Quit A PhD? How To Go From Lonely To Invincible PhD Student

Feeling like a lonely PhD student sucks.

You can feel lonely in a PhD even if you are in a large research group.

Feeling lonely is not exclusive of distance PhDs.

The annoying thing is that people don’t seem to get it. Friends and relatives say it will pass, that it will get better.

On the other hand, those that might understand you, your PhD colleagues, seem to be doing fine, churning publications and securing a postdoc. Hello grass-is-always-greener-syndorome.

In the meantime you think every single fucking day: Should I quit a PhD?

At this point it’s normal to lose interest in your research. If you do not have an ounce of passion left, how can you move forward this monster of a PhD?

Half way your PhD, you are walking the Valley of Shit, the PhD Dip. Most of us do, or did, even I we are ashamed of admitting it.

Right now you might feel it was a bad decision to start a PhD.

You start to consider if you should quit a PhD.

If you are of the ambitious / perfectionist type, you also fear that your lack of interest will make you produce subpar research. And you find that unacceptable.

Lonely PhD student in the distance

But you know what, it’s even worst for PhDs that came from a different country.

Family, friends and the safe environment you were used to, are far far away. It’s not like you can take a plane back home every weekend to recharge your batteries.

Culture differences, language challenges, getting used to new food… all conspires against your PhD.

Being an stranger in a new land might feel like living in a jail.

It can happen that a vacation period comes and you don’t have enough money to fly back home. Or your family can’t come for a visit. This adds up to all the frustration.

I get it. I did my PhD in a different country. Luckily it was just 2 hours flight home on low cost carriers. So my family and friends were visiting regularly.

But even just 2 hours meant that when I was down or I needed some comfort, they were too far to deliver it.

When getting out of bed is a victory 

I also had my moments when I didn’t want to get out of bed. After long minutes of denying the inevitable, I had to push myself out of bed, jump on the bike and go to the university.

And I am talking just minutes, I know people need hours or even days to get the energy to go work on their PhD.

You know how is that called, depression.

Let’s name the elephant in the room. Depression.

[disclaimer] I am no (medical) doctor or psychologist, nor do I pretend to be one on the internet. [/ disclaimer]

Look for professional help

If you think you have depression please talk to a professional. Seriously.

Your faculty might have some PhD coach, or tutor that might guide you. Really, don’t let depression take over.

I don’t have good advice over depression, I know though that hearing other people’s stories might help a bit. Please check this post with Tim Ferriss on how depression took over his mind and made him consider suicide.

I know all this sounds like t’s for crazy people and it’s surrounded by stigma. Please take care of yourself. It’s no reason to feel shame.

I can see that a lot of things are piling up on you. It feels like too much. I completely understand.

I also went through a phase of lack of motivation. Not so severe, though. My situation was more comfortable than yours.

It helped me to talk to a PhD advisor in the faculty that did some coaching/psychology sessions with me. It put things in perspective.

Should you, lonely PhD student, quit a PhD?

How long I will be able to keep it all together?

You know quitting a PhD is not an option and you don’t really want to. However, you know that when you look back at life, you will forever regret these 5 years of life that simply smoked out all happiness from your mind.

Or so you tell yourself.

But this is not a good conversation to have with yourself. Besides, the more you repeat it, the more it feels like that.

More often than not, our emotions control our thoughts and make us think that quitting a PhD is the solution.

Let’s change those negative thoughts towards your PhD into something better.

So if you are still wondering what my answer is to the question “Should I quit a PhD?”, then it is NO! (unless you tried what I am about to share with you and it didn’t produce good results for you).

Warning! There is no easy solution here…

No magical pill that solves all your problems, although some of the things you need to do will be pleasurable.

It takes constant work to be a happy PhD student. We have multiple levers we can operate. It’s the combination of them that will yield the best results.

Let’s do this!

3 Habits To Go From Lonely PhD To Invincible PhD

I know it’s not easy to resist the temptation to quit a Ph.

Sometimes it helps to separate things. I see three key areas to become the best PhD student version of yourself:

  • PhD work
  • private life
  • body and mind

PhD work: focus on process

About your PhD, forget the content of your work and focus on enjoying the process.

The goal here is not to enjoy the content of your research or your topic. The goal is to enjoy getting better at the core tasks a PhD needs to do.

See if you can be every day a bit better writer, a bit better reader of papers, a bit better presenter of results (as crappy as they might be), a bit better at running your experiments.

If you focus on that, I promise that some good results will start to follow.

I have another suggestion: supervise a student.

Having somebody that depends on you is like a hard kick in the ass to get out of bed.

You need to design a project that is doable for the student. It needs to fit also with your research.

The effort to put all these pieces together is progress in itself. And even if it feels like too much work, daily or weekly supervision engages you back to your work.

Don’t say: “Well, I can’t even handle my own work, now I need to provide somebody else with work?”

Yes! Go, fucking, do it!

Life outside the lab: you are a social animal

Having a good work life balance seems important, yet an elusive reality for many Phd students.

Ok, this can be more complicated.

  • Some people are in very difficult situations:
  • Residence permits, visas, or scholarships that expire.
  • Partner and children are in a different country.
  • Sickness of dear ones whom you cannot help due to the distance.

These are above my pay grade.

Let’s focus on something we can tackle.

I can imagine that you miss the life you had before a PhD. Unfortunately we cannot bring that life exactly back.

What we can do is create proxies to that life, to feel more “back at home”:

  • Can you find people in your area that come from your same country (or that share a similar background)? I am Spanish, I mingle well with Italians, Greeks and South-Americans.
  • Why don’t you organize a weekly lunch where everybody brings and shares a meal of their country?
  • Create a Facebook Page/Group or a Meetup for people from your country. Once the group is large enough organize regular meetings. You can also celebrate together your national holidays or other special festivities.

Something we tend to miss during our PhD is our social life. We focus too much on work and we forget the rest. Work-life balance, anyone?

It’s time to reclaim your social life.

If feeling social again is important to you try this:

  • Can you retake an old hobby that involves other people: team sports, dancing lessons, languages, joining a meet up?
  • Do volunteer work. Giving, helping, feeling empathy for others makes you feel connected (and it is impossible to feel angry, frustrated and grumpy when you are giving to others).
  • Organize parties at home or somewhere else in town. You will have fun and make new friends.

Basically have a life outside the lab, so you have a reason to finish your tasks of the day so you can go out.

Body and mind: the tools

Take care of your health, which is your body and your mind. These are the tools you use for your PhD, so they need to be in top notch condition.

We all underestimate the importance to tending to our body and mind.

I also had some poor habits at the beginning of my PhD. And by no means I am doing changing habits, it’s an ongoing process that will go on forever.

These are some of the things I did and changed in the last years that had the biggest impact on me:

  • Sleep more, almost 8 hours per night.
  • Drink more water, more tea, less coffee.
  • Eat less bread/pasta/grains and more beans/lentils and protein.
  • Play again basketball 3 times per week, it’s social and my way of disconnecting my mind.
  • I did strength training during my PhD once a week, now 3 times a week.
  • I also tried 10 minutes meditation in the morning and felt good afterwards. I used HeadSpace on my phone, which offers 10 free guided meditations.

How does the perfect day look?

We tend to imagine the perfect day. We mentally masturbate with all the things we are going to do.

Then the day comes, we don’t fulfil those expectations and get frustrated with ourselves. Sounds familiar this nasty self-sabotage circle (of which I am an expert)?

A much more useful approach is to analyze past days, good and bad, to find the ingredients that make a great or terrible day.

Let me share with you the ingredients for a great day. I need to have at least 4 of these in a day for it to be successful:

  • I make significant progress at work (ie, I am not lazy and deliver something). This can be a published blog post or to complete a data analysis.
  • I have slept well, 8 hours minimum.
  • I have done some sort of exercise.
  • I have had idle time, to think or to just waste
  • I write.
  • I read a book for pleasure.
  • I hardly use computers, telephones or other sorts of technology.
  • I have done something social, be it dinner with people, go to a movie, or just a fun conversation.
  • I haven’t abused coffee and drank plenty of water.
  • I have eaten healthy and therefore feel no regrets when I reward myself a couple of cookies (oh man I love cookies!!).
  • What the hell, let’s be honest here: I have some sexy time ( this one counts for several of the above 😃 ).

Remember, focus on making progress, have a social life and take care of your body and mind.

I send you a big hug, I hope things get better.

You are not the only one having these problems.

About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on JulioPeironcely.com.