I’m lucky. I know I am. I finished my PhD. It was a hard slog and there were weeks I considered stopping, but I didn’t, and I have my doctorate now.
But that does not mean that people don’t stop their PhDs. I hesitate to use the word quit, because that conjures up all sorts of negative connotations. To quit sounds like to fail. And stopping your PhD is not failing (failing your PhD is failing). It’s choosing to take a different path, because you realise the one you are on is not the right one. It’s no different than quitting your job because you know there are better options out there. And we wouldn’t consider that failing, would we?
Why stop your PhD? There are many reasons, and each one is as individual to the person making the decision. But let me list a few of the most common ones, and the ones I’ve actually encountered in people I’ve met.
You might decide to stop your PhD because of academic reasons. By which I mean: you don’t like your supervisor, your department, your university, your colleagues, etc. These are all valid reasons. If you hate your supervisor, or they are never around, or they want you to do different research, those are good reasons to stop your PhD. You might start it again at a different university (in fact, I suggest looking into other universities, if you stop for this reason; one university doesn’t mean all universities). If you aren’t happy with things, give serious consideration to why and what you can change. If you can’t change much, it might be time to look elsewhere, or reassess if you really want to do the PhD.
Another reason to stop is that you don’t like your topic anymore. This does not always mean you will throw in the hat. There are ways to change your topic without stopping doing your PhD entirely. I know people who have done it. I sort of did it myself (post for another week). Discuss this with your supervisor and other staff if you aren’t happy with what you’re doing. Can you change it and still stay in the department? Still keep your funding? Once you’ve figured out where you’re at you’ll know whether stopping is the way to go, or whether changing to a different department/university might work. But there are always ways to change your topic and still do your PhD.
Some people decide part-way through (or earlier, or later) their PhDs that it’s not for them. Sometimes it’s because they realise it won’t advance their career the way they want it to. Other times it’s because they just don’t like doing a PhD. Perhaps they’ve been offered a dream job. Perhaps their family situation has changed. If you simply decide the PhD isn’t for you, or it isn’t the right time to do one, then do stop. You won’t enjoy it anymore and it’s more stress than you need if it’s not helping you in life. I think this is a grand reason to stop doing your PhD and if I’d had the guts to actually stop mine, this would have been the reason.
Another reason to stop might be more along the lines of you just can’t handle it anymore. It’s okay. PhDs are stressful things. They can cause a lot of mental and physical anguish very easily. And it’s hard to get out of it. It’s hard to make it better. And sometimes it’s just too much. I completely understand. I seriously considering stopping for this reason at one time or another, but everyone feels that way at some point in their PhD. I took a sabbatical and realised I just needed a break. That may be the issue. If it is, take a break. If taking a break doesn’t help, give serious consideration to whether a doctorate is worth the misery. Because it can be miserable doing a PhD and I’m of the opinion that nothing in life is really worth the sort of misery that leads to depression and anxiety. They’re very hard to get rid of once you have them.
There are other reasons, of course. As I said, it’s a personal decision, and your reasons are your own. But whatever your reason – or reasons – know that they are valid. It’s okay to stop. It’s okay to move on. It’s not failing. It’s not admitting defeat. It’s making the right decision for you at the right time. And once you stop (if you don’t start again somewhere else), don’t worry about people asking you ‘why did you quit?’ You don’t have to answer that. Your reasons are your own and they are right for you. Don’t let other people judge you. And never, ever let anyone tell you it’s a failure to stop doing your PhD.