Deciding whether to Finish your Phd

So, you’ve spent four years of your life working towards a prestigious higher degree, and now your funding has run out, you’re frantically rewriting chapter 1 for the 4th time, the red bills are piling up on your doormat and your adviser has moved to another university and isn’t answering your emails.

Or maybe you’ve been getting on with your PhD work just fine, but your significant other gets a fantastic job in another city, and you have to choose between your PhD and your relationship.

Or perhaps there’s no crisis at all – except that after, say, working round the clock supervising the mating of fruit flies in a lab for several years, you’ve forgotten why you ever thought the sex lives of fruit flies were interesting and you’re beginning to lose the will to live.

In the midst of your confusion and perhaps even despair, how can you decide whether it’s worthwhile to stay the course? In the end, only you can choose, but here are a few thoughts to help you.

First of all, accept that whatever happens next, the time and money you have already invested in your PhD is gone. You can’t get it back, and it shouldn’t influence you to continue doing your PhD if there’s no other good reason to do so. This is known as the ‘sunk cost fallacy’, i.e. the tendency people have to continue spending time or money on a doomed project just because they’ve already spent a lot of time or money on it.

On the other hand, you’ll be aware by now that it’s normal for PhD students in the later stages of the process to start wondering why they ever began and whether they will ever finish, and to fantasize about giving up and starting a little coffee shop/pub/termite farm instead. You shouldn’t give up just because you’re feeling discouraged and depressed. Go and read PhD Comics for an hour or so instead, then pull yourself together and get on with it.

In the end, it all comes down to motivation. If you started your PhD because graduate school enabled you to put off getting a proper job, or because your parents thought it would be great for you to have the letters PhD after your name, or because you’re intellectually insecure and thought that having a PhD would prove once and for all that you really are clever – then unless you have in the meantime developed a real enthusiasm for research in your subject, you should probably give up.

However, if you want an academic career, or you want a job in an industry where a PhD is a real advantage, then think very carefully before abandoning your studies, as you’re unlikely to get another opportunity to acquire this qualification. If you are considering quitting because you are facing a practical crisis such as lack of money or serious illness, then investigate all sources of help at your university to get you through – there are bound to be student counseling services and hardship funds to help you.

Occasionally, a talented PhD student is faced with a real dilemma, when they are offered a fantastic job in an industry they want to work in, but accepting it would mean giving up their studies. This one is a difficult call, but in the end, if you’re in such demand, you probably can’t lose in the long run – it’s just up to you to decide what you’re actually going to enjoy doing most.

Whatever your circumstances and reasons for thinking about quitting, it’s never a good idea to go into denial about what’s going on, or to start avoiding your adviser. Students often don’t want to admit they are in difficulties, but if you stop communicating with your adviser or stop doing any work on your thesis, you are on the road to quitting whether you have made a conscious decision to do so or not. It’s always better to grasp the nettle and deal with your problems head-on, and then make an informed decision about whether to quit or whether to persevere to the bitter end.