Can you quit your PhD?

I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine a few weeks ago about her PhD, which is floundering a little at the moment and is a source of great stress and anxiety right now. Rather than something she looks forward to working on, her PhD is a millstone around her neck, and she is seriously wondering if she can or should carry on with it in its present form. Earlier this week I logged in to Facebook to hear that another friend has deregistered from her PhD studies for the time being, taking a break of indefinite length. So, I have been wondering: can you quit your PhD, and if you do, how do you make that decision okay for yourself?

I wrote last year about my own struggles early on in my PhD with finding a balance between it and my life and work, and how I suspended my studies before eventually coming back to them. I think that, as a PhD student who has already invested your self, time, money and also often your family’s/friend’s time (and either their or a funder’s money) in your studies, the decision to stop and walk away is never one you can make impulsively or lightly. There are several things you may have to consider, over and above your own feelings, desires and struggles. This post is a tough one to write, because I would never want to discourage a PhD scholar who is already feeling discouraged. But I think that we don’t really talk about this issue very much; rather the dominant discourses focus on saying some version of ‘Just get it done, it’s just a PhD. Just finish it, and everything will be fine. Hang in there, come on, you can do this!’ It’s great to give and get this kind of encouragement, but sometimes, it’s not helpful when a PhD student can’t ‘just do it’ and really needs to at least consider, for a range of reasons, deregistering and moving on to other things.

So what do you do if you, or a friend/colleague/PhD supervisee, is sitting on this fence, and wondering: ‘Can I quit my PhD? Should I quit? Will I be okay if I do?’ Perhaps a useful place to start is with all of the things you/your person needs to consider. For example, are you paying for your PhD yourself, or do you have funding? If you have funding, are there stipulations in the fine print about reimbursing the funder if you do not complete your PhD? These are big considerations if you are paying a lot of money for your PhD, and if you have funding that comes with expectations of completion in a certain period of time. If you or a family member are paying for your studies, this is perhaps an easier call because the financial obligations can be more flexible. However, if you do need to take time off, or even walk away from your PhD completely, consider approaching your funder and negotiating as far as possible with them. Perhaps there is a plan to be made.

Another big consideration (one that really troubled me when I considered quitting my PhD) was the investment I had already made in the PhD – my identity, my self, my time. But I had not done this alone. I had asked my husband, children and family to invest with me: in encouraging me, supporting me, making compromises and sacrifices on my behalf to enable me to have time to work on my PhD. They believed in me. How could I walk away and let them all down? How could I let myself down? My feelings of shame and failure were also compounded by my own perfectionism, and the sometimes stupidly high standards to which I hold myself. I needed, in making my decision to suspend and walk away temporarily, to separate my own needs and investments from theirs, and tell myself that, while they were undoubtedly in this with me, they were not actually doing the PhD. That was all on me, so I needed to make this decision for me, and not for them. I reasoned that if I was okay with my decision, they would eventually be okay too. If I was miserable, they would certainly have suffered with me.

A third consideration is the reasons for which you are doing the PhD. Is it for primarily professional reasons: you need a PhD in order to be recognised formally, awarded research funding, promotions and status? Is for primarily personal reasons: having one or not will not make an enormous difference in your working life, but you are personally driven by a desire to complete a PhD, and gain from the experience in terms of your own development as a scholar and a thinker? In my experience thus far, working with colleagues who are doing PhDs as well as with postgraduate student-writers, it’s always a bit of both, although one set of reasons is usually a bit more prominent than the other. I do think, as someone who did the PhD to get ahead professionally, but also because I really wanted to do it for myself, that focusing on my personal, intrinsic motivations and reasons helped me to find my way back to my PhD, and helped me to sustain my motivation to complete it through the ups and downs that followed my re-registration. Focusing on the extrinsic pressures made me feel resentful, pressured and sulky. I felt I was being forced into something that did not completely fit into my life as a working mother. I felt cross that I should even need a PhD to be taken seriously, when I had other valuable experience and input to offer. I am not sure I would have had the PhD journey I did if the external reasons for the PhD were my sole focus. I think coming back would have been harder, and I would have taken longer to complete my thesis.

The point of this post is not to tell any students that they should, or should not, quit their PhD. A PhD is a big, all-consuming, intense thing to take on, and the amount of yourself that a thoroughly researched and well-written PhD demands is huge. But, if you are on this fence, feeling stuck and wondering if quitting will free you or make things harder in the long run, perhaps working through these considerations will be a helpful starting place in making your own decision about how to carry on from here. I would like to say, though, that if you do quit your PhD, you will be okay. A PhD is, in the end, a qualification (as someone on Twitter said recently); it’s not an identity itself, it’s not you, and it’s not what makes you worthy of recognition.

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