“I don’t know many people that finished a PhD in three years.” Dave (name changed), one of my dearest friends, was already four years into his PhD when I started mine in early 2012. He was ‘almost finished’ back then. About a month ago he pulled together his first full draft. I don’t know a single member of my cohort that has yet submitted.
There are numerous reasons for Dave’s delay in completing the PhD, and many readers will recognize them: uncertainty over his topic, stints overseas, a heavy teaching load, and of course, the standard everyday distractions of campus life.
However the single biggest issue for Dave was lack of support and guidance from his supervisor, who has been quite absent from the process. “I thought I’d be embedded in a network that would help me, but that turned out not to be the case. In particular, I placed a lot of trust in my supervisor, but that trust was misplaced.”
Dave wasn’t expecting to get his PhD handed to him on a silver platter, he certainly doesn’t lack intelligence or initiative, and he is very self-driven. Yet these qualities, essential for any researcher, are only useful if you are on the right track: “I thought I had everything I needed, but it is hard to know what is missing if you don’t know what you are looking for”.
Many PhD students feel that they have no idea what they are doing when they first get started. Myself, I remember just sort of showing up, filling out some paperwork, and being shown to the office. “I was naïve about it, the PhD process is far more independent than I thought. You need to teach yourself, anticipate, get informed”, Dave says.
Doctoral degrees have a notoriously high attrition rate, with anywhere between a third and a half dropping out, depending on the study you read. Those statistics likely conceal many horror stories, and often do not tell us why and when people quit. I ask Dave if he is glad that he stuck it out. “Not really”, is the short answer. “With hindsight I should have quit, but my supervisor and the university were always so encouraging. This encouragement prevented me from dropping out, but didn’t do anything to help me progress.”
Universities likely do not want to encourage further attrition, and at the same time, bright new PhD candidates do not necessarily want to be discouraged by the realities of how challenging the process can be. This ‘willful blindness’ would probably be fine, so long as it is accompanied by appropriate support.
It would not be fair to place blame solely on universities and supervisors though, and Dave admits that he likely would have needed more time in any case. After some talk about living overseas, relationship breakdowns and struggles with depression, we coalesce on the other major issue: life intervenes. Sure, this applies equally to any major project, but it is worth bearing in mind. The PhD can be a cause, whole or partial, of many of these problems, and at the very least it can make coping more difficult when you already have a lot on your plate.
The dominant PhD model assumes that you will be static for three or four years, but this is usually pretty distant from the reality. Life is far from static, and even if your PhD is not set up to recognize this, you will have to adapt it to do so. Maybe four years is always going to be unrealistic, and perhaps there is a broader need to refresh our thinking about the format that a PhD takes.
Paradoxically, while life is always full of ups and downs, the age at which most people do their PhD is precisely the age at which one generally starts to settle down. “My friends are building careers, buying houses, getting married and having kids.” The PhD can sometimes feel completely at odds with these life milestones.
The PhD can be deeply unsettling.
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