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Should I quit PhD?

  1. Sep 21, 2010 #1

    I'm in something of a predicament at the moment. I'm around 1 year into a PhD in theoretical physics, I more or less enjoy the research that I do (although before I applied for my PhD I was hoping to get one in string theory or some other QG, I ended up working on QFT in curved spaces, never the less, it's interesting and I like the things I'm learning about).

    The problem is I have not bonded with the other graduate students at all, this is not because I dislike them or anything like that, I'm just naturally quite shy, and need to be pushed into social situations really. Given the choice I will always take the easy road in these situations and a PhD has provided the ideal freedom to allow me to become isolated. Unlike a 9-5 job that I guess would have given me not option.

    Initially I did interact with one or two people, who I'd go to lectures with etc, but these people quit the PhD leaving me kind of stranded, as I'd not really made an effort at all with the others in the office (initially just because I found I got much more work done on my own rather than the slightly noisy office), I then found I had become quite isolated, and stopped going into the office completely prefering to just work at home (I know, stupid move).

    I've literally said no more than the brief introductory "hello..."'s "where are you from?"'s to most people in the office now, and it's been nearly a year! My day's consist of part reading, and part getting on with the days calculations in my apartment, and the odd visit to my supervisors office. Apart from my girlfriend I hardly see anyone. The last time I went into the office was over 3 months ago.

    I feel like it's gone beyond the point of no return, I've passed the point I can legitematly just turn up at the office and start getting to know people, and I am constantly quite worried about what they must think of me, and what it's going to be like when I do actually have to give a talk in front of them or go to a conference with them all etc. I can't imagine another few years of this...

    However, I don't know what to do, I do love Physics, and much prefer this work to a job, but a job would be a fresh social start and get me out of this rut. I've been even thinking of quiting for another PhD, but I don't really know if this would work, i.e. surely theyd ask why I'm quitting this PhD in the first place, then I'd have to explain to my referees why I want more references despite them knowing I'm already doing a PhD. Also it would seem like such a waste of a year, when my research seems to be going OK as far as I can tell.

    The whole thing is a big mess of my own creation, but I feel like I just kind of slipped into this state of being (girlfriend being here perhaps made it socially easy to not make an effort; latchd onto only one or two ppl who quit when should have made more effort with others; stupidly decided to sit back and work at home rather than forcing myself to be in the office. But now I'm unsure of what to do to rectify it.

    Thanks for any advice
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 21, 2010 #2


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    I don't think you're past the point of no return. Do you have a grad student seminar series, or a seminar series on your specialist area? Either or both of these would be helpful, since usually one would go for lunch/drinks/coffee before/after them. Failing that, just start going into your office more. If it's weird to start with, maybe have a word with one of your officemates when you're on your own and explain that you've found it a bit difficult to settle in, but that you're here to stay and hope to try and fit in. If they're decent human beings (which they may not necessarily be), they'd try and include you and invite you to lunch/drinks etc (at least I would).
  4. Sep 21, 2010 #3


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    I agree with Cristo that you are Not past the point of no return. Let's face it, most of the other graduate students probably have their own studies to worry about, and haven't really paid a lot of attention to the fact that you weren't around. Just start showing up again and interacting with people. They will just assume that you were sick or something, or had some other reason for not being around. If they ask (they probably won't), just tell them you had some personal issues you were dealing with, but now they are resolved. They probably won't ask any further.

    I think if you just start spending time with the other graduate students, opportunities to interact socially (lunch, go out for a drink...) will present themselves.
  5. Sep 21, 2010 #4
    Consider social skills part of your Ph.D. education (since it really is).

    Just show up. Nothing bad is going to happen to you.

    No it won't. If you don't work on getting rid of your shyness now, it's going to be totally disabling with you try to work in industry. In industry, social skills matter a *LOT* more than they do in graduate school.

    Something that works for me is to imagine the worst thing that can possibly happen. You show up, everyone hates you, and you get expelled. That's still better than quitting.

    It's probably not going to happen, and I've been in social situations where the worst thing that could happen *DID* happen, and I found that once I lived through that, I lost a lot of the fear.
  6. Sep 21, 2010 #5
    I was pretty shy in grad school. I was just masters track, so I wasn't doing research over the summer - so this may not help you. I took a job teaching a class over the summer. The "public speaking" experience was very helpful, and it forced me to interact with students during office hours, etc. Helped break down a few walls.
  7. Sep 21, 2010 #6


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    you are fine. you like your work, you are succeeding at it, and you prefer it to a desk job. do not quit. your office mates are concerned with their own work. they are not making bets on when you will return to the office. just go back and see.

    you are progressing toward a degree that will enhance your salary options and also add to your chances of having a job you enjoy. you are doing fine, it just doesn't feel like it because it is scary.

    hang in there, you are way above average. i promise, i have been there.
  8. Sep 22, 2010 #7
    Ah, sounds so much like my old situation at work. I was working in an industry and I was also acting very shyly and avoiding all conflicts.

    In the end I had to quit my job because everybody got upset with me. It took me a year to reconsider my ways and what had gone wrong.

    I'm the kind of guy who acts on principles and if my principles are incorrect then my ways of action will be too.

    Keep on pushing until it gets unbearable, then try taking a year off in some remote place where you can really think your life over. That's what I did and now I think I'm ready to go back to the industry again.
  9. Sep 22, 2010 #8
    Well, I quit my PhD, but for entirely different reasons.

    I got along great with the other students. We actually still keep in touch, and its been 10 months since I left.

    I left because I really didn't care about what I was doing and wanted to live someplace else. I don't regret it for a second. I'm back in school now (at my dream school), although I am retaking undergraduate classes that I've already taken. It might take another semester or two, but since this is a larger University, I am confident I will find some program here that interests me.
  10. Sep 22, 2010 #9
    Firstly thanks for the many replies and great advice.

    Yes, my school does run a seminar series in my approximate area, which has been off for the summer months. I do go some of the time although not every week, but when I do go I tend to end up just sitting at the back of the room, then going straight after, rather than going for coffee etc. I know this is a place to start, it just feels to me to be very difficult at this stage, I'd be almost certaintly less nervous if they were people that I didn't know at all, rather than people who I've kind of alienated myself from, and who I should know by now. I almost feel like they'd be shocked if my pattern of behaviour suddenly altered and I walked into the coffee room and started striking up conversation out of the blue. Plus then the pressure to actually say something of interest seems higher, I don't know.

    This sounds like a good idea again, however as you can imagine it's quite a sensitive area, and somewhat embaressing, although easy to talk about over a forum it's not so easy in 'real life'. If anyone did ask me I could imagine just nonchalantly saying I prefer working at home, rather than trying to justify myself through my shyness etc and showing that it's something I've been worrying about.

    I know the whole thing is more psychological than not, however psychology is a powerful thing in these situations.

    I do know I'd rather do Physics than not, but I don't know if another PhD and a fresh start is the way forward. What are my chances of making this happen if I did ultimately decide to go down this road? would it be looked on unfavourably, would I have a chance of getting another one. It would be a year at least until I could restart, so it would be two years wasted, but maybe it is worth it. I don't know, I'm just thinking out loud, and will probably try to stick it out where I am, but it would be nice to know what my options are on this front.
  11. Sep 22, 2010 #10


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    I think you are making much more out of this than you should. I certainly wouldn't quit just for this reason. I've been in this situation somewhat, and I found myself thinking "What must they think of me?" I found out later that they weren't thinking of me at all - they were thinking of themselves and their own lives. As I said before, just start showing up and don't worry about the past.
  12. Sep 22, 2010 #11
    I also believe that you have the capability and confidence inside of you to go back to the office. The mere fact that you decided to address this problem and posted it here indicates that you care and are dissatisfied with your lacking social life in the PhD world.

    If I were you, I would go back to the office as soon as possible and just act confident and as though nothing happened - you just needed some quiet time at home and are ready to go back to "normal life." If anyone asks you about it, joke around! Keep things light and don't make it a big deal.

    Being a college student, I may not know much about academics yet, but take my word - I know a lot about interaction with other people.

    Just be cool! ;)
  13. Sep 22, 2010 #12


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    Do not quit! This part of your personality will follow you - you will have to work on it wherever you are, and you will regret not finishing school. Also, in my experience graduate school is much friendlier than industry. In school, most folks do not have kids, houses and yards to maintain, etc., so their lives are much more flexible and they are more likely to go out to lunch, dinner, drinks, a movie, etc., on a whim and invite whoever is around. In industry most folks are tied down, and if they have free time would most likely want to get home and be with their families or work on their houses or beat rush hour.

    I seriously doubt that the other students feel alienated by you. They just know you are never around, and probably figure that you are shy (go figure!). You showing up in the office for a number of hours each day will not look weird to them. I once had an office mate that was never there the first semester - we all just thought he had some other place to work that he preferred. Near the middle/end of the second semester he started showing up. No one made a big deal of it and we got to know each other a little. It did not seem strange at all.

    I think that you are somewhat like I was when I started grad school. I am by nature shy, and would almost never "make the first move" socially. I am somewhat of a loner. I worked best at home, but still spent a lot of time at the office. The way I saw it, I might get a couple less hours of work done by being in the office than at home, but I got to know the other students and a couple hours of social time a day is definitely not too much. It is probably minimal. When I was around, if a couple folks were going to lunch, they would often ask other people in the office if they wanted to go and I took them up on the invitation even though I felt like I was tagging along. After a few such occurances I got to know a couple people and was invited to go out for dinners and other activities on occasion. But I really did need to spend a reasonable number of hours in the office for this to happen. In fact, I was basically in the office 9-5, except when I was in class or at lunch or had to study for an exam. I would work evenings at home usually, where I usually was much more efficient. I ended up with a few people that I spent significant time on weekends with. I am still shy, but can function much better due to my social "growth" in grad school.

    You can do this!

    Best wishes,

  14. Sep 23, 2010 #13
    I was once in a similar situation. Very similar indeed.
    My way out was simply taking a first step and then one thing leads to another. I know it seems hard right NOW, but really believe me, it gets a LITTLE easier each day. Something that helped me was I signed up to teach undergrad physics labs, so I was forced to talk to students. Even though these were not my classmates, this does help get your skills going. Also important, as others have mentioned... the other guys really do not care that much where you've been. They think you're just shy or have been busy with personal matters or whatever. If you just show up and try and start from 0, they will think it's cool.
  15. Sep 23, 2010 #14
    Thanks for the help again.

    I actually did teach last year, and despite my usual shyness I found teaching actually quite easy and almost enjoyable, I got on quite well with the other student teachers there etc, but unfortunately not of them were my classmates. It's bizzare that I'm not really that nervous giving talks and things just on a more one to one personal level I suppose, and coupled with how this situation has got slightly out of hand.

    You are all probably correct that they have barely cared an iota about my absence, I will try to go to seminars and take it from there I suppose.

    I will see how it goes over the next few months, but if worst came to worst to I have options of another PhD? I'm very conscious that the deadline for apps is going to be Dec/Jan if I did need this road.

    Thanks for all the helpful advice.
  16. Sep 28, 2010 #15
    There is this strange misconception, one that I learned about the hard way, that physics is something that you can learn and become better at but your ability and willingness to be social isn't. That is to say, people who struggle in social situations have a tendency to realize that they struggle in social situations but figure that there is nothing that can be done about it. From personal experience, I know that this is something that can be learned.

    As for the specific issue in this thread, I would recommend returning back to the office as soon as possible without saying anything about your absence. If you don't let on that being at work feels awkward, the others likely won't even notice. Even if they do and someone were to ask you about your absence, just tell them that you were really busy and isolating yourself for a bit helped you concentrate.
  17. Oct 17, 2010 #16
    Folio-I literally couldn't believe it when I read your post! I felt you are me and i am you(except that GF part LOL)! I am not "shy", but it's just I lost interest in socialising for a reason that I am not aware of. May be its due to the crisis I'm facing now, not sure.

    I really appreciate all of your responses, I found them very invaluable!
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