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When to decide to stop

It would be naïve (and impractical) to suggest that you should feel ‘happy’ all the time.

Life just isn’t like that.

Life is full of ups and downs, at extremely irregular intervals- just to keep you on your toes.

But sometimes, you have to draw a line on what your limits are, especially when it comes to doing a Ph. D.

Full disclosure I feel like this post may need a trigger warning- but I still think it’s really important to read on- but please don’t push yourself to do so if you don’t want to.

Not to downplay other jobs or fields at all, but research Ph. Ds are hard (mentally and emotionally). The hours are long, the pay isn’t particularly great (it’s not enough to realistically save), and you’re always on the lowest end of the institutional hierarchy. A student has significantly less power compared to a supervisor, so if you’re anything like me, you feel obliged to try and do everything that they ask of you- at all hours of the day.

The biggest positive out of all of that is the people/work/experiments/research itself- it can be really fun, and a great way to make (hopefully) life-long friends. Again, not all days (or people) were good, but at least for me- it’s generally been a positive.

But that’s not necessarily what everyone else experiences. I’ve written before about others who regret their Ph. Ds, or wish they’d been warned of the full commitments before they started (informed consent, if you will). Admittedly this isn’t really straight forward in practice, because I know plenty of people who had been warned numerous times, who just didn’t realise the weight of it all until they started their Ph. Ds. Sometimes you have to live it to believe it.

So this is for those that are living it right now, and are just not enjoying the process.

  1. How many times in the past week have you felt your anxiety sky-rocketing because of Ph. D related things?

Anxiety and I have been friends for a very long time, so I definitely understand the frustrations that can be felt when you desperately want to feel alright- but can’t. I don’t want to go into too much detail, in case it affects the person reading, but if you’re constantly feeling anxious and worried- that’s not okay.

Not that you’re at fault at all. Emotions are perfectly normal and you’re entitled to feel whatever you feel- it’s what you do with it that matters. For me, it would mean I’d go through some self-reflection to figure out what it is specifically that’s making me anxious. Is it an email I received (or multiple emails)? Did an experiment fail and I’m dreading telling my supervisor/s? Do I have a big presentation coming up?

Once I’ve worked out the specifics, I’ll go through and see (practically) what I can fix to improve the situation. If the constant pinging from emails are bugging me, and, realistically, they can be left until the next day- I’ll leave it. If I know I’ll feel better once I respond, I’ll respond to it. Do I text my supervisor about the failed experiment, or should I wait for a face to face meeting so that it’s easier to dive straight into troubleshooting? Can I practice my presentation more, or should I just force myself to unwind by going for a long walk outside? Do I just need to soundboard all this out loud to someone, so that I can get my thoughts straight and/or get a second opinion?

Those are practical solutions for specific things that make/made me anxious, and it works for me.

But if literally everything about the Ph. D is making you anxious, to the point you can’t even come up with a practical solution to try and mitigate some of the anxiety… It might be time to figure out whether the Ph. D is worth it.

2. How many times in the past week have you felt depressed, because of Ph. D related things?

As someone who is also prone to bouts of depression, I take this very seriously.

If you are utterly and completely miserable, nothing is worth that.


You need to urgently seek things that might help you cope with the situation, bit by bit. Different things work for different people, but for me, I’ve done therapy (some successful and others not so much), I’ve hung out with very close friends and family that I feel safe enough to discuss heavier topics- or not discuss, because sometimes you just need someone to be nearby while you go about doing day to day things.

I’ve taken leave and gone camping/travelling, I’ve incorporated regular exercise (however minor), made neighbourhood cat friends, I’ve taken up random hobbies that brought me even a minuscule amount of joy… Hell- I’ve donated blood (even with my fear of pointy needles) because the sheer amount of praise and general feeling of accomplishment was amazing.

Also, it’s okay to acknowledge that you feel depressed, and it’s okay to express that- I just don’t think it’s helpful for the person to dwell on harmful thoughts that don’t do anything to improve the situation.

For example, if I’m stuck in a swirling vortex of thinking that I’m not worth anything- I’ll distract myself by doing something that completely contradicts such a ridiculous statement (about myself). Because I’m not worthless, in reality. It’s just that sometimes my brain really believes it- because it’s not doing so well. The thought itself isn’t worth dwelling on, because at the end of the day, it’s a lie. I’d rather put all my energy into countering that thought- however difficult it may be. I’ll also make a point to say that sometimes you need other people to remind you that you’re a perfectly lovely human being, because even if you don’t believe it just yet, it’ll still chip away at the negative thoughts.

But- even with all that, if you’re constantly struggling, and you know for a fact it’s predominantly because of Ph. D related things:

It’s not worth continuing. Please seriously consider other options, so that you can take care of yourself as best as possible.

3. How many times in the past week have you tried to improve the situation, to no avail?

Focusing again on the Ph. D, if you’ve tried to cut back on work for the sake of your sanity, or tried to come up with a compromise that lessens the stress in any way- but it hasn’t worked at all…

It might not be your fault. Maybe your supervisor is pushing you to get the work done. Maybe the experiment just isn’t working (even with multiple attempts at troubleshooting), and it’s getting you down more than it should be (i.e. instead of making you feel disappointed at the experiment, you’re getting really critical about yourself). Maybe you’ve discussed your concerns about your mental health with your supervisor and they were dismissive (please picture me mentally slapping them if they dare reply with ‘just stop being depressed’).

Maybe you’ve really, really tried all the different options to improve your mental health, whatever they may be- but the idea of going back to the lab is still filling you with absolute dread…

Again, is doing a Ph. D while utterly and completely miserable really worth it? Is anything worth that trouble?

4. Do you hate the person you are becoming (or could become), because of your Ph. D?

This one might sound a bit confusing, but I’ll try to explain.

Speaking for myself (which is really all I can do), I didn’t do a Post Doc because I didn’t like the strain I was putting on those around me, because of the Ph. D life.

Every time I was stressed, anxious, depressed, or sleep-deprived- I would be short with someone. It might not be all the time, but nobody is perfect, and you do occasionally slip up. I certainly did on numerous occasions, and I could trace it back to the pressure from the Ph. D project. Now, mistakes like these are bound to happen regardless of whether you’re in a stressful situation (it’s just life), but I could see that the frequency was only bound to go up, the longer I stayed in academic research. Hence why I decided to change course. I weighed up my options and decided that I didn’t want to commit to something that would make me (in my opinion) a worse person. If something isn’t making me a better human being (in any way shape or form), then I don’t really want to dedicate my time to it. If I’m just becoming a manipulative tyrant who is short tempered and has no friends… I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in continuing that.

Now, I totally acknowledge that not everyone can just stop their studies. Maybe it’s family pressure, maybe it’s visa related (especially for the international students out there), or maybe you have nothing else better to do. Sometimes you either can’t stop, or it’s really difficult to do so because there aren’t alternatives.

That’s okay- because every situation is different. One of the points of this post is to weigh up your options carefully. There’s probably no right or wrong answer- just the best option out of a myriad of shitty ones. Either way, you tried.

And at the end of the day, the true purpose of this post isn’t so you can make that decision (whatever it may be). It’s just to acknowledge and reemphasise that it isn’t a failure if you didn’t finish a Ph. D. A Ph. D is not for everyone. It’s not a reflection of your self worth if you didn’t finish it- it more or less shows that you know yourself better. You gave it a shot, and that’s all that matters.

After a month or so of watching or reading about people withdraw from events, citing the need to take care of their mental health- I feel more confident that the world is becoming more accepting of the challenges that individuals might be experiencing internally. So, please be kinder to yourself. Look after yourself the way you would look after someone you care about deeply- because that’s the level of self-care you deserve.

One last thing- if I could wish anything for an individual, I guess it wouldn’t be ‘happiness’.

It would be ‘contentment’.

I hope you find that.

Categories: Ph D posts

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A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬

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