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PhD Problems: When Things go Wrong

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

The overwhelming majority of doctorates are an experience to reflect on and result in the highest qualification that higher education can bring, a PhD, whilst giving you the all-important right to call yourself “doctor” (one of the first things I did after my viva was to change the title on my credit card!). It is also an experience which brings you skills and knowledge to use for years post-graduation. Having said that, it doesn’t mean it is always plain sailing and there will be frustrating, trying and disappointing times. Your PhD will become your life and friends & family (unless they are academics) will not really understand what you do all day and sometimes night (“So, are you still a student?” I hear them ask.) It will be the most character-building experience, the diplomatic equivalent of “really hard”, but it will be an amazing journey, an intellectual enrichment and a personal development opportunity like no other. Unfortunately, in some cases, things go wrong. I am not talking here about the setbacks, the doubts and the failed experiments which most PhDs experience but those situations, academic or non-academic, which are difficult enough to disrupt your doctoral research.

The strategy to try and solve any problem which arises during your PhD should ALWAYS begin by talking to someone about it. And the earlier the better! Best of all is to try and resolve things informally. Top of the list is talking to your supervisor (s). If you don’t feel confident speaking to them directly, why not put it in writing? Not only will it be documented but it may be easier to order your thoughts and to put your point across. Alternatively, if you can’t approach your supervisor, why not raise the issues at your next formal progress meeting or speak to the PhD programme director; head or manager of graduate school; another research colleague; or fellow students. In addition, remember that universities often have support services designed to help you such as the counselling, student unions, chaplaincy, career advisers, research development advisers and international officers. The last resort, if you feel that you have exhausted all avenues, is to start a formal complaint procedure, either through your university or through a public service body (in Scotland, for example, it is the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman).

Problems with supervisors

In addition to the sections below, the UK organisation Vitae, has a wealth of information for postgraduate researchers, with excellent tips on how PhD students can be proactive in the supervision process. Our very own Postgraduate Forum is also a great place to ask questions and/or vent your anger (no naming and shaming though please!).

Lack of communication

Often the root of disagreement and difficulties between a supervisor and a PhD student is a lack of communication. The supervisor-supervisee relationship is one of the pillars on which PhDs are built. This relationship will evolve over time so the dynamic will change. I remember what a very experienced professor told me half way through my PhD: in Year 1, your supervisor knows more about your project and its context than you do and should guide you in your first steps; Year 2, you'll be on par, exchanging ideas and debating results; and Year 3, you'll be the expert, with nobody but yourself, knowing more about your research. Ideally expectations from both sides should have been discussed at the outset but it is never too late to address it if you find your expectations are not met or if you feel you are somewhat disappointing your supervisor. Showing that you have doubts or concerns about the progress of your PhD or asking for help are not signs of weakness but a conscious decision to want to succeed.

  • Identify where you need training or help
  • Share your concerns about where your project is and where it is going
  • Ask about techniques, resources and recommended reading which could help

You'll be surprised what effective communication can achieve. You may find that your supervisor had no idea you were struggling (or that you are not struggling at all but experiencing the same emotions as most PhD students). However, be realistic with your demands and expectations, supervisors are busy academics and researchers, often juggling teaching, research, pastoral or administrative roles...

Absent supervisors

Having stated the importance of communication, how do you reach out to someone who just isn't there? Well, that's a tough one! Perhaps the first step is to try and find out, without being indiscrete, why your supervisor is not available: do they have research commitments abroad? Are they involved in senior-level work with your institution, the Government, public organisations or industry? Are they part-time? The best way is to arrange a meeting and to discuss a pattern of contact times which would suit you both. Meetings don't have to be face-to-face, so explore what teleconference or phone support your university has. Skype is also a great way to keep in touch.

If the reason your supervisor is not available is that he/she has too many students, try and find out how the other students deal with it. Remember that in most cases you will have a second supervisor and they are there to help you. If you don't have one, speak to your graduate school (or equivalent) and try to identify one but keep your main supervisor informed. It is highly likely that if your supervisor is facing health or personal problems, they will be really sorry that they cannot be there for you.

Overbearing supervisors

Overbearing supervisors, those who look over your shoulder constantly, can be as much a problem as absent supervisors. This behaviour can be explained by two scenarios: 1) they are fairly new supervisors who do not know how to delegate or are over-compensating for their own inexperience; 2) they are control freaks. Unfortunately, there aren't many ways to deal with this other than to have a chat with them and, diplomatically (remembering that negotiation is one of the skills PhD students acquire during their PhD) explain that you would welcome taking a more leading role in planning and conducting your research. Gently let them know that meeting too frequently is counterproductive and you feel you have the skills and the enthusiasm to take your project forward. If it doesn't work and becomes unbearable, try to work from home or at the library to get some space whenever possible.

Supervisors who retire, go on sabbatical and other leave periods

Thankfully, this doesn't happen very often, Hopefully, if your supervisor is leaving, for whatever reason, you will get advance notice and you and your supervisor can work together to make alternative supervisory arrangements.

  • Retirement: to be honest, if your supervisor knew they were retiring in the near future, they shouldn't have agreed to be your (main) supervisor, although it is unlikely to be anything personal against you. Big deal you say, it is happening anyway so what should I do? Ask your supervisor what their retirement means for you. Will they still be able to supervise you? Are they discharging supervisory responsibility to other academics? If so, do you think it is OK? Why not propose you own choice? Could your second supervisor step up?
  • Leaving for another university: You really have two choices here, go with them or stay and find another supervisor.
  • Going on sabbatical: again have a chat with them and ask whether they think they can offer an adequate level of supervision while on research leave (especially if they are abroad) or if you should look for an alternative/temporary supervisory structure.

My first and second supervisor don't get on

And you are probably caught in the middle! Is it a clash of personality or academic disagreements which are causing friction? If they just don't like each other, leave them to it and don't take sides. Meet with them separately and discuss things by e-mails where they are both copied in. However, if they disagree on the research, perhaps because they are from two different disciplines, then listen carefully to what each has to say but don't feel you have to go with both their ideas. In some cases, a comparative approach to the research can be interesting but make your own mind. It is YOUR PhD after all!

Changing supervisors

There are many reasons why you may be considering a change in supervisor and your university will probably have a process in place for this. If you research has changed in scope considerably, it is perfectly reasonable to consider having an additional supervisor or to change completely. It is a very positive thing to seek the right expertise and guidance for your PhD. However, make sure you discuss this with your current supervisor, especially if the reasons are any of the issues discussed above so they are aware of what went wrong. One of the main skills PhD students develop is self-reliance - being able to work without constant supervision, a skill which employers value so it might not be the end of the world if you have less frequent contacts with your supervisor or if you find that you need less and less advice. Depending on where you are in your PhD, a change of supervisor may be a disruption rather than a benefit. The grass always looks greener on the other side...

Overworked - teaching and other commitments

Teaching, tutoring, marking are often pat of PhD training, especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences. It shouldn't however prevent you from doing your research. If you feel your workload is too much or that your supervisor is exploiting you, it is OK to say no to new tasks. A workload which is reasonable in years 1 and 2 may not be towards the end of PhD so if your supervisor is the one asking you to take on more (non-PhD) work, let them know that, while you welcome the opportunity to gain experience and new skills, you don't want your PhD to suffer. If you need a visa to study wherever you are, there are generally restrictions on the number of hours you can work (in the UK it is 20 hours on a Tier 4 visa while in France it is 60% of the official working hours). Some funders have their own restrictions so make sure you are not in breach of your visa or your funding agreement.

Loss of motivation

You need enthusiasm, optimism and dedication to do a PhD. It IS a long project, probably more than you expected. As with all things, your motivation will have highs and lows unless you find ways to keep things varied, interesting, realistic and rewarding. Also bear in mind that you are primarily doing your PhD for yourself. So, be proactive and don't wait for someone to tell you what to do and when or how. Yes, there will be time when it feels that nothing is going your way and that everything you do fails but don't despair. Qualities you'll develop as a PhD student are determination and a desire to succeed (both highly valued by employers too!). This is what will see you through.

It is normal to avoid tasks that are difficult or that you do not want to do. For example, looking at a blank page and imagining your completed thesis is one of the biggest challenges that you will face. However, a doctorate requires you to undertake such a variety of tasks that it is unlikely that you will find them all equally easy and interesting. You'll find it much easier to set yourself some realistic goals and to break up tasks in smaller chunks. Similarly, even if your motivation is really low, try and get going with some of the most enjoyable (or easiest) tasks. If starting your thesis is what you should be doing, then try this: take a piece of paper (yes, that means leaving your computer alone) and write for 10 minutes about what your research is, how you?re doing it and why it is important. Don't stop and don't go back. At the end of it, you'll have the main structure of your thesis and the first draft of your abstract!

For those of you in the writing-up stage, PostgraduateForum.com is a discussion board where you can share your concerns with people in the same situation as you as well as some who have completed but experienced the same difficulties. Your university may also organise workshop to deal with the blank page dread or procrastination.

"Second year blues"

It is a well-known phenomenon. Following the initial high of being a PhD student and the enthusiasm of taking forward your beloved research project, your morale may slump causing you to experience the “second-year” blues. This happens to so many students but by year 3 you’ll be so busy trying to race to the end of your project and writing up that you won’t have time to think about it. If you want to find out what PhD students say about this challenging time, there is an interesting thread on our Postgrad Forum on the “second year blues”. Or why not start your own thread?

If you feel out of your depth, why not discuss it with your supervisor or someone in an advisory position. Are you really not up to the task? Really not enjoying it? Or are you just lacking in self-confidence and actually suffering from impostor syndrome? It is probably just a temporary period of uncertainty and loss of motivation. A doctorate is a trying period of time and doubt will come in the play often. Be aware of your own self-confidence levels and learn to recognise when your self-belief goes down so you can address it. Boost your confidence by seeking positive feedback (presenting your research at a conference can seem difficult but discussing your research with others in the same field is really rewarding); trying new things or go on training courses; remind yourself what you are good at. The Thesis Whisperer is a useful blog that helps PhD students throughout their studies. It talks about all sorts of topics including motivation and self-sabotage. It also organises helpful writing workshops via social media.

Calling it a day

Occasionally people embark on a doctorate and then decide it is not for them. There is nothing wrong with that. In the end, a PhD is for you, so you should not continue with it because you are worried about disappointing someone. Many people who make the decision have subsequent successful careers and lives. But make sure it is not an irrational decision brought on by one incident and consider all your options. Talk to several people about it, not the least your supervisor but also fellow students, other researchers, a counsellor or a career adviser. Try and remember why you decided to do a PhD in the first place. What have you liked about it? It is also worth considering whether there are alternative solutions to your leaving. Could you:

  • take a holiday or an extended leave of absence
  • give it another chance for a set period of time
  • change supervisor, project or university?
  • submit your thesis for another qualification such as a Masters by Research or an MPhil (I did and went on to complete another a PhD)
  • imagine yourself going back in a few years (you were perhaps not ready yet?)

Once you have made you mind up for good, then leave without regrets and hold your head up high. Not everyone takes the brave decision to do research at such a high-level. What you have achieved is still amazing!

Final thoughts

However difficult a PhD has been and whatever the outcome of it was, your research period will have given you some amazing skills which are applicable to a wide range of careers and activities. You will have also learned an amazing amount about yourself which is an accomplishment in itself.

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