by Glyn Faulkner
Nearly four years in, with the deadline looming large, my PhD was in a death-spiral. My research was unravelling, and every attempt I made to shore-up the sinking ship cost me a section of the thesis that was supposed to be done and dusted.
The worst part: it was entirely my own fault. For four years I had let my inner-perfectionist have too much control. I had thrown away too much good work in the mistaken belief that my approaches weren’t creative enough, my solutions not elegant enough. I had discarded research that I could have salvaged, and re-written entire chapters that I should have edited.
Finally my time and motivation were all spent, and and I had insufficient to show for it. The Saturday before I was due to submit, a conversation with my long-suffering supervisor confirmed what I already knew: in the best-case scenario I was looking at major corrections. His advice was to submit what I had with an explanatory note, and ask for the opportunity to resubmit. As usual, it was good advice — I had been lucky in the supervisor lottery — but the very idea of another year working on a subject for which all my enthusiasm had long-since evaporated filled me with dread. I decided to sleep on it, rather than making a decision on the spot.
The following morning, I emailed my supervisor again to say I wouldn’t be submitting.
And with that, my PhD was over.
The sense of relief was overwhelming. I spent the following days picking-up the hobbies and interests that had fallen by the wayside while I had been trying to write-up, and doing all the little tasks that had been quietly piling up. The contrast between how easy it all was compared to wading through the swamp of my thesis convinced me that I had done the right thing.
A couple of weeks on, when I had a little perspective but while it was all still clear in my mind, I sat down and wrote a post-mortem in the form of letter to future-me detailing my thoughts and feelings, and all the factors that contributed to my situation and decision to quit. When the rose-tinted spectre of regret rears its ugly head, I read that note and am reminded that this wasn’t a decision I made lightly, but rather one that I needed to take for the sake of my own mental health and well-being.
One thing I dreaded was facing friends, family and colleagues — having to explain my failure to everyone. But ultimately, even that wasn’t so bad: while a few were critical, most were supportive. In particular everyone I spoke to who had been through a doctorate themselves understood entirely. One member of my research group made a very astute observation: most people don’t beat themselves up over quitting a job that’s making them miserable. Why should a PhD be any different?
No, I didn’t get those two magical letters in front of my name — and yes, that sucks — but I still got so much out of it, not only an in-depth knowledge of my field of study (and knowledge about myself!) but also a wealth of experiences I wouldn’t otherwise have had, in the company of great friends and colleagues I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet and work alongside.
It’s easy to write “never give up” on a pretty picture and post it on Twitter, but here in the real world things are rarely so clear cut, and one lesson my PhD taught me is the value of knowing when to cut my losses and move on.