Why Students Give Up on PhD?


In 2017, the attrition rate of PhD dropouts has increased up to 91.6 % in the UK alone, and the reason is PhD being emotionally devastating. The university faculty and administrators tend to blame the students for not having the required academic ability to complete their doctoral study. But the question is who and what defines the abilities a candidate must possess for earning the doctoral degree? Is it only about the eligibility criteria or a lot more? The emotional distress, expenses, and the exertion (both physical and mental) through which a PhD candidate suffers is talked about only on the social media platforms. While it has become the buzz, it barely alarms the universities and authorities to understand the conflict and devise the solutions which would decrease the PhD attrition rate.

In this post, we will be looking at the most common as well as uncommon reasons due to which candidates give up on their dream of winning PhD degrees.

I had studied the various forums where PhD candidates discuss the issues challenging them during the program. After doing content analysis, I found the almost 56% of them face the similar problems during the doctoral program- bullying supervisors, financial crisis, unfinished thesis, and no scope in the academic job market are only a few reasons to name. Here is what the students feel like before they decide to quit PhD:

When the students feel cheated and suffer emotional breakdown:


Source: Postgraduateforum.com

When the PhD path goes awry and they find no way out:


Source: Discussyourdissertation.com

When they bear the burden of PhD without any motivation:


Source: Researchdiscussions.com

And the remaining 44% had incurred with particular problems such as:

  1. Shift in the career interest: When the doctoral study doesn’t interest them anymore, they start looking for the career opportunities outside the academia. So, many of the students turn up to become artisan, sailor or picking up a corporate job.

  2. Mistreatment from the department or university: Whether the universities admits it or not, the negligence on their part often results in the attrition. Students do not want to continue with the PhD due to either the change of supervisors every other months or years or the bullying of supervisors.

  3. Neck-breaking research work: The supervisors or the doctoral committee considers the amount of research work to be completed within a specific deadline. However, the hard work and additional efforts a student has to make for making the work submittable is often not counted as the research work. It causes the students overwhelmed and saddened enough to get a break and quit PhD.

  4. Impostor syndrome: Students often lose or do not possess the confidence that they can complete the research work by themselves. Facing the continuous rejections, they began doubting their capabilities that whatever they are doing is either wrong or not up to the mark.

  5. Competitive environment: Due to the impostor syndrome and peer pressure, students are unable to survive the competitive environment. And because the research academia is highly competitive, students consider themselves not worthy of being a part of it and hence, leave!

  6. Affected mental health: Psychological distress and emotional breakdown become a leading factor driving the students to quit PhD before it becomes a serious threat. Writing anxiety and the feeling of incompetence that students go through results in fear of failure (or kakorrhaphiophobia) instilled among them. To avoid the rejection or failure, students decide to give up on PhD.

For those who aspire to win the PhD expedition, the journey turns out to be full of frustration and suffering! And such traumatic experiences people get during the PhD is spreading across the world like an epidemic. If 110 people get enrolled in PhD, only ten of them successfully get the degree which is a serious issue. The universities, as well as the students, need to take brainstorm together to decrease the attrition rate. Where the students must come up with the strategies of how to handle the academic distress, the university should create a healthy environment and make meaningful support available within the campus.

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