Ok, so I'm in a pretty dire situation here. I'm coming towards the end of my PhD contract in France. For a litany of reasons, it hasn't gone too well.

  • I had extreme difficulty getting my experiments to work, and as I'm working with living organism (microalgae) this often meant months of delays. My experimental schedules were often incredibly strenuous and I had nobody to help me with them.

  • My supervisor is a kind person but far too busy for me, and I've never really been a real priority to her. She's often away for weeks, responds incredibly slowly or not at all to requests for review of my work or help, and has decided to go on a research cruise just before my deadline date (while continuously delaying review of my currently written chapters). I don't want to be too pessimistic but I feel like she gave up on me months ago and didn't suggest I quit because she wanted me to finish the work and publish the papers.

  • Ridiculous bureaucracy in France has no leeway on deadline for submission -- 2 months before the prospective defence date and no later, and no defence date outside of contract end (to avoid paying unemployment benefits to students while they continue to work). Apparently I am unable to waive this either, as I would be happy to do if it meant a few weeks more time.

  • The difficulties of living abroad and alone exacerbated incredibly my pre-existing depression and anxiety and this meant me having extreme difficulty self motivating and keeping good time. I've had probably 4-5 mental breakdowns over the last 3 years due to experimental scheduling.

  • I didn't have a good grasp of what I was supposed to do in my PhD apart from experimentation, and I was ostracised pretty badly by my mostly French department (I'm English). Other PhD students (French) all received great advice and tutelage under the senior members of staff, whereas most staff here don't know my name nor have ever tried to talk to me.

I feel like I've just failed life. I don't have any idea what kind of employers would accept me after this 3 year mess. Due to my extreme experimental schedule I feel very underdeveloped as I didn't manage to publish anything (yet), go to many classes, go to any conferences... etc. The only thing going for my is 5 years of lab experience. However most lab jobs I've seen (in the UK - my home) that pay well require experience in techniques I haven't used, and low paid ones that I could adapt easily to require only A levels; having a first class masters would probably mean they think I’m overqualified.

Science was always my dream and it's been my career path since my youth. Now that I have the experience of what not to do in a PhD I feel like I could enter another program and succeed easily. I made SO many mistakes this time around that could've easily been avoided if I'd known what to expect. Unfortunately, almost nothing at all was communicated clearly to me on what I had to do to succeed until it was too late, and the language barrier meant that I had a hard time finding this info myself. However, I don't know at all if another project would accept me. Also, I don't know if I could handle the stress.

Sorry for the rant. The advice I'm asking for is:

  • Do I have any career prospects?

  • How on earth do I present myself to prospective employers as anything but a failure?

  • Would a potential future PhD supervisor ever consider me given my failure? It's unclear, while I feel like i'm advantaged because I know what to do now and I'd have the confidence and drive not to repeat the same mistakes, I don't know if anyone would see me like that. I've truly learned from my mistakes.

Thank you for your time...

  • 1
    How far are you in your thesis-writing? Any chance to wrap up in eight weeks and submit some kind of draft in lieu of the "final" version (which doesn't really exist anyway)?
    – henning
    Sep 18, 2018 at 11:59
  • I have a week and a half to wrap up, I have two chapters done, and a final one to go as well as the overall discussion. I still have data to analyse for this chapter so the likelihood is - no not really. Sep 18, 2018 at 12:02
  • 7
    Are you sure there is no way to extend, e.g. by taking a TA or lab assistant position at your university? It is rather common that PhD students don't finish in time, so I would ask your advisor about options here.
    – Dirk
    Sep 18, 2018 at 12:05
  • The only real way to do it in France (in my lab at least) is to have more funding to pay a salary to the student. My supervisor made it clear from the beginning there was no chance of added funding. She says the only way, which is just speculative and unheard of, is trying to convince the doctoral school that it would be mutually beneficial to allow me to work on the thesis on my own time, and re-enroll next year sometime when it is done to allow the review process to proceed. Sep 18, 2018 at 12:09
  • 1
    I would personally try not to focus on the deadline and just continue to write. It is always better to have sth in your hands. You invest a lot of time into thinking about the situation. If you can't put it to rest, go talk to the head of research of your lab, but make sure not to say anything negative about your supervisor, that is academic suicide in France. Don't worry about the impact on your career, 1) you will not be able to anticipate possible consequences 2) handling a difficult situation by getting your work finished will always be an asset on your cv.
    – my.back
    Sep 18, 2018 at 13:41

2 Answers 2


The situation you are describing might sound like a difficult one, but I am pretty sure that if you go and talk to your doctoral school you will find that is not an uncommon one.

Instead of relying on what your supervisor says, you should probably just describe your situation to your doctoral school and see what possibilities are before you. It is, in a way, the role of the doctoral school to provide counseling in such cases.

In the meantime, if you do not know what ATER are (Attaché Temporaire d'Enseignement et de Recherche), have a look at these specific positions. They are sort of TAs positions. The link is in French, but in your case, the most important sentence might be:

Pour devenir A.T.E.R., il faut être dans l’une des situations suivantes :

  • [...] soit être inscrit en vue de la préparation d'un doctorat, le directeur de thèse devant attester que la thèse peut être soutenue dans un délai d'un an ; [...]

This means that you are eligible for such a position, only if your advisor is positive that you can defend within a year.

Finally, while your experience feels wrong, you sound like you have learnt quite a lot from it. I guess you should focus on finding the positive sides your experience.


I lack sufficient reputation to simply comment. I am also unfamiliar with rules in France, although in Germany there is similar rigidity (in US much less so). I would try to apply for some sort of health status exemption that suspends the bureaucratic clock and gives you time to sort things out. Also, consider taking stock of what data you do have ... you may have results that are indeed valuable and can be written up, published. Most PhD work doesn't go as planned, and with original research this is unlikely anyway. A key component of working as a professional scientist is being able to look dispassionately at data, including your own, and understand what's really there. You need some distance, some detachment to be able to do that.

  • Thanks for your contribution. Unfortunately, getting a "sort of health status exemption" needs precise documentation in France, and "my experiments didn't work as planned" (which is the reality of scientific research) would not work.
    – Clément
    Sep 18, 2018 at 12:43
  • @Clément I would imagine Rolf was addressing the depression and anxiety part, not the research part. Sep 18, 2018 at 15:08

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