Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Why I gave up my PhD after almost 4 years

Today, I had a meeting with my supervisor, for which I felt I had to write a letter, because I wouldn't be able to say the things I wanted to. In it, I told him that I didn't think it was feasible that I continue with my PhD, so I wanted to walk away. 

As many of my friends will know, I was diagnosed with depression in January. Depression, as I'm sure you all know, can be a difficult thing to get diagnosed, but suffice to say, I think I'd probably been suffering for a good while; at least a year but potentially longer. I have worked hard over the last few months to "heal" myself, and most of the time, I've been feeling better. But over the last couple of months, during which I've been trying to get back to work, I've felt like I've been on a downward slope. One of the things that made me realise how insurmountable an obstacle this was was the utter dread I felt in coming back from Scotland last week. For the first time I realistically considered the prospect of walking away, and it soon became obvious to me that this was the best option available. 

My PhD has been difficult from the start; my industrial sponsors pulled out, thus deriving me of any kind of external framework, and I could no longer expect the industrial experience that I had been happily anticipating. So a few months in I had to redefine what I was going to research, with my supervisor and I coming up with the plan to carry out the work on a specific type of furnace. We were very lucky, and managed to source one of these furnaces for free, but we had to deconstruct, transport, and reconstruct it. The time it took to get this furnace up and running was over a year, and it was longer than that before I started my own work on it. The capabilities of the furnace and associated equipment proved significantly less than I was hoping, and I was a matter of months away from my first (3 year) deadline. During this time was the first time I sought help for what I felt to be depression, but despite speaking to a counsellor I was not diagnosed. She gave me tips on time management. Steadily my motivation was draining away, and the constant small failures of not gathering results fast enough, not doing the tasks I'd set for myself, not advancing my work fast enough, led to a really quite toxic cycle of vitriolic self-criticism and inability to do anything about it. 
The actual issues I faced with my work would not have been insurmountable, were it not for the external issues I was facing in my private life, with the still-continuing fall-out of Kevin's death, his inquest and unwanted responsibilities in my grandpa's ill health and death, my aunt abusing her position of authority in my grandpa's affairs and effectively casting me out of "her" family because I wouldn't back down when she wanted to inherit more of my his money, one of my best friends becoming chronically ill, stressful home-ownership issues, and faulty brain chemistry; and then all the boring tribulations that any life well-lived brings. I went to speak to a woman in social sciences who has seen it all as regards PhD students, and we she said to me "I'm not surprised you've lost motivation; I'm surprised you manage to get out of bed every day!".

I had been feeling so much better, so I thought I would be able to make the PhD work, but as I began to assess how much work I would do, I would get a ringing noise in my ears and it felt like part of me would shut down in panic. I wasn't using my time constructively, outside of the time I'd allotted to working in the bakery I've become involved with. This had all been the case for a while, but the thing that made me make up my mind once and for all was the tragic death of Robin Williams. I tried not to read too much around it, because, to be frank, I'm miserable enough with the state of the world. But I did read a couple of articles about the reporting of depression-linked suicides in the media, and the statement "depression can be a fatal disease" made me feel a bit sick because to be brutally honest, and this is incredibly hard for me to admit, the horrible voice inside my head had questioned the point of continuing to struggle at all when the alternative would be so much easier for me. I'm given to understand that, contrary to what I've believed for years, vivid thoughts of harming oneself are not in fact normal when you're upset and stressed. So since I couldn't make myself feel better about my situation, I decided to change it. It was an incredibly difficult choice, and yes, I do feel like a quitter, and a failure, but I also feel that it takes a big person to admit they've made a mistake. I truly believe it is the right thing for me, and I look forward to having a fresh page on which to make my next decisions.

I want to thank all my wonderful friends to whom I've spoken in the last couple of days, for being so supportive, and not letting me feel like a failure! You're all my rock and I've so lucky to have you, especially Mum, Penny, Rhys, Sally, Sophie, Lizzy, Ceri and two Kates (D and K!).


  1. Sounds to me that you definAtely made the right decision xxxxxx

    1. Thanks buddy!! I'm planning to be down at the end of the month for a loooong weekend, so I'll def pop in to the shop. Actually... I could be around for thirsty squid, if it's still the first Tuesday of the month!!