What to do when you want to give up on academia

The planet is burning and all I care about is if I have enough papers and making sure everyone likes me


This anonymous confession sparked heartfelt recognition from across the academic world when it was shared on social media recently.

Many academics begin their careers with admirable and lofty goals, hoping their research will ultimately help make the world a better place. But, in practice, the weight of a heavy workload, high expectations and intense pressure to publish can crush the enthusiasm and energy that brought you so far.

Add other tensions such as job precarity or isolation into the mix, and it’s easy to start losing confidence in the value of what you are doing – and even interest in your topic.

So if this sounds familiar, what should you do?

Firstly, remember you’re not alone. They may be good at concealing it, but a quick read through #AcademicTwitter or the comments on an academic blog post will show that many of your peers are dealing with the same issues. Take comfort from the fact that plenty of leading academics whose work and impact you admire most are likely to have faced – and found a meaningful way through – the same challenges.

Take a break. Just as walking away from your screen often allows your brain to spot patterns you missed when you were staring straight at them, so taking time off can give you an opportunity to appraise your situation more clearly. That might mean booking a long weekend, or perhaps negotiating a more extended period away from work. Making a big decision about your future when you are exhausted is never a good idea. Time, rest and perspective may be all you need to rekindle your motivation.

Don’t discount your feelings. They can alert you to the existence of more serious issues. Loss of interest in your work or future may be a symptom of a wider mental health issue. If you think that might be the case, seek help from your university’s counselling services or your GP.

Spot unhelpful patterns of behaviour. If you find yourself struggling with persistent self-doubt, or frenzied and frantic every time a deadline looms, it may be worth digging a little deeper. You may be experiencing a recognised phenomenon such as impostor syndrome. The good news is that there are a number of practical strategies to help you tackle issues like these. Here are our top tips for overcoming the paralysing effects of procrastination, perfectionism and impostor syndrome.

Collaborate. Research can be lonely – particularly in a very narrow or specialised field. Working long, intense hours alone and trying to handle setbacks by yourself can leave you dejected. But deliberately connecting with others and seeking creative ways to collaborate can release new energy, insight and encouragement. Check out these ‘20 benefits of collaboration you cannot afford to ignore’.

Review your career goals. Think through the benefits that pushing this project through to completion will bring. What doors will open as a result? What and where might your next role be? It may seem counter-intuitive, but it can be helpful to take on more when you are struggling for impetus on a project. Starting work, for example, on securing the impact you hoped your research would deliver can refresh and re-energise you when you’ve got stuck – and potentially lead to a fulfilling new role.

Locate your work within a globally significant big picture. Much research already underway around the world has the potential to help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or Global Goals. These bold, joined-up goals are building on the extraordinary success of the Millennium Development Goals, which saw absolute poverty reduced by 50 per cent worldwide. But many academics are unaware of how their work fits into the Global Goals framework, or the significance of the role they could play. That’s why we have launched the Global Academy; Global Goals initiative to help researchers collaborate across disciplines and continents to deliver on these goals. Find out more here.

Feeling like you want to drop out is not uncommon. As you explore your options, it may become clear that the best decision in your circumstances is to act on that desire. Alternatively, taking steps to review and improve the way you work now could increase the resilience and impact of your academic career for many years to come.

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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