A PhD is not everything

This is a sample from the book “PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life”.

A PhD is not everything_Page_1

Getting through a PhD takes a level of dedication, determination and resilience only possible if you really want to succeed, and there may be times when you have to do absolutely whatever is necessary to get the work done.

Sometime in my third year, work began on a new, multi-million-pound nanoscience centre attached to the physics building. This was very exciting for the department, but meant that the equipment in my lab kept picking up mechanical vibrations from the construction work. There was no other option but to run the experiments at night.

Working a twelve-hour shift is hard, but it’s even harder when you work in an underground optics lab with black-painted walls, with the constant noise of running vacuum-pumps in the background and nobody to talk to but the vending machine. It wasn’t much fun, but it needed to be done.

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So you have to commit, but there is one absolutely crucial caveat; the PhD is not everything. Even if you invest all your energy in the process, you must not invest your entire sense of self-worth in the outcome.

If you fail, it is not the worst thing that can happen, and if you pass, it is not the greatest. There are many challenges, successes and failures in life, of which the PhD is just one.

Failing a PhD is no worse than going through a relationship breakup after several years; unpleasant – certainly – and perhaps for a while it might feel devastating, but it happens all the time and people recover.

It is no worse than an athlete training day after day, year after year, shedding blood and sweat and tears, sacrificing everything to become world champion only to lose in the final. Heart-breaking – maybe – but some dreams just don’t come true, even if you give it your best. It doesn’t mean your life is over, and it doesn’t make you a failure.

There are always other challenges to take on, other things to achieve. They may be hard to imagine if all you can see right now is your PhD, but they are there if you look for them.

Getting a PhD signifies nothing about your value as a person, and it signifies nothing about your intelligence (I have known a fair few feckless academics). Having a PhD does not guarantee you will find a job, and not getting one doesn’t mean you won’t.

The importance of success and the consequences of failure aren’t as great as you might think.

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14 thoughts on “A PhD is not everything

  1. Hi James,

    great to hear from you. I was hoping that you might comment. I would appreciate if you could extend some of your comments. As you can appreciate this whole situation is extremely raw for me at the moment — can’t really process the loss of so many years work and my dreams for the future.

    • Sorry folks, I pressed the send button by accident. I didn’t finish my previous post. So let me start again.

      Hi James,

      great to hear from you. I was hoping that you might comment. I would appreciate if you could add your experience in advising which way forward. As you can appreciate this whole situation is extremely raw for me at the moment — can’t really process the loss of so many years work and my dreams for the future.

      You noted:
      “At this point, with members of faculty actively working against you, there is a strong possibility that you won’t get your PhD. In the short term this might be devastating, but in the long-term it doesn’t matter”.

      For me it does matter. It will have long term repercussions for me. If I had the opportunity there is a lot more to say and I think you would then understand why my pain is so extreme.

      You also noted:
      “I am not saying you should quit or that there is no way to succeed, but if you are going to continue, you will need to see beyond the PhD and trust in your ability to cope with whatever happens”.

      I am not sure what you mean by seeing beyond the PhD. I guess I have the blinkers on at the moment. Everything happened on Friday so its only been 48 hours. But in your experience, how do I come back from this. The thesis has now been formally halted, not based on issues of academic merit but purely because I was lapsed. Yet as mentioned the issues attached to lapsing were not communicated and I would have thought that in the interim when I tried to withdraw, and I was encouraged to stay on (several times), surely someone should have had the foresight to advise me that I was on shaky ground. I truly believed that ongoing assurances could be relied on, but ultimately, this was not the case. Can anyone out there give me some words of encouragement or ideas how to manage this negative outcome into positive territory.

      • the long-term effects may not be what you think, and they may not all be bad. Your path might not be what you planned originally, but the pain will fade.

      • Hi there

        I am slightly confused. So your university will not allow you to reinstate because you have lapsed???
        I am currently lapsed and I certainly not the first person to be in this position nor will I be the last.
        Maybe if you can clarify then I may be able to have further advice for you.


        • Hi Alice,

          you noted: I am slightly confused. So your university will not allow you to reinstate because you have lapsed???
          I am currently lapsed and I certainly not the first person to be in this position nor will I be the last.
          Maybe if you can clarify then I may be able to have further advice for you.

          This was definitely the case. I was lapsed and while my supervisor continued to support me all was well. When he became seriously ill and then withdrew, the Associate Dean stepped in and basically said to me that she would not provide further supervision to complete the final few months of revision work. This was extremely harsh and I have spoken to a number of academics in other universities and they cannot understand why my university has taken this position. It was not so much a question of reinstatement — I was advised this was impossible. All I wanted was someone to push me past the final post so that my PhD could pass into the examination phase. So in my view, it simply came down to a very aggressive Associate Dean who had the power to help, but chose not to. She seemed to enjoy pushing me out of the system, and while I understand this might be hard to comprehend, I guess you really had to be there to realise that this statement is true. The rules will not allow me to submit my thesis without a formal sign off by the Head of Department. He will not do so as he regards the thesis as incomplete without final revisions and adjustments in place. It really has been an uphill battle from day. As mentioned in one of my earlier posts, my supervisor should never have been allocated to me. He had never taught, published, researched or consulted in my field. This created so many issues lengthening the process of my research. So now I am in the position where I have a document which is 350 pages + appendices literally sitting on my desk, with no way forward. I have tried every possible avenue to resurrect my PhD but the decision of the Associate Dean proved final and no one was willing to reconsider my case. So that’s it. A thesis which is 99% complete, only months away from submission and there is nothing that I can do create the means to allow my thesis to proceed through the final stage. Any thoughts and ideas gratefully accepted.

          • Have you asked for a meeting with the associate Dean or the head of department to fud out how twy can help you move forward? Is there nobody else they can assign as a temporary supervisor?
            There are many Bodies who deal with such issues if not within your university then outside. You should also have a very thorough look into your universities regulations, often students can be hard done by simply because they are unaware of their rights. If all that fails you do have he legal right to appeal.

          • Hi Alice,
            you made a number of very valuable suggestions but I have followed each one already.
            You note: Have you asked for a meeting with the associate Dean or the head of department to fud out how twy can help you move forward? Is there nobody else they can assign as a temporary supervisor?
            There are many Bodies who deal with such issues if not within your university then outside. You should also have a very thorough look into your universities regulations, often students can be hard done by simply because they are unaware of their rights. If all that fails you do have he legal right to appeal.

            The Associate Dean refused to meet with me in person. I mentioned that she seemed to take a certain delight in my situation. She stated that she had no intention in allowing me to shape the outcome of her decision. So I could only chat with her by phone and even that she shut down by stating that she would phone me as required. The Head of Department and the Higher Degrees Manager within my department stated that the matter was with the Associate Dean and they would not interfere with the actions she took. In terms of an alternate supervisor — the Associate Dean refused to consider this as she argued (incorrectly) that there were no academics with the right background to support my research. A review of the Faculty page showed that there were two, possibly three people with the right credentials to help me finalise my thesis. I tried to get the University Student Ombudsman to help but he refused stating that I was lapsed and that was the end of it. I tried to get the Student Postgraduate Association to help but they also stated that as I was lapsed there was nothing that they could do to help. I did go to an outside body to see if my case could be reviewed. But when I advised them that I was lapsed, they stated that the University was within its rights to throw me to the wolves and as a result they wouldn’t even contact the University on my behalf to discuss the matter. I have looked within the regulations and basically the university has excellent policies around support of students. But once again, I was advised that I couldn’t access these policies as I was lapsed. I guess by now, you are starting to see a rather vicious cycle in terms of moving forward. You mentioned that I also have the legal right to appeal. And I have spoken to two solicitors and they advised that I have a case. However, they also confirmed that I needed to have a fighting fund of approximately $100,000 to see the matter to the end — and that there was no guarantee that I would succeed. Both pointed out to me that the University has taken a position and that in their experience the University would support the decision of the Associate Dean. They also noted that in this respect the University would fight relentlessly and in the words of one of the lawyers, he stated “you will be crushed emotionally and financially”. I don’t have the funds to risk on a case which may not result in a positive outcome for me. So as you can see I have tried to get some natural justice in this case but because of the stand taken by the Associate Dean, there is very little that I can do. To be honest, I don’t understand why she has taken such an aggressive view of me, but ultimately that has occurred and I have followed every possible path open to me. Once again, any thoughts ….

          • Sorry to be harsh, but it sounds like there is nothing you can do.

            Had I been in a position to advise you earlier, I would have said to submit your thesis on time, even 99% complete unless you had a formal extension. Earlier still and I would have advised you not to do a PhD with a advisor who knows nothing about your research.

            I’m sorry, but I can’t help.

    • I don’t know what I can say that will help.

      On a practical level, explore all possible options and appeal up to the highest level. Seek out postgrad representatives and make sure your case is heard. There may be channels within the university (the 100k fighting fund I assume would be if you took it to court).

      On an emotional level, I don’t have much to add to what I wrote in the post. It will be devastating in the short term if you fail, but there will be other dreams to pursue which you can’t see right now, but they will present themselves when the pain of this situation fades.

  2. I would encourage you not to give up but quickly liaise with your current Supervisor on the way forward. Perhaps you can consider finding another Supervisor in a different institution and submit your thesis there.

    You are almost there. DO NOT GIVE UP AT ALL COSTS!!!
    Best wishes!

    • Hi Alice and Lee,

      thanks for your comments. Unfortunately my supervisor has been extremely difficult over the last couple of years. His illness (very serious, life threatening) was the last straw. The problem is that in the first instance I was placed in the wrong department and my supervisor had no experience in my field — no publications, research, consulting, teaching — absolutely nothing. That created so many problems. The other issue which was never resolved — he was totally quantitative while my research was qualitative. My supervisor is now out of the picture — he is only spending half a day a fortnight on campus and he has stated that I am on my own. In terms of another institution I have looked around — not only in my own state but across the country. No one is interested in taking on a PhD which is nearly complete. It seems every academic wants to put their own imprint on a thesis and given the late stage of my research this would be difficult. Also the regulations have changed quite dramatically in recent years (imposed by the government in terms of funding) and therefore my situation falls outside current guidelines. In terms of post docs in my department, I have been lapsed for a few years and I have been working off campus with my only contact my supervisor. So I am totally unknown in the department. And even if I did know some of the academics, they couldn’t assist as my field is more appropriate to management than marketing (remember I was put in the wrong department from day one. When I tried to get this situation rectified I was advised by the Director of Research that if I insisted on a more appropriately qualified supervisor, I would be seen as critical of my appointed supervisor and therefore I would be seen as difficult — therefore no one would put up their hand to supervise me). So even contacting previous students would not assist. The problem is that the person handling my case believed that lapsed students were a drain on the university. She seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in informing me that she would terminate my PhD. I tried reasoning with her explaining that previous assurances were in place. But she refused to even read emails that I had, stating that the decision was hers alone. So I have looked into so many options, even the legal side. I have been advised that there is a course of action I can pursue but I had to be prepared to have a fighting fund of a minimum $100,000. So that option was out. The last couple of days have been so hard on me emotionally and as stated in my first post, my career has taken a massive hit. So I am trying to pick up the pieces but so far, don’t really know what to do.

      On a personal note — Alice — I think you are so amazing and inspirational. Despite significant setbacks you have continued. You have shown such strength of character and resilience. I really, really hope from the bottom of my heart, that you will complete your PhD. You certainly deserve to experience the honor of being granted your doctorate.

      • Hey there, Dissapointed:

        I am not sure how it goes for management PhD’s, specially in being a qualitative and not quantitative work, but you can see this TED talk to get inspiration and courage towards your defense. http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

        I understand what you’re going through, since I was also a lapsed MSc. student. My supervisor destroyed my manuscript three days before the Master’s defense, when he could have done that 4 months earlier when i submitted to him, but I managed to held through the perfect storm. I am not James that wrote a “reading-sweet treat”, but some of the ideas that I developed in the MSc dissertation were enough to guarantee me my actual PhD project.

        If your thesis is 99% ready, try to think about having your defense “unsupervised”. I am not sure if it could be done in your case, but if you have had your articles published in peer-reviewed journals or conferences, some Universities and Ph.D programs might allow you to defend your research without a supervisor. Your claim to request that can be exactly that your previous supervisor became seriously ill and he/she can’t back your work exclusively from medical reasons (this option might give him/her some time to rest and to dust off his/her shoulders, if you are willing to offer him a way out).

        Here in Brazil, PhD. thesis are pretty much the solely responsability of the students, but there are implications for Professors that abandon projects, since they loose “grant points” towards future project submissions. If you need to hustle with your supervisor, try remembering this. However, I think that the easiest, less complicated way for you is to try to defend on your own. You have to believe in your research in an ethical way. You were the one who did those experiences/observations/postulates. You were the one who saw the links between the ideas. You are the only one who can sell those ideas based on scientific facts/methods.

        I hope that Santa gives you a defense date, and that you cash that defense date with a nice diploma to hang in your wall.



  3. Hi,
    “A PhD is not everything” — great statement but it depends where you are coming from. Last Friday my thesis came crashing down in a heap. I was a lapsed student — didn’t complete on time due to family reasons. My university was very understanding and offered to allow me extra time. I received guidance, support and every assurance that all was well despite my lapsed status. My thesis was more than 99% complete (just going through final revisions) when my supervisor became ill, was unavailable for four months and then when he returned to the campus, without any notice, advised he was withdrawing as my supervisor. I was his last PhD student and as he said, there were more important issues in his life — and in less than two minutes I was thrown to the wolves. Anyway, let’s bring this story to a rapid close — my file was handed through to a person unfamiliar with my background; someone who refused to consider the extenuating circumstances attached to my case. The end result — many years work down the drain, without any consideration by the university of the effect on me, personally, financially, emotionally and the fact that my career would stall, possibly even go backwards. I trusted in the support and promises extended to me over a length of time believing that I was supported by integrity and honour. So, in the last 48 hours I have been absolutely devastated, not really knowing how to pick up the pieces. So James, and everyone reading this post — I would really appreciate any thoughts on how to go forward. At the moment, the future looks bleak.

    • Hi there “Dissapointed”

      There will be many things that come and go with life and during the course of your PhD. Its never easy and James is totally right that there is more to life than a PhD but that is not o say we should give up at all. I will share with you a bit of my story and hope you will feel encouraged!
      I started my PhD in 2008 and I am still not done. Yes 2008 is a long time ago. Between that time I have had several experiments fail,an operation, a difficult pregnancy, a marriage breakup, living alone with a newborn and trying to read papers at night time. Instead of my supervisor being understanding he decided to wrote 2 reports on me to the university rather than just approaching me directly. I was going to give up but decided not to and take the plunge and reply very nicely to let me know that I am continuing with my PhD. My child is now 15 months and I still have many challenges in life beside actually completing my thesis buy I am ploughing through.

      You are already almost there. especially if you have written 99% well done!
      Are there any post docs in your department that can help you? Also giving your work to people who are not so familiar with your work is not always a bad idea because they will be able to ask you certain questions that you would not have thought about. You can also contact previous students form your department I am sure at least one may be willing to help. A certain guy from my lab who left in 2009 just recently sent me his thesis to help me out.

      I hope that helps. Do not despair, keep ploughing through.

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