Help, It Just Doesn't Fit!

(November 14th, 2016) Imagine you find yourself in a catch-22 situation with your PhD thesis. You realise the project is not exactly what you wanted to do. Should you push it further or should you quit? Lab Times contacted a PhD student, who recently made this tough decision.

A PhD project is a big thing. Especially at the beginning, one faces incredible challenges and hurdles, which seem impossible to overcome. If you don't want to struggle all the way to graduation, it seems terribly important to find the right project for you. But what to do if, after a short while, you notice you and your project are not the right match? Is it possible to abandon the post? And, if so, what is the best way to do it?

We recently came across a PhD student, who was in exactly this situation. Let’s call him Thomas. Thomas told us, he looked for the right PhD position for months. “I checked job offers and employment ads, nurtured from advice and guidance, and ended up at the seemingly ideal position.” He even moved abroad, found a new flat in a foreign city and started a new life. Enthusiastically working on his project, he felt happy and lucky. But all too sudden, everything turned black. After only three months, Thomas realised this post wasn’t for him. “I figured out that I was not really interested in the questions my project tried to answer and I lost motivation”, he remembers. In addition, he was struggling with the techniques and design of the experiments because not a single research question formed in his mind. “It was a shock because I have never been in a situation like this before”, he says. He and his PhD project did not seem to fit together. We asked Thomas how he handled the situation and he described it as a three-phase process.

The Motivation
“First of all, it was important to reflect on why I wanted to do a PhD at all, what was my motivation. In my case, I want the degree to advance in my career”, Thomas recalls. “Then I asked myself, why it had to be THIS project.”

By looking closer at the topic and talking to his colleagues, Thomas figured out that this project would not help him reach his career goals. However, he also looked at other kinds of motivation, for example: “Do I want to live in this city because my family and friends are here? Do I perhaps admire my supervisor so much that I am ready to cope with a circumstance that is not ideal, just in order to work with him or her?”

As a next step, Thomas suggests a careful examination of one's everyday life at work: “What is it that you don’t like about your work? If it's only the regular journal clubs, that's not a reason to quit your project, since they take only a tiny amount of your time. But if you hate the techniques you are working with every day, then you should consider changing something”, he says.

The Decision
After realising, he hated his everyday tasks in the lab and there was no way to get around them, Thomas, for the first time, seriously considered quitting the project. “This was the part that hurt most”, Thomas remembers. “To consider and to weigh up all the possibilities, trying to make the right decision was the hardest.” Thomas stresses that this is the crux of the matter: “No matter how you decide, it is important that you decide.”

This is also what social scientist Martin Hoegl from the Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich, Germany, says. As an expert in human resources and leadership management, he told us: “Most people, who strive for higher education like a PhD or an MBA, tend not to give up easily; these people are used to work on solutions for longer periods of time. Therefore, I believe they rather decide too late to change their situation.”

In academic circles, the risk of getting stuck in an unwanted situation is therefore much higher than that of making a hasty decision and quitting a project. Hoegl sees the first six months in any job as a test period, in which you must find out whether the job suits you or not. While PhD positions are not like any other job, Hoegl emphasises the importance of this decision: “it is about one's personal education. These people are not used to ‘failure’, they do not want to consider a dropout. Of course, dropout is not the same as failure but some people interpret it that way.”

The Realisation
Four months after he had started his PhD project, Thomas got a similar advice and made the decision to discontinue. First, he talked to his closest colleagues to make sure he had contemplated all facts and possibilities, and also to find out the best way to approach his supervisor. He says: “If you seek an open conversation with your supervisor and truthfully tell him or her how you feel, your supervisor has no reason to be mad at you”. He points out that it is very important to seek this conversation early, this being a key to a happy ending. No lab head wants an unmotivated PhD student, who only consumes resources but produces no data. “They will be happy to see that you are determined and will make room for a new person, who is more committed.”

In Thomas’ case, the conversation with his supervisor was what he feared most. But actually it turned out to be quite easy. “She understood my decision and had also seen that I was not fully committed and motivated. For her, it was better that I stopped early and did not waste her resources. Although I had hoped, she might see another solution for my dilemma, like a new project or collaboration, that was not possible. So we agreed that I would leave the lab by the end of the month.” Afterwards, he just felt relief.

Once the final decision has been made and agreed, there are no big hurdles on the way out of the PhD project anymore. This depends, of course, on the legal regulations in the country, the university and the PhD school, but in most cases, there are helpful people to give support and guidance.

Thomas is not the only PhD student, who took such a journey. During our research, we heard from several PhD students, who quit their first PhD after a few months and are now successfully working on new projects. Postdocs told us, how they dropped out of their first PhD, just to find the perfect project afterwards. But we also heard stories about students, who did not like their projects but did not dare to quit either. “PhD students should rather stop their PhD early, if they find out it is not the right thing for them”, most people told us. What a surprise: encouragement for decisions that nobody speaks about.

The last advice we got from Thomas was that you should not see it as the end of your career. “Although it is pretty hard to take a second attempt for a PhD, it is definitely possible.” Meanwhile, Thomas has found a new PhD project, which he will hopefully love, and fulfill with passion, motivation and commitment.

Karin Lauschke

Photo: Drits

This article first appeared in German in Laborjournal 10-2016.

Last Changes: 12.09.2016