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Posted on 3 Oct '19

Failing My PhD - Every Step of the Way!

I came to my PhD last October as a mature student after a successful career in education and charity management. I had enjoyed this but had started to question the efficacy of what I was doing. After moving across the country for my husband’s job and giving up my own business, I decided to start a PhD. I was lucky enough to be offered a full-time funded PhD at a very new university – in fact I was in the first cohort of PhD students.

I met my supervisor the first day of term, when we had an induction session. There was a lot of information presented both during that supervision and by university departments, the vast majority of which I immediately forgot! Unfortunately for personal reasons my supervisor then went off work, and I didn’t see her for nearly 6 weeks. Our first contact, via skype, did not go well. I was scared and uncertain, and she thought I should be much further ahead than I was.

Losing my footing

I was called into the university and turned up to find I was in a meeting with three people. I did not know why they were there and was very anxious. Previously I had suffered from anxiety due to work and had a year off work to recover. So even trying to attempt a PhD was out of my comfort zone and being faced with this meeting made me nervous. There was no agenda, so I could not prepare; there were always three other people present and I did not know what to say. I didn’t do well; in fact, I ended up crying in every meeting!

Added to this, I am dyslexic. For me, this means I struggle to organise information, and sometimes to understand what is required. So, I was suffering severe anxiety, struggling to understand things, and felt like a complete failure who should not be at the university taking a funded place away from others who would do so much better. I felt such a let-down.

I could not explain what was going on as I didn’t understand myself. When I asked for changes, I could not explain why they might help. I did once try to tell my supervisors about having been ill before, but I was questioned about why I had not declared this before accepting the place, something I had not done as mental health had not been an issue for a few years, but possibly because I had worked for myself.

Because we were the first cohort of PhD students, there was little in place to aid us. I was advised to speak to the advice centre, but they did not know what was involved in a PhD, asking only about lectures. They were geared up for undergraduates and younger students. I felt there was not a lot of support out there for me, and very ashamed that I even considered needing it.

Staying on the path

I got to the Christmas break, which was great, as I had no supervisions! I met up with people from my old job and told them I was not getting on well. The next thing I knew I was asked to take on my old job, as the person who took over from me had not worked out. This was a confidence boost that I sorely needed, and a chance to reassess if a PhD was for me. I decided it was. I knew I was doing badly, I was struggling, not just with mental health but with the work and the presentation and I knew that failure was more likely than success, however despite this, or maybe even because of it, I decided I needed to put everything into the PhD, and, even though it was way out of my comfort zone I was determined to continue. I turned down the job.

Four days later my supervisor emailed me and told me to withdraw from the PhD. Given the thought I had put into this already I refused. Bizarrely enough, for me this was the best thing that could happen. It meant I was there because I chose to be there, and as my supervisors had told me that they did not expect me to be able to do a PhD, I felt I was on my own. Fortunately, I have bulldogs. For those of you who don’t know the breed, one of their main characteristics is stubbornness; they will do what they put their mind to, whether you like it or not. I took my inspiration from my dogs!!!

I have continued my PhD and, along with quite a few bumps, not to mention enormous potholes in the road, things have improved. To the point where I would credit it with improving my long-term mental health. Allowing myself to take a step into the unknown has increased my resilience. I have been told that I seem to have got things together, I feel like I can communicate with my supervisors much better, and I really appreciate them letting me continue. Currently, my thought is that I still may not achieve the PhD, but if I can get to the end of today, that is all I need to do for now.

Drawing a new map

I have reflected on my PhD so far to consider what I have learnt, and it boils down to this: Embrace failure! Here are some of my tips for doing that.

#1 Be ready to get things wrong

As a teacher I tried to get the children to celebrate getting things wrong. To appreciate the beauty of mistakes and to enjoy having another chance to try things again. As an adult I rarely embraced failing. I don’t think many people do. Yet if we can see the benefit of perseverance for children, we need to cultivate that in ourselves. My PhD strap line is now “Failing my PhD every step of the way.” I have to say I am doing exceedingly well at the failing part; although my mental health has improved, I am still not a natural at writing! However, because my attitude to failing has changed I am kind of enjoying it.

#2 Accept vulnerability

You will never be more vulnerable than when doing a PhD. We are taught at school, and in work that we should succeed. Yet a PhD turns this around and looks for all the ways we have failed. The only way through for me is to enjoy failing.

#3 Take charge

Ultimately, a PhD is a solo project. Having been a manager in various guises I was used to working as a team leader, with staff whom I would ask to do the work, based on what I knew of their skills and expertise. I could manage weaknesses by balancing team skills. I like being in the background, with other people getting the praise and limelight. That can’t happen in a PhD. You are on the spot. It is your PhD and up to you to defend it.

#4 Don’t expect to bluff

Having worked in marketing, teaching and communication, everything is about presenting and arranging information to appeal to others. A PhD is the antithesis of marketing and especially social media. There you create a surface impression and depth doesn’t matter. In a PhD it is the depth and “the screw it up, throw it around, stamp the hell out of it, and if it survives it might be of worth” that matters.

#5 Rely on yourself

This is my PhD, no one else’s. Yes, I need to work with my supervisors, but ultimately it is my choice what I do and if I continue.

#6 Supervisors don’t matter

At the end of the day, this is your PhD and up to you to make it happen. Your supervisor knows about your subject area, but this isn’t their project. Hopefully my story proves that, even if they have no faith in you, you can still continue by having faith in yourself.

#7 Supervisors matter a lot

The relationship with my main supervisor has transformed from a real low, and I now trust that she will advise me well. This makes a huge difference to how I approach the work, my enjoyment of the whole project, and, having that concept of someone there for you is a really big deal.

#8 You can turn things around

Your PhD doesn’t have to go well from start to finish. Each step may be hard, and you may fail many times along the way, but it has been done once, so can be done again.

. . .Finally, I like to remember that if Neville Longbottom can become a professor, maybe I can become a doctor.




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Last Updated: 03 October 2019