Leaving a Ph.D. takes courage—and it doesn’t mean the path to academic success is over

“The faculty members and I were discussing the candidates we had interviewed. One hadn’t hidden the fact that she wished to leave her current Ph.D. position to join our program, and some of the faculty members worried this might be a bad sign, indicating a lack of commitment. I argued that such a decision is not taken lightly and, depending on the circumstances, can indicate strength of character rather than failure.”


I agree - many of us have or will at some point consider quitting the PhD for one or the other reason. I dare to say that many of not most PhD students lack proper mentorship, guidance and support while enduring enormous pressure (publish or perish, friends’ & family’s expectations) and most pressure comes from our own perfectionism and fear of failing. Seeking a healthier working environment is a logical step if the pressure gets too high :slight_smile:

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And why is this? The supervisors do get training to be good supervisors, at least in Sweden where I come from. But the problems resist. Is it due to the academic culture? Non-compromising, straightforward criticism is part of the culture, and this is a crucial part of science, I think. But if it comes with stress, lack of social skills, highly competitive environment, and a scarcity of resources (money and positions) - as is all so common in academia- then the non-compromising criticism might become a problem after all.

At my department we had one professor who smelled the hair of his PhD candidates in the mornings to see how recently they had arrived. The same professor frequently had loud outbursts of anger with his students and criticised them so harshly during their presentations that the students often left crying. Another professor kept such anger to the one-by-one meetings and he actively made the PhD students in his group turn on each other by comparing them to each other and “trust” a student with complains on the others. For example, “well at least you can write, unlike X and X”.

Straightforward and non-compromising criticism suits me personally very well because (1) when I do something I want to do it well - this includes high expectations on both myself and others, (2) I like efficiency, (3) I don’t have the social skills to give criticism constructively in any other way.

But due to this combination of traits, I’m not really a good leader. I know this and try my best to not be a leader outside of academia (unsuccessfully: I’m now the Branch Manager at IGDORE’s Bali Campus!). Within academia, however, it’s difficult to never be a leader. And the more skilled you are at your research, the more likely is it that you will lead many people. But researchers who stay in academia often seem to have issues of some sort, e.g. lack of social skills, high on psychopathic traits and neuroticism. If this is true, then maybe one way to reduce the problems is (1) remote work, (2) a strong supporting network for the graduate students, and (3) continuous debriefing of supervisors (where they can share their frustration and receive help in resolving issues that arise).

(Sorry if I ramble. Writing on the phone and can’t see my text in full. Might edit it for clarity later!)

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