A PhD degree is perhaps the most challenging academic pursuit a student can undertake, requiring years of hard work and discipline. No matter how carefully you consider the pros and cons of entering a PhD program and how determined you are to complete it, at some point you may find yourself questioning whether you made the right choice.
If you find yourself in this situation, take a deep breath and do not rush to make any judgments. In order to make the right decision, you need to reevaluate your career goals with an objective in mind. You should also consider the opinions of people who are close to you, including your PhD advisors.
After careful consideration, you may decide that you have come too far to quit, or you might choose to take a leave of absence in order to rekindle your spirit. If you ultimately determine that another path is better for you, at least you will be confident that you did not make a rash decision.
Consider your career goals
The most important step in the evaluation process is a thorough reassessment of your career goals. After all, your original choice to enter a PhD program was almost certainly based on the type of career you wanted for yourself.
If you began a PhD in order to become a professor and researcher in a university, ask yourself if that is still what you want. If you are unhappy working in your subject area as a student, it is quite possible that you will remain unhappy as a professor. You must be passionate about research, teaching and your subject area in order to have a fulfilling career in academia.
If you began a PhD program to obtain professional training, the calculation might be a little different. PhD students in subjects like clinical psychology, higher education administration or systems engineering often go on to careers far outside of academia. For example, once a PhD is complete, a clinical psychologist can move out of the university and begin focusing on working with patients. In this case, an unhappy student may very well become a happy and fulfilled professional.
Also note that many PhD programs offer a masters degree to students who complete an appropriate amount of coursework. In many cases, 2 years of PhD coursework is sufficient to earn a masters degree, though the details can vary among different subject areas and programs. If this is an option for you, consider whether a masters degree is a good alternative to a PhD in light of your career goals and dissatisfaction with school.
Speak to your advisor
Most PhD students have at least 2 faculty advisors to whom they can turn for advice. The director of graduate studies usually serves as the primary advisor for first-year PhD students. Not long after your first year, you will be required to choose a faculty member to serve as your dissertation advisor. Dissertation advisors act as a guide throughout the rest of your PhD career.
Over time, your advisors will get to know your background, academic interests and professional goals. As faculty members in your subject area, they will be especially suited to help you make an informed decision about leaving the program.
Finally, for a perspective from outside your academic department, consider taking advantage of general academic and career advising services offered by your university. General student advisors are especially good sources of information on your career prospects should you decide to leave your PhD program.
Leave of absence
If you are having extreme difficulty coming to a decision about whether to stay in your PhD program, you might consider taking a leave of absence. While policies can vary, in most cases you must follow a prescribed set of steps to be granted official leave by your department and university.
To begin the leave of absence, consult your advisor. Your advisor will be able to offer general and procedural advice about the process. Most schools allow a leave of absence for general reasons which usually extends for no longer than 1 semester. This should be more than enough time for you to make your final decision.
Note that you are unlikely to retain any of your regularly scheduled financial aid through the course of your leave. Additionally, you may not have access to the same funding that you enjoyed before your leave. In many cases, returning students must apply for programs anew, losing any seniority benefits that may accrue to continually enrolled students.
Note that brick-and-mortar universities with online PhDs may have special leave of absence programs for online students. In some cases, online programs are designed with more scheduling flexibility than the equivalent on-campus programs. However, never take leave without consulting your advisor.