Advanced PhD student feeling unhappy

This forum made possible through the generous support of SDN members, donors, and sponsors. Thank you.


New Member
Jan 8, 2023
Reaction score
Hi all, I hope it’s okay to post here to seek some perspective or advice. I’m an advanced psychology PhD student with a little more than 2 years left of training. I’m feeling really unhappy with this path, and have been for about a year. Basically, I regularly find myself dreading the work (teaching, therapy, assessment, supervision, research) with a few bright spots when I’ve had a salient session with a client, for example. I often feel overwhelmed and inadequate nearly always, strained and stressed, I cry often, and I’m just not in a good space mentally or emotionally (anxiety, depression). A growth edge for me is awareness of perfectionistic tendencies, and despite efforts to be gentle and understanding with myself, I’m still struggling with it, and feeling bad about my work and myself given the genuine weightiness of the work, and a developing skillset. I’m unhappy with both the work itself and my life at this point, as training takes a lot of my time, energy, and headspace. It feels like I’m operating out of a sunk cost fallacy, being too afraid to leave and do something else after all of this hard work and sacrifice. I don’t have any debt, so that is not an issue, but I’m absolutely broke and I have no clue what I’d pursue otherwise, and I feel fear about the increasingly troubling economic situation at hand, making psychology, and the achievement of relative financial comfort, attractive, despite how poorly I’ve been feeling. Has anyone felt this way during their training and pushed through, to either positive or negative effect? I’m in therapy, but my therapist is obviously not providing their personal perspective, and I’d like to hear from others who can share their thoughts. Please be gentle with me if you can. I’m in a vulnerable spot. Thank you.

Members don't see this ad.
  • Care
  • Like
Reactions: 2 users
There are a lot of less than ideal elements of graduate training in psychology including the near impossibility of being able to step back or slow down when we might really need it due to all of the responsibilities foisted upon us.

I imagine that just about anybody who has had a period of personal struggle during grad school (raising my hand high in the air) will likely be able to relate to at least some aspect of what you're experiencing.
I’m unhappy with both the work itself and my life at this point, as training takes a lot of my time, energy, and headspace.
It can feel impossible to separate this from actual reality (ie this field/path is genuinely the wrong one for you) versus a reflection of circumstance (eg too many things to do, too many expectations, doing things that you dont find valuable, not enough time to take care of yourself, etc) but I hope you can try to spend some time with this.

Because if this is genuinely the wrong path, you are almost certainly an intelligent & capable person who can carve out a different career that is more rewarding and pay the bills.

For me, during my period of struggle, I was still able to identify that doing therapy was still purposeful for me and likely something I would enjoy doing for a career. And what was contributing to my distress was stuff like program related pressures & rigid expectations, dislike of the grunt work of research, and my own mental health not being in the best place.

And of those latter things, they had solutions. I could work on my mental health. I could try to do the bare minimum in research and knew that once I graduated, I would never need to work on another journal paper and that broader autonomy was around the corner if I could finish out my schooling.

I was able to do these things and I'm very happy with my current career as a VA psychologist. I read research but will never work on another project. There are lots of govt rules to follow but I choose to ignore some of them that feel especially stupid because I can't actually be fired for not doing those things.

Now, if you're genuinely struggling to identify anything that you could look forward to post-grad school that could potentially be sustainable, perhaps a different direction would be good for you.

I know people in my program who changed paths (leaving a PhD program with a licensable masters or leaving this field all together) and they did not regret this decision because they came to realize that being a clincial psychologist was not it for them.

Just some random thoughts - take care of yourself!
  • Like
Reactions: 3 users
Members don't see this ad :)
It does sound like you might be overwhelmed. Operating in overwhelm and perfectionistic fear while being challenged in a doctoral program can definitely tax ones ability to cogently assess their path. When you say that you dread supervision that is concerning and I know when I felt safe in the supervisory relationships that helped me to stay grounded in rationality and deal with the anxiety of trying to accomplish a goal that was designed to test my limits. Paperwork is probably the biggest thing that overwhelmed me so if I had tests to grade, assessment reports to do, a couple of therapy intakes, and add in a clinical comps assignment and one more class assignment and it got pretty tough. I made the choice to delay my dissertation because of that and spent two years after internship getting it done while I was teaching very part time. It was scary to do it this way but it was the right choice.
  • Like
Reactions: 1 users
I’m sorry to hear you’re feeling this way. I think it can be easy when in a program to normalize the stress and sheer workload of a PhD since everyone around you is doing the same thing, so taking a step back to recognize what you’re doing is hard can be important (to a degree… this can also become paralyzing). I’m a third year PhD student and am having an extremely rough semester, so I empathize with some of where you’re at.

What helps me, as some have said above, is differentiating the stress from the content. I know I’d love what I’m doing even more if the difficulty knob was turned down a few clicks. I also know that, assuming I have to be working at this intensity, grad school is one of the best content areas for me to carry this workload. I’m also fortunate (maybe? haha) that I had done multiple things prior to grad school that were equally hard or harder, so it helped keep things in perspective and I had developed some coping mechanisms. For some of my friends, this has been uniquely difficult and the transition has been harder. I’d also try to ask yourself some of those questions to see where the dissatisfaction is primarily coming from and try to specifically change those things. It might not be a dichotomous stay/leave and you might be able to modify aspects of the program.

It’s also ok to say that nothing is worth being this stressed and grad school isn’t for you. Unfortunately, grad school necessitates putting other aspects of your life on hold and it’s an individualized decision whether those sacrifices feel worth it. There’s no right answer here. I hope you’re able to give yourself the time and space to make a thoughtful decision. Good luck and I’m rooting for you in whatever you choose!
  • Like
Reactions: 1 user
Hi all, I hope it’s okay to post here to seek some perspective or advice. I’m an advanced psychology PhD student with a little more than 2 years left of training. I’m feeling really unhappy with this path, and have been for about a year. Basically, I regularly find myself dreading the work (teaching, therapy, assessment, supervision, research) with a few bright spots...
Vyvanse + telling my advisor and supervisors "no" more often ameliorated these feelings for me. Remember where you came from, why you're here, and where you want to be 5 years from now. Good luck!
  • Like
Reactions: 1 user
Dude. I love the honesty and rawness of this post. I’m responding as if it is to third year me. Because you sound kinda like me when I’m depressed. Especially the crying part/not feeling the vibe/ not feeling positive about my work.

You depressed, bro?

On the other side - your work is probably excellent or at the very least, competent. So your advisors might not realize how much you’re on the ol’ struggle bus.

Maybe it’s time for a lil different type of therapy. Maybe you need a little more directed/problem solving therapy instead of guide on the side type.

Maybe it’s time for some relief in the form of a good ol’ fashioned SSRI. You know, feeling less ****ty in two weeks, better in four, and almost back to it in six. Almost as if the colors on tv got more vibrant. SSRIs ain’t perfect. I always gain some weight and it takes more work to reach the clouds and rain 🌧️. But you won’t need them forever. And if you do, i’m the last one to judge you. SSRIs are a pretty good way to get that mood up without much mental effort - surely that is contributing to your overload.

Genetics loads the depression gun. Stress pulls the trigger. Grad school is stressful as all hell. But, I want you to know that it gets better. Unhappiness is often the source of much growth and awareness. But don’t make decisions when depressed. Mood doesn’t need to run the show.

Either way, I am rooting for you. It took a lot to write this. You’re not bat **** or anything. I honestly think this can be grist for the mill of becoming a therapist - congrats you now know what hopelessness feels like. Sounds like therapy is lone bright star for you. Even if not all sessions are Ws.
Last edited:
  • Like
  • Care
Reactions: 4 users
extremely relatable post. Perhaps for more folks than one might initially guess. Since you asked for perspective and/or advice, here's my 2cents mix of both.

In my program 3rd year was also typically the hardest, at least in my lab. About halfway through 3rd year found out that everyone in my cohort and the 2 years ahead of us started SSRIs or similar by that point in the program (or for those already taking them, had some adjunct added or increase in dose). That realization in itself was validating and therapeutic for several of us I think. By the beginning of 4th year, I'd learned that the world did not end and, to my surprise, no one seemed to think any worse of me or offer me fewer future opportunities when I reduced or entirely bowed out of some roles / responsibilities so long as i did so planfully. But damn, those middle months were a real, real rough time, emotionally and physically (as well as on my relationships). I feel for you.

Maybe this isn't the career for you, and as others have said, if that is the case you've gotten this far in academia so you've got some smarts as well as insight, so extremely probable you'd find a meaningful and sustaining path eventually, after giving yourself some time to recover and recalibrate first, and then do some career exploration (for which- I can get kinda sucked into the O*Net website finding similar-but-different jobs now and again)

Or maybe this is the right path for you, but right now it feels like it all sucks. Even if (when at your more typical baseline self) you enjoyed all the different components, maybe it's simply too much of too many things -- too much of a good thing is still TOO MUCH. And then maybe you thrown in a couple components here and there that you just actually don't like, or that are naturally much more effortful for you (which is probably true of most people that there's one or two parts of training that are just. harder)... Ask yourself, if you had only half the amount of work, and could take away that one thing you like the least... would you enjoy it then? Then perhaps this is the right path for you - and the trip itinerary could use some tweaking.

If the latter, it can be difficult to figure out when and how to say no and which corners can be cut (to shoot for "satisficing" and no more on some things, and being OK with that) -- now with the perspective of hindsight, the ability to do so in spite of how uncomfortable it made me proved pivotal to being able to catch my breath enough to just get some perspective (and, subsequently, really key skills in career and life overall). (though certainly meds and therapy played a role in getting me to the point to even organize my thoughts and energy to do the work of shedding or downsizing obligations and overly-high self-expectations when satisficing could do - I'll be forever grateful to the psychiatrist who helped jump start getting my sleep back on track with gabapentin - didn't know at the time it can be used for insomnia / improving sleep quality but wow it really helped my brain to just quiet down and get off the thought loops. I way underestimated the snowball effect of crummy sleep).

re: dreading supervision, perhaps you can identify some folks you can get some supplementary advising / supportive mentorship -- including ideas to help reframe or restructure whatever is most challenging / dreaded around supervision currently, if there is anything you could do differently or advocate for. E.g., I was extremely anxious about saying no to something my (rather curmudgeonly) advisor volunteered me for, but talking it over with a couple others helped me develop how i would structure the conversation (in the end he was like "huh, good point, ok then, no problem."). Or get some support from your therapist (or good friends in the program who "get" it) to do some cog restructuring if supervisor's delivery or your perception lead to constructive feedback feeling like criticism that eclipses the positives.

as to the "pushing through, for either negative or positive effect" part of your post, I'd say for me it was pushing through to get to the positive on the other side. By the end of 3rd year, the "finish line" felt not so crazy distant anymore, and I could find enough things not so far way to push towards (things that marked passing on some responsibility/role for example, or the end of morning classes, or... whatever little thing). I was so glad to be done in the end I left town the day I defended my dissertation (which was while on internship) and haven't returned since. And now I have a career I love, and have def benefitted from the perspective and the various skills I learned (e.g., practice boundary - setting, self-advocacy, saying no, and satisficing in the places where it really doesn't matter in order to give more to other things - including to myself). Aaaand I also still and will forever view grad school as one of the many things in life that it's a blessing I don't know quite what I'm getting into before I jump in -- the swim was def worth it in the end, no doubt- and also if I'd known how hard it would be, I don't think I would ever have had the nerve to get in the pool. (same with having kids.... but I digress).

I hope you are able to find some ways to do the same and carve out some space and time for yourself to rest and reflect-- and that you find the support you are seeking to be helpful in that process of emerging with a clearer view of next steps and a sense of direction. You've got a lot of folks rooting for you, whichever direction that turns out to be!
Last edited:
  • Like
Reactions: 2 users
Echo the point RE: third-fourth year being especially challenging (which it sounds like is where you are?) - I think I posted something along similar lines on this forum around that point in my training. The theme was "being asked to do things I don't know how to do yet is very frustrating," which other posters agreed with. You're probably near the deepest part of the valley on the Dunning Kruger curve, which is a very vulnerable and stressful place to be. Take the time and space you need and know that things will (should?) get better.
Last edited:
  • Like
Reactions: 4 users