Why People Quit Big Projects (And How Not To!)

The below fantastic article from ThesisWhisperer.com is aimed at graduate students, but really pertains to anyone who is struggling, or has struggled, with a big project. (Just substitute “boss” for “supervisor” if needed!) Thanks to the the Thesis Whisperer herself, Dr. Inger Mewburn, Director of Research Training at the Australian National University, for kind permission to reprint. I’ve edited it for brevity, added some formatting, and also annotated it with some of my own thoughts and solutions. And your own thoughts and feedback are always welcome. – Hillary

Why do people quit the PhD? by Dr. Inger Mewburn

As it turns out, we already know quite a lot about why people quit their PhD. In her 2006 paper, “The Changing Environment for Doctoral Education in Australia”, Margot Pearson summarises prior research, mainly conducted in the United States, and names a complex set of interlocking factors:

Bretschnedier's The Scholar's Study. Art like this is beautiful but unfortunately romanticized images like these promote perfectionism. You might feel inadequate if your own source materials aren't as abundantly arrayed.

Bretschnedier’s The Scholar’s Study. Romanticized images like this one can catalyze perfectionism if you feel your own studio or materials fall short.

research mode (full time / part time or movement between the two)
structure of the programme
dissertation definition
departmental climate
research money
type of financial support
campus facilities
and job market opportunities.

Barbara Lovitt’s interesting book “Leaving the Ivory Tower”, published in 2001, covered similar issues, and, amongst many other interesting findings, identified two key factors in the decision to leave:

“Pluralistic ignorance”: failing to realise that the problems being experienced are similar to the problems other people are facing. People can then make the mistake of thinking THEY are the problem and ‘leaving in silence’. [Hillary note: This is a huge reason projects are abandoned, and this point also confirms the crucial importance of being part of a professional community. Isolation not only deprives you of essential information and perspectives, but catalyzes shame. And so one solution to a stuck project is to ask for help early and often. (My mentors have actually taught me to do this before I get stuck.) Sometimes you have to overcome some embarrassment or shame to do so, but once you do, the relief is usually immense, and one often gets more and better support than anticipated.]
Feeling like you don’t belong to the discipline, or can’t conform to its norms of behaviour. (Lovitts uses Durkheim’s phrase ‘anomie’ to describe this phenomenon).  [Hillary: “pathologizing ordinary work processes” is a key perfectionist behavior. A perfectionist writer will say, “I couldn’t write anything yesterday” or “what I wrote today was terrible” with the unspoken added assumption, “…and therefore I’m unfit to do this work.” But even prolific writers have plenty of “off” days. They just don’t take them to heart, and focus on solving any underlying problems so that they can do better tomorrow.]

The reasons for PhD student attrition seem remarkably persistent over time.

Ernest Rudd conducted interviews way back in 1978 with research students who had either quit, or had taken a very long time to complete their studies. In his book called “A new look at post graduate failure”, Rudd talks about the following factors:

Problems with motivation, including boredom, disenchantment and laziness [Hillary – These are symptoms, not causes! Very important to not label yourself or anyone as “lazy.” Any time you feel unmotivated, simply ask yourself “Why?” in an analytical, non-shaming way; then answer the question and implement whatever solution you come up with. Or, talk the situation over with an advisor or friend. More solutions here.]  

Injury or Illness
Family commitments, including marriage breakdowns
Lack of University jobs / attraction of a job offer  [Hillary: a sense of futility is hugely demotivating. Here’s a book that will help you with your job search.]
Problems in choice of topic
Cross disciplinary research issues
Failed lab work
Problems with ‘writing up’.
Supervision issues (including neglect, incompetence and personality clashes)

[Hillary: Actually, probably all of these are at least partly attributable to “supervision issues”–if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s your supervisor’s job to see that problem and help you fix it. There’s also probably a hidden supervisory component to the others. (A good supervisor can help you prevent a family issue from derailing your career, for instance.) Also, I’ve seen three more common causes: (1) prior traumatic work history (e.g., a mean supervisor or boss); (2) unhealed traumas from field work or research (especially prevalent in fields like anthropology or history); and (3) a hidden activist component (e.g., if your work challenges the received wisdom or status quo). These factors complicate the emotional, social, or political contexts for your work, adding to its difficulty. I write about them in the Appendix to The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.]

As it happens, the result of my first pass through the comments was broadly consistent with the existing literature. In descending order, I found the following themes in my data:

Bullying or disinterested supervisors
Loss of interest in the research / Lack of internal motivation (essentially drift). [Hillary: This will also often be caused by a deficient supervisor.]
Don’t want to be an academic anymore and therefore see no point in continuing. Linked to the worry that PhD might make them ‘unemployable’ outside and wondering if ‘out there’ is better. [Hillary: Ambivalence is hugely demotivating, and often does involve a perfectionist component—for instance, hoping for a “dream job” and being unwilling to compromise on that vision.]

Mentioned less often were:

Scholar cat sez humor definitely helps when you're in the midst of a big project!

Scholar cat sez humor definitely helps when you’re in the midst of a big project!

Being asked to do extra work to make the project ‘submittable’ (sometimes tied to lack of good formative feedback along the way, but not always).
Mounting debt (interestingly, in the two institutions I have worked, this is the most often stated reason for leaving a research degree, perhaps because it’s the most impersonal).
Not family / relationship / career responsibility friendly
Desire to change disciplines / topic, but difficulty in doing so
Failed lab work
Stress / exhaustion / mental health issues – like depression

Mentioned much less often were the following:

Loss of supervisors / lack of appropriate supervisors
Intellectual isolation
Feelings of being trapped or powerless to act  [Hillary: The definition of disempowerment, the main engine of procrastination.]
Poisonous, competitive research environment  [Hillary: Ya think? Some people will thrive in such an environment, but many, including many women in particular, won’t.]
having to do work that is not your own – baby sitting, other people’s lab work, supervisor’s busy work.   [Hillary: A time management issue. Before starting a thesis or other big project, you should jettison all your non-essential activities, and probably a few you consider essential. And you should enlist huge professional and personal (e.g., babysitting) support. Finally, having to do your supervisor’s busy work, especially while writing your thesis, is yet another example of poor supervision, if not outright exploitation.]

Given all this, it’s interesting to look at why people say they stay. In the comments I found three main factors:

Sunk cost (I’ve got this far, might as well go the whole way)  [Hillary: Adept decision makers try not to make decisions based on sunk costs since doing so likely only compounds initial errors.]
Pressure / expectations of others like family and supportive supervisors
Sense of shame at failure

So my content analysis broadly matched the literature and suggested my data set was valid enough, but other than re-affirming what we already know, what else can we learn from this data? The comments are full of shame, blame and largely unspoken tensions. It seems that many people who are entertaining quitting thoughts find it hard to give them voice. It must be easy for a disaffected student to become quite socially isolated. [Hillary: bolding mine! Isolation truly is one of the core problems.] How then, can these stories become a valuable source of knowledge about the PhD experience?

Here’s the tentative list of narratives I came up with after this conversation:
The Resilience Narrative

This is when people talk about the PhD as a journey or trial which can, or must, be overcome through the diligent personal effort.

I think this story line is what Frank would call a ‘preferred narrative”: many of the comments either follow resilience narrative, or react / reject it in some way. A preferred narrative acts as a way of ‘disciplining’ people’s actions – in this case, to attempt to keep a student in the PhD, regardless of whether or not this is the best choice for them.

You’ll note, if you read through the comments, that many people who have passed their PhD are telling those who are thinking of quitting that “pushing on” is worth it. Many commenters, who seem on the verge of quitting, have ‘internalised’ the resilience narrative in their own self talk, telling us they intend to carry on, even though they are hating it.

People who cannot, or will not, ‘buy in’ to the resilience narrative seem to show signs of being alienated, sometimes extremely so. There are comments full of guilt or self blame for not ‘measuring up’ and being resilient enough. [Hillary: They are probably being encouraged in their self-accusations by victim-blaming supervisors and others.] Others talk back to these expectations in defiant terms, especially those who have quit and say they feel liberated. I think, by the way, that this is one of the reasons that “The Valley of Shit” has become such a popular post: it speaks to this experience of feeling worn down by other people’s chipper “you can do it” comments.

When we hear the resilience narrative, or find ourselves repeating it, we should perhaps pause for a moment. What do we have at stake in this person finishing their degree? Are we actually just putting on additional pressure they don’t need?

The Chaos Narrative

These comments speak of events in a confused, non linear way, almost as if the person is having trouble putting their experience in words. Chaos narratives are marked by anger, fear, powerlessness, misery and apathy. [Hillary: The disempowerment and fear that lead to procrastination and blocks.] I took this narrative idea straight from Frank’s work because the comments in this vein closely conformed to examples in his book. Frank points out that the chaos narrative is not a “real story” in that it doesn’t have a structure or clear ‘plot’.

Frank points out that the chaos narrative is “threatening to hear” because it reminds the listener how easily they might, themselves be “sucked under” by events. [Hillary: Futility, again.] When we hear the chaos narrative we may be tempted to fall back to the resilience narrative as an attempt to turn the person’s thoughts in a more ‘positive’ direction. But it’s probably important, Frank insists, that we instead ‘witness’ the chaos narrative and don’t feel like we need to rush in and suggest to the person how they can fix the situation. This is not the same as doing nothing.  [Hillary: Asking “How can I help?” is also a great response.]
The Ambivalence Narrative

This narrative is marked by lack of faith in the future, or uncertainty about what the future holds. Generally these stories are marked by a “what’s it all for?” vibe.

Some people talk frankly about ‘not knowing what to do next’ and therefore allowing the situation to drift. Others talk in more pragmatic terms of just finishing in order to put the experience behind them. Still others seem to be falling into apathy, depression and general ennui. I noticed it was in these kinds of stories that many students expressed thoughts about not wanting to be an academic anymore.

Since I started thinking in terms of an ambivalence narrative I have started to notice how often it is voiced in my conversations with PhD students, and in blogs and interviews with them. It’s making me wonder if the ambivalence narrative is becoming the preferred narrative amongst students themselves?

Perhaps the ambivalence narrative is a reaction to the uncertain work structures in academia. I certainly remember employing this narrative myself while I was a PhD student. I knew I wanted to legitimize my academic work by getting a full time job when it was over, when I wasn’t at all sure this plan was going to work out. Sometimes I think I told this ambivalence story as a way of testing out loud what other options and identities were available to me.

How should we listen to the ambivalence narrative? I’m not really sure, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on it or any of the others.  [Hillary: Ambivalence is typified by one-step-forward-two-steps-backwards type behavior that can really be frustrating and perplexing to you and those around you. People can have legitimate reasons for ambivalence, but you want to resolve any ambivalence you’re experiencing as soon as possible so you can get on with your project and your life. Some ambivalence is caused by self-censorship: you really want to do something, but think you can’t or shouldn’t, so you come up with a Plan B you’re not committed to. Other ambivalence is caused by a failure to give up an idealized vision of your endeavor or its outcome, so that your real life experience are inevitably disappointing. Again, reaching out to others, if only to talk things through, will be invaluable.]

Do these narratives resonate with you at all? [Hillary: I think so!] Can you suggest any others? Is this a helpful way of thinking about how to help people thinking of quitting the PhD? [Hillary: What do you think? Email me, or comment below. And thanks again to Dr. Mewburn for permission to reprint!]

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