Four more reasons people quit the Ph.D.



After reading (and commenting on) Dr. Mewburn’s recent fantastic article on Why People Quit the Ph.D., I wanted to add four more reasons to her list. As a writing productivity teacher and coach, I frequently see these among graduate students who are stuck.

1) Prior Harsh Rejection

While rejection is endemic to work and life, not all rejections are the same. Some are harsh enough that they undermine you in ways that make it difficult to get future work done. If left unhealed, such harsh rejections can easily derail a thesis and career.

Some harsh rejections are obvious, but others may not be. A good rule of thumb is that if you can remember a rejection, and especially if the memory elicits feelings of guilt, shame, or anger, then it was probably harsh. Also, keep in mind that rejection:

(a) Comes in many more forms than most people realize, and includes things like callousness, capriciousness, disparagement, diminishment, bias, marginalization, hypercriticality, hypocriticality (neglect), and ad hominem attack. And,

(b) Can come from many more sources than most people realize, including not just your supervisor and other professional colleagues, but friends and family, or even a news story that disparages your work. And,

Blindsiding is a common amplifier of rejection harshness, because when you’re blindsided—for instance, denied a job, publication, or other opportunity that you were absolutely sure you were going to get—your defenses are down. (Moderate your expectations, people!)

And perfectionism, as usual, only makes things worse, since perfectionists not only set unreasonably high standards for success, they tend to overidentify with their work, and so can take rejection extra hard.

Harsh rejection impairs your productivity by making you terrified to show your work—and so you procrastinate as a way of avoiding that. (If you don’t finish, you can’t show!).

The solution is two-fold:

(a) Start showing your work, even if only a paragraph or sentence at a time. (E.g., “What do you think of this paragraph? I know it needs editing, but I’m pretty proud of the main point.” Or, “Do you have any suggestions for this paragraph? I can’t quite get it right.”) Be very selective in whom you choose to share with, especially initially: neither your supervisor nor family members may be the right choice. Most graduate students benefit from having a “writing buddy” or two to provide moral support, and gentle feedback and encouragement: such a person would be a great choice, and you can also tell her exactly what feedback would be helpful. (“I just want your overall thoughts on the piece—please don’t worry about the grammar.”)

(b) Defuse the underlying traumatic rejection through discussions with sympathetic friends and colleagues, journaling, or therapy. In some cases, you can address the person who rejected you directly, especially if you feel that they are not fundamentally mean or vindictive. (That’s the best reason to only seek to work with good, kind, generous people, and avoid the others regardless of how illustrious they are.) They may not have meant to hurt you, and may not even be aware they did. By having a non-blamey heartfelt conversation, you may get your healing plus affirm the relationship.

2) Challenging / Traumatic Field Work and Other Research

Sometimes graduate students whose field work or other research was emotionally challenging are reluctant to “revisit” it via writing. I’ve seen this in students in fields like anthropology or sociology, and also in historians researching topics like genocide. If the student has a personal connection to the topic—e.g., his grandparents were Holocaust survivors—or has bonded with his research subjects, this can make the situation even more fraught.

Sometimes just acknowledging the emotional challenge is enough to defuse it, especially if you’ve got a good support network. Journaling can also help you sort out your feelings. But sometimes you need professional help to deal with what might be actual trauma or which, along with being a mental health issue, can seriously degrade your productivity.

If you are wondering whether you should seek out a professional for this kind of issue, you should probably just go ahead and do so.

Ideally, academic departments would recognize that some types of research have the potential to create emotional difficulties for students, and do some work to prepare students and minimize the harm. But I’ve never seen one that did.

3) An Activist Component

Many thesis projects either intentionally or unintentionally challenge the status quo, and therefore can be considered activist as well as academic projects. When you add activism to scholarship, you add layers of intellectual, emotional, and strategic complexity. Intellectually and emotionally, your work could challenge not just you, but your committee members or others. Strategically, it could limit your career options.

It’s wonderful if you want to combine academics and activism, but do so knowingly, and with abundant support from other scholar/activists. In particular, you will have to figure out how to balance your activism with your career goals, especially if you’re hoping for a job at a conservative institution – which is not necessarily a sell-out, by the way, since we need radical viewpoints inside the system as well as outside it. It’s also not a sell-out to: (a) incorporate your radical views gradually into your work, so that your thesis might not actually be that radical; (b) collaborate with nonradicals; or (c) present a conventional / nonthreatening appearance that makes its easier for your more traditional colleagues to accept your more radical message. In fact, these moves are often brilliantly strategic.

For more on what an activist mission entails, see my book on sustainable activism, The Lifelong Activist; entire text available for free at ).

4) Research Qualms

“Not enough.”
“Not the right kind.”
“Too narrow.”
“Too theoretical.”
“Not as interesting as I thought.”
“If only I could go back and…”

Many graduate students are dissatisfied with the results of their research, and that dissatisfaction, especially when coupled with regret, remorse, guilt, etc., can cause them to stall on their writing. Second-guessing your research is a pure waste of time, however; if your supervisor and committee think your research is adequate, you should accept their judgment and focus on your writing.

More generally, a major challenge in many fields, including academia, is learning to live with, and keep working past, your mistakes (Here’s a terrific video on that) It only makes sense that you’ll make some mistakes and misjudgments in what is probably your first big research project; and you definitely want to comprehend your weaknesses (and strengths, of course) as a scholar. When, however, your self-analysis crosses the line into harsh perfectionism—which typically leads to unproductive procrastination and dithering—you’re not doing yourself any favors.

So, keep your critical eye, and definitely create the list of things you would have done better “had you only known.” Then take those steps—on your next project.

Author Bio: Hillary Rettig is author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block.