Five tips to help you decide whether to quit your job or PhD

Perseverance is a prized virtue, but it can be destructive if taken too far. ‘From a very young age, we’re reinforced to believe that accomplishing and achieving things – no matter how difficult – is really a badge of honour,’ says Nakia Hamlett, an assistant professor of psychology at Connecticut College in the US. As people acquire more experience, they realise that not everything is worth fighting for – and that putting the brakes on a project or leaving a job can often be beneficial.

If you’re at a crossroads, here are some tips to help you analyse your situation and ascertain whether it is time to say goodbye.

Understand your goals 

When Bill Carroll, an adjunct professor in the department of chemistry at Indiana University, Bloomington, advises a student struggling to finish their PhD, he asks them what they hope to get out of it. ‘You don’t have to be frighteningly smart to get a PhD in chemistry. But you do have to want it. Because it goes through all those failed experiments, qualifiers, cumulative exams, the long hours, and not getting paid much,’ says Carroll. Many students enter a PhD programme hoping to land a job – that’s a perfectly valid objective, but it may not be enough to help them navigate the vagaries of PhD life. Carroll suggests converting to a master’s degree may be a better option for some. If you’re committed to the research track and still facing difficulties, it may be helpful to talk to your boss or change your supervisor.

Do the maths

Let’s say you want to quit your well-paying industry job because you’re becoming stagnant. Before resigning, ask yourself if you are prepared to take the risk. Carroll suggests asking questions like: ‘Do you have financial obligations that, if you were to make this decision, would put you in dire circumstances?’ ‘Do you have enough resources to tide yourself and your family over?’ Let those questions guide your decision. ‘It’s important to consider options: are there other ways to mitigate the negative effects of something?’ Hamlett says, adding that sometimes you may have to wait for a little while before you’re entirely ready to quit.

Clarify your priorities

If your work situation isn’t compatible with your personal life, re-evaluating your priorities may help you decide if leaving is the right thing. When Minakshi Poddar was halfway through her PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, US, her husband relocated to Pittsburgh, for work. Poddar tried long-distance for some time, but eventually quit her PhD to follow him. ‘Of course, it was a big decision,’ says Poddar. But on examining her priorities, ‘I thought three years is a long time to live like that without my husband.’ While she didn’t complete her PhD, she fulfilled all the requirements for a master’s degree instead. Now, as a senior lab coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, she is fully satisfied with her career choices. If your personal life needs attention, you can also see if it’s possible to take a short break from work. You’ll be more productive when you return after resolving your issues.

Monitor your inner dialogue

Hamlett says addressing emotions around the decision can bring clarity. ‘If we could quiet our anxieties … we often know very clearly what to do,’ she says. Ultimately, it’s important how you choose to perceive the act of quitting something. ‘One person could look at something as a failure and have all kinds of cognitive ruminations about low self-worth,’ says Hamlett. ‘Another person could reframe it as “I actually am really proud of myself that I was able to step into my truth or do what’s best for me”.’ Talking to your colleagues or someone outside work can also help you gain perspective and look at the situation more rationally.

Take stock of your mental health

Ayan Banerjee struggled initially after starting his PhD in precision atomic spectroscopy at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He missed his theatre community back home in Kolkata and found the experiments challenging. But despite these bottlenecks, Banerjee, now a professor in the physical sciences department at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata, decided to stay. One of the primary reasons he didn’t quit was that his mental health was intact, despite occasional feelings of sadness and frustration. ‘My basic equilibrium was maintained,’ says Banerjee. ‘When you see that getting disturbed: you see that you’re skipping lunch, not wanting to take a bath, not wanting to talk to anybody, that is a big red flag.’ He also had a close-knit circle of friends who kept him grounded. So, be honest about your mental health – could some therapy or other interventions resolve your issues, or would it be best for you to call it quits?