When to give up

This is an anonymous article from a PhD student at a UK University.

Doing a PhD is rarely a linear process.

The people who finish a PhD within approximately 4 years might seem like the norm in some STEM departments, but that is, by no means, the whole picture. The 4-year-finishers are also the lucky ones. They have had fewer challenges, difficulties and hiccups, and aren’t representative of the broader picture of an “academic apprenticeship”. Looking at PhD completion rates within the UK, about 73% those starting a doctorate will complete within 7 years, with over 80% completing within 25 years.  https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/phd-completion-rates-2013/2006040.article

25 years, seriously? What exactly transpired to result to this?

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What happens? Well, off-the-record accounts keep emerging, in which PhD students share horror stories about abusive, indifferent or undermining supervisors. To it worse, there is a fairly widespread acceptance and even cover-up of misconduct within some academic circles. Departmental management may turn a blind eye to such practices, or worse yet, they may consider the student not good enough for a PhD. No questions are  asked about why some supervisors seem to “get through” students more than others, or have more widely published students, or have students who hide in their labs, or worse still, don’t even come in…

So the weight falls on the students’ shoulders to prove that they aren’t the problem.  That it’s not their lack of skill or hard work that causes this situation. It could be the fairly hostile and overly competitive culture cultivated within a lab, Department or School that puts them at a disadvantage. It could be a lack of communication, a lack of support, actively undermining the candidate.

This occasionally leads to academic staff telling students that they’re not  cut out to do a PhD, perhaps it’s karma and maybe, they’re just not good enough for doing research. Maybe they’re not intellectually  suited for it, or lack the “mental toughness” that a bad supervisor requires.

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The question is: where does a PhD student in trouble draw the line? How can they minimise their losses without walking away too early in the process? If they stay too long, they risk passing the point where they have invested too many of their resources to quit, which leaves the candidate drained and burnt out.

I belong to the latter category, where for the past half a dozen years I have been working on a PhD that feels never-ending, and it’s safe to say that it hasn’t been my lack of skill or hard work that led to this situation. I’d attribute many of my difficulties to a generous amount of unacceptable or neglectful academic behaviour including supervisor moves, non-responsive supervisors and elusive supervisors, topped off with a generous helping of preferential management practices.

The process has taught me a lot, especially how not to do research – what to consider as acceptable practices and which behaviours and approaches should raise red flags; how to be flexible enough to circumvent opinionated and possibly biased approaches; when to “play dumb”;  when to stand my ground.

Truth be said, I am lucky enough to be dealing with a technological field which has recently experienced rapid growth and democratisation of knowledge. Thus, the process of acquiring skills and understanding does not rely solely upon an academic route into the subject.  If anything, academia is trying to keep up with this shift by offering new forms of learning (distance learning postgraduate degrees, digital learning and others).

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To get back to my original question: where does one draw the line? In my opinion, a PhD is a prerequisite for teaching in academia or doing academic research (frequently referred to as “blue sky thinking”). Other than that, one can gain knowledge, experience and skills through industrial R&D, through private research, or through other workplace roles.

Ultimately, the question boils down to “what do you want to achieve?” What is a PhD for? I would argue that unless someone finds themselves in an academic environment with a progressive, inclusive and respectful culture, it is actually not worth going through this process just to be left drained, burnt out, disappointed and bitter or cynical. On the other hand, if one finds themselves in the right environment, then doing a PhD is absolutely worth it. It can equip the researcher with so many positive traits, shaping their character, making them humble in the face of the enormous existing body of knowledge. It also provides skills and a mindset which lead to intellectual prowess such as supporting a thesis with arguments, working methodologically, sifting through immense volumes of information to find the needle in the haystack, and so much more.

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