I have M.Sc. in mathematics, and I was/am working on a PhD for almost 10 years now (on and off), but I haven't published a thing. I have many results (most in a single field) and potential paper drafts, but I never finish up and publish, because I always find something new to learn or a new problem to research. I left the university eventually and got a part-time job as a data scientist, but I was never satisfied about leaving things open. I was working completely alone and didn't get along well with my adviser.

Today, while I have the time, I lack the discipline and environment to finish. None of my close friends are mathematicians, so I can't really talk about math with anybody (besides Internet forums). I love math very much, and I'm learning new things all the time, and I want to have my results finally out there and have my resume match my skills.

I will be glad to hear any advice, if anybody was in a similar situation. Any help will be appreciated.

  • 8
    You say you quit your phd long ago. So how could you finish it? Or do you mean simply publishing the results?
    – Dilworth
    Sep 7, 2019 at 12:03
  • 5
    Do you really need your PhD at this point, or will it just be a piece of paper to put on your wall?
    – nick012000
    Sep 8, 2019 at 12:15
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    @Dilworth In Germany, this is not really unusual. I know different people who left university and still (claim to) work on their PhD thesis. In many departments, you have no legal time limits, so you can leave university and come back 10 years later with a thesis, defend it and get your title. Nowadays, a little coursework is also often required, but as long as you finished that before you left university, you are fine. Needless to say that many of those never finish their thesis... Sep 8, 2019 at 14:08
  • @J.FabianMeier, thank. This is precisely what I was asking. What does the OP want to do? Publish the papers or return to complete the dissertation?
    – Dilworth
    Sep 8, 2019 at 16:44
  • Good question. I don't know if it's even an option to go back now to my institution. At this point, having a published paper will be enough for me and there is no deadline for that, though is it harder than writing a thesis academically.
    – user112734
    Sep 8, 2019 at 17:16

4 Answers 4


Do not get distracted and focus on completing a thesis rather than publishing. After 10 years, you should have enough material to write a decent thesis, even though what you have done may not be publishable. Get support from your supervisor and anyone supportive from the your department to achieve this. Otherwise, self-fund or reach out for coaches or mentors are able to achieve this aim. Ideally people that know your area and can help support you to focus on your thesis rather than the publications.

I understand and respect that publication is important especially in mathematics. Publications is the focus for an academic career but you have already invested 10 years of your life and it does not sound like you are going to be hitting a string of publications soon. Also, if you are already working part-time, it seems to me, getting the PhD and then working full-time is a very reasonable and respectable career goal.

Recognise that you get a high every time there is a new challenge. Every one does. It is far more exciting to mov from one exciting topic to the next. Every new challenge has a buzz to it. You have to decide whether this buzz and excitement is more important than completing your PhD. Going over old material and old "stuff" would be drudgery and probably your previous traumatic experience (as you remember why you were not able to achieve publication), but it is important to swallow your pride and decide whether completing a thesis and your PhD is more important than achieving the goal of publication.

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    Depending on the country and institution, defending a thesis without any published results may be difficult or even impossible.
    – Peteris
    Sep 7, 2019 at 23:32
  • 1
    True @Peteris. It is best to look and investigate the options now though after 10 years? There may need to be a change in focus to pedagogy or a field not requiring publication.
    – Poidah
    Sep 7, 2019 at 23:55

You may or may not have already ruined your chances of completing the degree by missing time limits established by the department. You may or may not have ruined your relationship with your advisor. However, the department and your advisor would probably prefer to have a Ph.D. graduate rather than have someone who dropped out of the program, so there is still some chance that you can finish this.

You should start by talking to the director of the graduate program or the chair of the department if there is no director of the graduate program. What formal requirements for the degree have you completed? What have you not completed? Is there a time limit for completion of the degree? Are you still in the program or will you have to apply for readmission?

Next, talk to your advisor. Explain that you really want to complete the degree. Are they still willing to work with you? Is your research that hasn't been written up yet sufficient for a Ph.D. or do you need to produce more results? What should your next step be?


Ok. I'm going to be blunt, because I see only one root cause for your situation, and since you wrote yourself that "...I never finish up and publish, because I always find something new to learn or a new problem to research." and "Today, while I have the time, I lack the discipline and environment to finish.", I think you too know what the problem is.

Your lack of self-discipline.

There's no magical cure for that, none of us here can do no more than to say (as the other answers have more politely done) that you just have to commit fully to finishing what you have started, and get it over with. That's it. Should that be, or actually seem impossible, I bet there are support groups for people in similar situations within your reach.

Not knowing the specifics of your situation it's hard to evaluate how far up or down the S creek you are, but just start paddling.

I do apologise if the previous offends you, but I think you deserve to hear this version too. Believe me, you'll make it. You are the only person who can stop you if you decide to finish your PhD.


You get a PhD for completing a thesis, not for publishing papers (apart from specific courses that require it). It is possible to graduate with a PhD before you publish papers. A supervisor will often encourage you to publish as well but bear in mind that this is often not a requirement of a PhD course (this should be clear in your university guidelines). However, a successful thesis and a publication face many of the same challenges.

They are both subject to scrutiny by examiners or reviewers. Examiners will generally determine whether the thesis presents original research of publication quality (whether it has been peer-reviewed yet or not). This is one of the reasons that experienced examiners, including external and international examiners are used to ensure that it meets international standards for a PhD to be awarded. Generally a novel technique or application is sufficient, it doesn't have to be Nobel Prize worthy.

A thesis must also be coherent and present a logical argument on your topic. If you have several related projects, you must write your thesis is a logical manner that shows how they are linked to address a specific research topic (that you've developed expertise in). Your supervisor should be able to guide you here but it is your responsibility to complete projects and send them draft versions of thesis chapters in a timely manner to get their feedback.

The order will not necessarily be the order that you did the work. Most PhD candidates try many different research directions and need to focus their thesis on a particular topic. You can show some of the directions that you tried that gave unexpected results and motivated the direction that you ended up taking. What's most important is that you can demonstrate that you had an original idea and performed the research yourself and developed the skills necessary to be an independent researcher.

You need to consider carefully whether your work meets this criteria and whether it is worth writing a thesis in your situation. No one can decide that except you. The requirements for a thesis are different to a peer-reviewed publication but they are related. You may need to consult an expert in your field to discuss whether your results would meet this criteria. You could also present the results you have so far as a seminar or at a conference as your audience will bring up concerns that examiners or reviewers will expect you to have addressed.

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