make a more informed decision.

1. Weak Motivation for Beginning the PhD Programme

I decided to begin my PhD programme in 2016 freshly after I completed my Masters programme in 2015. Why? I did not know what else I could do. I was doing well academically and excelling in my work place as a research associate. It seemed like the most logical decision that I should continue on with my PhD and continuously upgrade my qualifications. To me, the PhD was a chance to become a “Doctor” and to write “a thick book”, both sounded deceivingly appealing to me. Only that those were extremely weak reasons. Because when things started to get tough, I had no real reason to fall back on to keep me going. Others who did their PhD had stronger and more compelling reasons such as needing the PhD to get a promotion (and a better salary) or needing it to find a job as a professor (or as my friend puts it – “because you want it” – maybe you have a research problem that you really want to solve). But me, I had no such strong and enduring reasons. (Also, if you have such reasons at the beginning and later on change your mind, this is no poor reason to quit it. We do change.)

2. Mismatched Expectations During the Programme

I had thought that with my 10 years of research experience and having obtained my Masters with relative ease, doing a PhD would not be too hard. I expected myself to complete it quickly. I was completely wrong. Every stage of the process took more effort and time than I had expected. This caused me to be constantly discouraged and upset with the progress I was making. It was different from my work as a research associate where I continuously experience success in writing and publishing and gaining funding to present the latest findings in conferences. In contrast, the PhD journey was extremely discouraging. And those 10 years of working experience that I thought would benefit me actually worked against me. Most people of my generation do not stick to jobs for more than 2 to 3 years. I was already stretching to the maximum my ability to sustain myself in an environment that no longer provided stimulation for me. Trying to push this by a few more years proved detrimental. (This is why I encourage people who want to change their jobs, to do it, even if they are still excelling at the old work place. There is a peak and then a decline. Leave at your peak!)

3. Mental, Emotional and Physical Health Degradation as a Result

Because of the above two points – making a decision that wasn’t aligned to my long-term goals and being stuck in a reality that did not reflect my idealism, I became increasingly grumpy, disillusioned and burnt out. I lost motivation in work and life. Trying to hang in there because it felt like it was the right thing to do only made me increasingly sick. I fell into a depressive and anxious spiral, that not only worried my family and friends, but myself. I am not unfamiliar with burnt out, depression and anxiety, as I have had such experiences in my youth. But this time, perhaps because of my older age, it affected me in a more drastic way. I started to develop physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, weight loss and insomnia. It was going out of hand. And to save myself, I decided to quit.

On hindsight, I should have never signed up for the PhD programme and I should have left the programme much earlier, when I started to have doubts about it, but no, I had hung on to see how long I could last. Hopefully, it was until I graduated.

Then, I did not have the courage to leave because I feared the unknown. Now, I know there’s nothing to fear. When you give up something that is not right for you, you open yourself to the things that are “righter” for you.

I share my story today in case it can potentially deter someone curious about doing a PhD (but may not be a right fit) from doing one (I am a little biased because of my personal experience) or encourage someone who is getting nowhere with their PhD and has no compelling reason to stick with it to quit it.

It has been one of the better decisions I have made in my life. The main lesson I have learned is to be true to myself, to listen to that voice deep inside that tells me what I really want in my life, rather than all the voices in the world that make so much noise.

A special thank you to friends and family who helped me deliberate on this decision, gave me advice about my then flailing health, and then helped me face the aftermath. Your listening ears and words of comfort during those difficult times meant a lot to me.


Postscript as of 7 March 2021: It has been more than two years since I left the programme. Life has continued on as usual. I have spent a year traveling and another half year working as a research associate at an institute. This post is still drawing a lot of hits. I thought of using this chance to promote my book. Should academic writing be a struggle for you as a graduate student, I wrote a book just for someone like you. You can read more about it here. I still don’t have any regrets quitting, though I think academia would suit me as a career and that I would make a good PhD student if I had found the right circumstances. But for now, there are many other ways I express my thirst for knowledge and love for study.

2 Comments

  1. Pearly said,

    November 5, 2019 at 8:37 am

    👏👏👏

  2. October 27, 2020 at 3:21 am

    […] “Why I Quit my PhD?” has been the most popular post in this blog since I wrote it last year, overtaking “Lost Islands of Singapore“. I think perhaps many, many people have found themselves in a PhD situation that they regret and are considering getting out of. […]


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