on not quitting the doctorate

We hear a lot these days about people quitting the PhD – they have institutional difficulties, experience appalling discrimination, have serious supervision troubles, struggle with funding. These are dreadful experiences and we do need to hear about them. We also hear quite a lot about how hard the PhD is and the struggles to get finished. I don’t want to dismiss any of this discussion. It’s all important, right and necessary. However, I worry that the narratives about the awful sometimes outweigh the more optimistic. I do think that maybe we need to hear more about what makes people hang in and what helps them finish.

Now I need to say here and now that I don’t think that starting a PhD and not finishing is necessarily a problem. I’ve seen people who didn’t need the PhD for their careers, and in the end couldn’t justify the amount of time and energy it was taking. And I’ve seen people who were interested in their topic but were ultimately much more interested in doing other things. They tried the PhD and it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. It just wasn’t for them. There’s nothing wrong with this in my view.

But I’m probably not a very good person to talk to about hanging in, because I am one of those nauseating people who loved their PhD and finished in record time. Yes it wasn’t easy, but it was the kind of intellectual work that suited me. But I’ve worked with a lot of people since then who haven’t been so lucky, and talked to a lot more. So I wanted to kick off a discussion about hanging in with a bit of reflection on some of those experiences.

Three new Doctors I’ve worked with will graduate this summer term. They have things in common, besides having me as a supervisor. Two of them are busy head-teachers with young children, and did their doctorates part time. The other is a former head-teacher and did her PhD full time, but it took longer than she or I or the university wanted. But I can immediately recollect times when they were all close to giving up. But they didn’t. Why?

My first guess is that they all wanted the PhD. They wanted to be Doctor. They really wanted it. This strong desire motivated them when times got tough. In the end, nothing else got in the way. Despite jobs, families, life, the achievement of the PhD was seen as crucially important. I recognize this because getting the PhD was also important to me.

This wanting was matched, it seems to me in the case of these three Doctors, by a refusal to give up. These Doctors didn’t see themselves as non-finishers, as quitters. It would be more acceptable to fail by not being good enough, than to fail because you’d just given up. You had to try.

Two of the three had great tenacity. When the going got tough, as the cliché goes, they persevered. Yes, there were times of doubt. Yes, there were times when it seemed impossible. But it really was a case of one thing at a time, crossing each one off the list, gradually moving closer to the end. They were able to focus on the immediate things that needed to be done, in order to manage what seemed like the almost impossibly long process. They were able to plan, to formulate a strategy for going on.

Two were also very decisive – during their doctorates they both reached a point of real crisis when they could have given up, and this seemed like the logical thing to do, but they just decided that they wouldn’t. This is the kind of resolute decision-making that underpins going cold turkey on smoking. You decide and then you do it. And we know that not everyone can do this. But in these two cases, a strong sense of agency and efficacy underpinned their decision-making. They also had people around them who they could rely on to talk through what hanging in might mean. These two also knew that if they really decided they’d do it, because this was a pattern in their lives. They were tough–minded people. Now just deciding and doing it is not the only way to finish a PhD, and it only works for some people – but of course it does work for some people. And it may just be the only way out of a really desperate crunch, that actual point where you feel that it’s literally now or never.

Of course this is not all that matters in hanging in. Context is critically important, not everything is in the doctoral researcher’s control – but the researcher, their actions and their sense of identity and agency are still important. So, given this, and given that these are just three examples, is there anything else you would add to hanging in besides desire, refusing to fail, tenacity and decisiveness? I’m happy to compile answers and suggestions or to host guest posts on the topic, because I really do think we need to talk more about the ways in which people do do the PhD and succeed.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in agency, finishing the doctorate, hanging in, tenacity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to on not quitting the doctorate

  1. Karenmca says:

    It’s all about refusing to give up! For me, I’d abandoned one PhD a quarter century earlier. Nothing was going to stop me achieving the second one – part-time, on time.


  2. shanegenziuk says:

    In the second year of my DBA. I find that spite is a good motivator.


  3. Paul Spencer says:

    Yes! I often tell doctoral researchers that tenacity and perseverance are key attributes one requires. I’ve read a few rather bleak accounts of folks who had to fight tooth and nail to reach the goal but I think that most folks do just fine in the end.


    • Julia says:

      isn’t this a case of … affirming the consequent? (it’s one of the issues I have with this blog post as a whole… (very much liked the post patter issued this week tho:))


  4. grad student says:

    I am at the end of my 3rd year of the doctoral process– and yes, it is a process. We all need to persevere and support each other– there are highs and there are lows as with many moments in life. It is with the grace and support of my colleagues, family, and a keen adviser that I will obtain this terminal degree!


  5. Robin says:

    I treated my PhD like every other job I had had beforehand. I turned up at uni each morning by 9, worked solidly until 2:30pm with a target of 1000 words per day, collected my children from school, did motherly things until I put the children to bed at 7pm, and then occasionally (if I had not met my daily word target) spent a couple more hours on it at home. Did not work on it at weekends.
    My PhD was completed in 3 years, 3 months with examiner changes that took 15 minutes to complete. During that time, my research access to the company fell over, both of my initial supervisors left the university, I ended up in hospital for a period and several close family members died. It was an emotional roller coaster and I spent half the time thinking that I was on top of it all and half the time thinking that I was too stupid to complete a PhD. I had coffee friend colleagues (fellow PhD students) for when it was all going well and I needed to celebrate and alcohol friends for when it wasn’t. (Probably the reverse of many people). Deep down, I wanted that floppy hat and I knew that I had the capacity, it was just a matter of sticking at it long enough. Unlike most prior study that is about demonstrating being and working smart, PhDs are about sheer persistence.


  6. Brian says:

    Hi Pat

    I started my academic journey (my degree) 10 years ago at the age of 40. I completed my masters in 2012, and then moved to my EdD in mid-2012. I have only wanted to quit once; and that was related to supervision. My new supervisors are excellent and as passionate and excited as I am about the journey. I did all my course work (8 units) full time and after confirmation went to part-time.

    I am at the point in my research journey where I am negotiating with several government agencies for access to staff for interviews. So, I have a little bit of down time. Interestingly enough, I feel guilty for not be flat out. I assume this will go once the interviews and transcription phase kicks in; and then the thesis writing.

    I want to complete for two personal reasons. The first is through injury my most-loved career was taken from me so, at 50, I want the qualification and experience to set me up for the future. Secondly, and most importantly, due to one of the injuries – an acquired brain injury – I want to prove that while it interfered with one aspect of my life (my policing career), it will not hold me back from anything else.

    It is a difficult, tiring, and slow journey. But one that I am determined to complete.

    Great post.


  7. Pam says:

    Oooh I feel sorry for the third student! I’m imagining how I would feel if I was that student and I read this post.

    I do think persistence and tenacity – and a bit of stubbornness – are helping me get through my PhD, but as you note it’s important to pay attention to context as well. I did undergrad at one of the top universities then moved to a much smaller university that is more focused on teaching than research. The differences in standards, supervision, resources, funding, and support is INCREDIBLE.


  8. meg says:

    The work becomes part of who you are, so if you give up that means personal as well as academic failure, which is a powerful motivator. Personally, I’m in the last chance corral, having started my PhD (part-time, distance) at 69; I was told I should be doing a PhD when I was 32, but life got in the way. The sense of achievement that I get now, somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of the way through, is enough to motivate me to the end. I now know that I actually can do this, and do it well, and that’s enough to overcome whatever problems are still out there. In my experience, it is the supervisor who makes it or breaks it.


  9. Lihle says:

    I am not sure if agency, decisiveness and all those attributes is all that matters. I have heard success stories of people finishing in unbelievable times, two years or three years. And in all those cases, they attribute such accomplishment to their supervisors. I am now in my fifth year and hopefully the last, but I do get a sense that it is possible to go onto the sixth, I think its all about what the supervisors want and when they want it, and whether they can even articulate what they want. Supervisors are also learning in the process and looking up to the doctoral candidate, its that mystery approach where you have to discover something and then get the assistance. Yes life happens, part time, family and the likes, but I think we are just hopeless at the hands of supervisors.


  10. Z. Sanders says:

    Hi! Thank you for the post. My reply is lengthy because I am VERY passionate about this topic. I don’t want ANYone to quit who doesn’t truly want to.

    In addition to the factors stated in the blog post, the following is what has most helped me to persevere despite chronic guilt and fear at being so far behind:

    1) Being believed in — publicly by my advisor — despite the fact that I am quite behind schedule. (” You really believe in me??? Really?”) He’s not the type to just say he believes in people without it being true, and he was QUITE convincing when he assured me that I’ve got what it takes and am simply struggling with one component of the research/writing process. The license to view my struggle as specific and controllable instead of some global, inherent, possibly permanent issue was the beginning of me believing — and breathing and almost smiling — again.

    2) Encountering this changed EVERYTHING for me: http://theblossomingfledglingresearcher.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/the-affective-domain-of-researching.jpg. I found it at the blog of the developers of the following, which was also paradigm-shifting: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/rsd/framework/RSD_RSD7_2013.pdf. For me, this information represented REAL HOPE. Again: My problems finishing quickly enough stopped being this global, murky thing that scared me to death distracted my brain (“Why can’t I progress like everybody else?”) and instead became a very specific subset of issues actually within my circle of influence. Regarding the first, I was immediately able to see that I wasn’t operating at a deficit or in excess in ALL those categories; Instead a FEW were out of balance. I felt I could reign them in. I could learn how, yes I could. Regarding the second one, finding it enabled me first to know explicitly of the skills I was/am in the process of developing. HUGE! What was REALLY powerful, though, was that the chart gave me a view of these skills as developmental and not all or nothing. Oh, EXHALE! What a RELIEF! It wasn’t an “either you have it or you probably don’t” kind of thing. I’d been battling that thought.

    That second chart kicked me into a gear though I always had been (somehow I’d maintained grit and stick-to-it-ivness despite ALL early evidence suggesting that research and writing weren’t for me.) With that second chart in hand I became one, determined little blossoming, fledgling researcher. That’s the name of my blog, and incidentally blogging about my efforts to become a researcher/writer also kept me in the game. It’s how I encountered other amazing blogs and forums, learned that other folks had taken a very long time but had graduated anyway, and began to see myself as simply one of those outliers! (Friends and families: “You’re STILL NOT DONE?” Me: “You see that? Yeah, that’s me. I’m that outlier. It’s going to be okay. Love you and thank you for checking, but the constant checks chip away and it’s coming from everyone. Outlier. Just remember.”)

    3) A little bit after finding those two charts, I saw these two things: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/ and http://jameshaytonphd.com/why-is-doing-a-phd-so-hard-video/. Those put things into perspective! I started to feel some pride for having starting graduate school with very little writing skills, writing conceptual knowledge, and writing chops . . . and even fewer project management skills, conceptual knowledge, and chops . . . and STILL being there, giving it what I could when there was no dedicated instruction in post-graduate -level writing or research project management.

    I ended up educating myself in those two skills (my department kept encouraging me). I share everything I can with fellow “BLOSSOMING-fledgling” researchers where I encounter them, trying to remember to qualify the discussion with “your mileage may vary” and “how are YOU thinking about or handling this?” and “it’s okay to decide you don’t need this.”

    Why did those things affect me? Why didn’t I quit anyway?: Well, I stopped to take a year to try to see what the deal was personally (skill wise) and what I could do/learn. My department made it clear that they were looking forward to seeing me back. At this time, being very active with the online community of student scholars gave me much soothing and self esteem. At times the community functioned like a mirror, giving me a glimpse/record of where I was at. I ended up needing to modify some very ingrained ways of working and participating. It hurt a little.

    But why did I even give myself the chance to stop with the intention of returning when most everything evidenced that, likely, I wasn’t a “finisher” (just didn’t have the skills)? Well, because I’d never really failed before, so why start now? Because I’d ALWAYS, ALWAYS been able to “problem solve” my way to victory before. As you said, they were just going to have to ask me to leave: I was going to see it to the end, whatever that end, because nothing else would allow for peace of mind for me. (That’s not the case for everyone). Yeah: I did the cost-benefit analysis of staying on versus quitting and it wasn’t pretty, but I told myself that people have comebacks after going through challenging graduate programs ALL of the time and that it would be easier for me to forge that comeback success, closure, and degree in hand.

    Visualizing my upcoming defense now has me smiling! She held out ya’ll. Yes she did.


    • Z. Sanders says:

      And I do want to be sure to say: It would have been okay had I decided to stop permanently. I think it is okay to do so if that’s what you actually want or need to do. I don’t think any kind of way about people who decide to move forward without finishing.

      And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this: As I mentioned above, learning to write was a major issue for me. Thus, I am certain that a major thing that kept me from quitting was that my husband began reading any of my drafts that I asked him to read. He would often read my writing back to me. Watching him try to get through my drafts helped me to see that I wrote with “expert blindness” (i.e., I knew what I was trying to say and was re-reading my drafts in light of that knowledge, of course, without realize that THAT was why my drafts sounded fine to me!).

      Over time, I began to understand bad writing moves and learn how to head them off at the pass, so to speak. Gopen’s “The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective” really blew my mind there. I had NO idea all that I didn’t know about writing. Additional items that helped me to move along bit by bit learning how to write include “Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates” by Wallace and Wray,” Booth et al.’s “The Craft of Research,” the M.E.A.L. and the P.E.E.L.L. models of academic paragraphs, Rosenwasser and Stephen’s “Writing Analytically,” Single’s “Demystifying Dissertation Writing,” and Murray’s “Writing for Academic Journals.” I was willing to invest the effort here, because I thought better understanding writing would be a difference-maker, and I didn’t want “didn’t earn the degree because she didn’t take the time to learn to write at this level” to follow me in my spirit and heart. I’m the kind of person that THAT would potentially bother for years if not decades after. If I didn’t know better, I might say I didn’t have a choice! I was going to try.


  11. Jenni Hyde says:

    Reblogged this on Early Modern Ballads and commented:
    What a coincidence that this turned up in my wordpress reader this evening, when it was something on which I have been musing today. I have had a PhD experience that was far less than perfect. I’ve said before that I was prepared for everything to go pear shaped, but not in the first few days. I’ve also commented that my thesis has seen off more supervisors than most people have had hot dinners. Then there was the writer’s block, depression, and of course, the ‘headache’ that landed me in hospital. But I was never close to giving up.

    The reason I stuck it out through the bad times was simple: despite all the rubbish (and believe me, there’s been a lot more of that than ever appeared in this blog), I’m doing something I love.


  12. Selena says:

    I wish I could say something about this topic…but I am in my fourth year, with a deadline approaching, determined to finish by mid-May and still I feel stupid and not good enough for this PhD. In my experience it is necessary to find support. To receive a positive comment once in a while like: “There is a lot to do but you can do it”. “Well done”:
    Determination is what brought me to this point. Despite changing supervision, despite being sick, despite being slower than anybody else. And now everything is falling apart because for the nth time I receive a comment such as: “your plan is ambitious. I went through the chapters you sent me and there is a lot to do to get the thesis ready for submission”: Not a single “chin up, keep going, good job” in the last two months. And all I can think about is: ” Was I meant to finish?, Do I belong here?, Am I too stupid to receive at least once a positive comment?”
    I am working on a topic my supervisor is not familiar with. In my supervisory panel nobody is really related to what I do and, even if they are a little close to it, they haven’t given me any comment so far. This path has been hard, lonely, full of obstacles but I am committed. Why can’t I receive just a bit of support?


    • Z. Sanders says:

      Hugs, Selena.

      I agree: I seriously doubt I could have made it had not SOMEONE (especially my advisor and peers) told me that I’ve got what it takes. Hearing that I had it and simply needed to learn how to work better/smarter was the catalyst.

      This might go without saying, but you need some guidance of some kind. Can you find an informal mentor ANYWHERE? Can you look at models of things written in your area? Is there anyone in your department who recently finished that could give you ANY direction? Can you hire a dissertation coach? (You might ask about finding one at PhinisheD, a support group which I discuss below.)

      Not going it alone: You might consider an online support group for student scholars, new scholars, and experienced scholars. One such support group is called PhinisheD (at http://www.phinished.org), and there are MANY people there in your EXACT SAME POSITION having the same type of experience you are: no support. When they complete their dissertations and announce that they have successfully defended, it is one of the most encouraging things in the world.

      It is possible to get an anonymous PhinisheD “membership” and “lurk” (just read and observe a bit) or alternatively dive right in asking for and sharing supports. There are working chat rooms and working forum boards, i.e., “working” as in everyone there is writing/reading/researching together and checking in repeatedly to stay on track, announce progress, set goals for the next work session, etc.

      It is a VERY encouraging space and you can stay anonymous, vent (healthy venting is better than downward spiraling and negative unhelpful addiction to venting of course), get tips and advice, etc., etc. NOTE: Be careful about sharing too many details. You still must attend to your digital identity and you never know who is on the site. But again, working together with and watching people get their finish and get their degrees despite the most AWFUL circumstances is so encouraging. It helps you to re-set and double-down on your commitment and determination regarding finishing.

      If you can find a way to participate at PhinisheD in such a way that the time in is appropriate for where you’re at dissertation-wise, it can be a huge difference-maker I’ve observed. (So, if you have a deadline, perhaps avoid doing a whole bunch of posting at the forum and instead find what’s known as a working board or work in the chat rooms . . . posting goals, updates on your progress, and requesting support or tips or advice wherever you decide to participate most frequently.)

      Lastly, perhaps these two concepts will help: the concept of “anyway” (see http://www.paradoxicalcommandments.com/) and the concept of a growth mindset (see http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/).

      About the content at those link: I don’t know if this will speak to you or not, but I personally have decided that I’m going to proceed at my thesis ANYWAY. That is settled for me. And I have a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset: I know that if I continue to (re)evaluate my experiences and seek guidance, plugging in the skills and conceptual knowledge that I need in order to get “unstalled” or “unstuck,” then eventually all of this paragraph-writing will culminate in a done thesis.

      Here’s what I know (are they true for you?): I can conduct methodologically-sound research action. I can write an outline of its report. I can write a draft of a paragraph. I can revise and edit a paragraph. This means that I can finish this thesis. Will I make the deadline? That is the ONLY question (I do not need to ask myself if I’m smart enough — that is a fixed mindset mentality), and I’m giving it my darnedest! I do not question my intellect. It is sufficient. I work hard and try to work smart, and I’m okay not being the super smartest in the room. 😉 Theses get finished by all sorts of people who make the most interesting contributions no matter where they rank on the “intelligence” scale. Why not me? Why not YOU?

      Solidarity vibes, Selena! No matter what happens, you are not your thesis. You are waaaaaaay more valuable than it. I hope appropriate feedback finds its way to you! Blessings, Selena, and please any typos!


  13. Ivy says:

    Pat, thank you for this post and thank you Z for your comments and links to resources! It gives me comfort knowing that other people struggle just as I do. I am one of those students who are taking too long, have been abandoned by their supervisors, lost confidence in their thesis – but also the confidence to ask for help. I also became depressed and anxious as a result. Yes, I also quit my thesis for a few months and then restarted it – I think I started again mostly because the need for closure was stronger than the loss of confidence and the bad supervisor experiences. I am in my fifth year now and my new supervisor thinks that there are couple more months to go. I don’t really believe him and I am still sceptical whether it will truly happen that I submit my thesis, but I’m taking things on a day to day basis, trying to take small steps and relax, rather than to stress about deadlines.


  14. Jill Berry says:

    I’m in the fourth year of my part-time EdD and found this post, and the subsequent comments, really helpful – thanks Pat and all the contributors!


  15. I don’t think there is much actual variation in work ethic and discipline in the world, at least not enough to explain the dramatic variance of outcomes it gets used for, like African poverty and +50% attrition rates in Ph.D. programs. I think a couple types of people succeed. Researchers who are really comfortable and confident they can find an audience for their interests in their discipline, and teachers who really love the material and people and push through the research to get a job. Both types readily feel they have a long term home, and a high probability of being accepted by a community of colleagues. Whoever is right or wrong in this debate is really hard to tell because we always sample on the dependent variable. We just don’t know what people who quit have in common, only people who stay.


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