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I'm close to the end of a troubled PhD experience. However this closeness might be extended to the infinite if I would get to the point of having something that is good enough. I might be too self-critical (maybe considering the standard of my institution) but at the moment the best scenario is ending with something that I wouldn't use after and I would prefer to not show it around.

Also I'm not very interested in the subject itself, so if my PhD has to be a visit card for my further steps in academia, it might be better to don't have it. I don't want to be framed in this "expertise".

My unique motivation is putting an end to this story, get the credit and the title, continuing in academia saying I have a PhD, but without showing it around as a good trophy.

I'm basically facing this dilemma:

  • On one hand I must consider that "it's just a PhD" so I'm not going to change the world with it. It's enough doing something proper and giving my small contribution to the research... in other words, it doesn't have to be perfect.
  • On the other hand, if this has to be something that is going to specialize my academic career and in which I should build my reputation and be recognized as an expert of this, I prefer to disappear from the scene.

There are few aspects to consider:

Even if I might be too self-critical, there are objective problems in my work (which are not my responsibility in larger part)

It can be possible that with some tricks the institution and supervisor might close an eye on this, since they have their slice of responsibilities and support my finalization.

Shortly, all the PhD has been done without following any of the supposed methodology and criteria. I had to put a bunch of material together, even if unrelated to the actual research, just because they are of a direct and personal interest of the supervisor. Thus, it should be my responsibility to make sense out of them and create questions, answers and a dissertation out of it... whatever it is. You can imagine what the result can be.

Will this PhD affect my future steps in the academia?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion nor for answers; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 Apr 16 at 19:08
  • 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all (Alfred Lord Tennyson). – PatrickT Apr 17 at 2:40
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    How many publication do you have? – lalala Apr 17 at 7:48
  • @lalala I don't know how to count exactly, because my field is quite peculiar. I would say that I can account about 13 publications. One of them is a book. However, double-blind e peer reviewed should be around 2 or 3. – pat Apr 18 at 9:47

11 Answers 11

88

You can change topics/fields after you graduate. Use what you've learned to find a job (or postdoc or whatever) that fits you better in something you're more interested in.

For the record, nobody who isn't on your committee will read your dissertation. Done is better then good.

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    @pat Only because you need to get the job; once your work talk is over you don't need to even stay in the same subfield (and in most cases you can't work on the same topic anyway). If you really want you can often push out of your main field too, although it's usually easier to do this from a more theoretical field to a more applied field than the other way around. – user120011 Apr 15 at 13:55
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    As another PhD student I have read quite a few dissertations so I would not say that no one will rea it. Even if the dissertation contains no interesting discovery, it might be useful as a review article. – Džuris Apr 15 at 17:55
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    @Džuris I don’t want to read the mind of CJR but I’m reasonably certain that his/her answer could be extended to include other graduate students in the group, with the caveat they are unlikely to read the entire thesis anyways. The chances are overwhelming against more than very few people reading the thesis - especially if it’s not exceptional as implied by the OP. – ZeroTheHero Apr 16 at 16:39
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    @pat a postdoc offer would be primarily based on your demonstrated expertise, potential research abilities and letters of reference. Don’t take it for granted the person offering the postdoc will actually read your thesis. – ZeroTheHero Apr 16 at 16:42
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    In med school they have a joke. What do you call a med student who graduates with all C's? -- 'Doctor'. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 16 at 19:41
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The fact of the matter is that, for almost all purposes, a year or two after graduation, nobody actually really cares about what the PhD was about. What they care about is that you have the formal qualification of having a PhD -- it's the letters you need, not anything more specific that comes out of the process.

So yes, having a mediocre PhD is far far better than having no PhD.

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    @nick012000 That's not true in general. Being a dropout is worse compared to having a PhD completed. The topic and content does matter even less in industry - unless you are employed related to the topic of your thesis - which is rare anyway. – usr1234567 Apr 15 at 6:32
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    @pat if you have worked for a year ot two after graduation, in your next job interview your previous job will carry most probably more weight than the quality of your thesis. Even more so, if the job you apply for is not related to the thesis. – Dohn Joe Apr 15 at 13:43
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    @nick012000 In my experience of going PhD->an industry where PhDs are fairly normal, they might care about the general topic, yes-but only in pretty crude terms, like those you've suggested. Not in the kind of detail that I think the OP is asking about. – Isaac Apr 15 at 14:58
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    "It's worth noting that this might be different in industry" I've gone from having a PhD to industry and think that it is even more true than academia. It's evidence that the person is both smart and hard working, similar to how most BA or BS degrees are treated for most positions. – Chip McCormick Apr 15 at 22:02
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    I work in industry with a lot of PhD's. We frequently laugh about how completely unrelated their PhD research is to what they do in their job. One of them even had her research completely disproven by later discoveries, but her PhD is still just as valuable as the others. – bta Apr 15 at 22:42
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Not having a doctorate will definitely affect your future in academia. It means you have few options and only poor ones at that. The doctorate should do a couple of things for you. First, its real intent, is to teach you how to do research in some field along with a deep background in that field. But the other, maybe even more important in these modern times, is that it is a credential that gets you in the door to a permanent position in academia (or a research lab, perhaps).

Your other recent question here, along with what you say here, suggests you have seen the worst of academia. But, it isn't all like that. A "bad" doctorate is probably in your eyes only and there are elements of imposter syndrome in what you write. A lot of people judge themselves more harshly than is justified by the facts. Don't be that person. Some others, of course, are incredibly arrogant. I think you've met some of those and won't emulate them.

I've also been writing in a few recent answers that research is open ended and can't be scheduled or the outcome predicted. It is a study of the unknown and, while we hope to shed light where none exists it is an uncertain process. But it is a process and it has variations.

My advice: Get it finished. Make some contacts that will support you in a job search. Get away to a place with supportive contacts. You can change research fields in a large or small way. I made a large change once and small changes several times over a 40 year career. Make tomorrow better than today.

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  • Re " ... It means you have few options and only poor ones at that. ..." -> Freeman Dyson's BA didn't seem to hold him back much :-). Just a tad of an exception, admittedly. – Russell McMahon Apr 18 at 2:28
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In most disciplines and most countries, a completed PhD is above all else proof that you have been successfully trained to do scientific research in a discipline, with focus on a specific subfield of it.

I wrote "with focus on" and not "exclusively in". I wrote "subfield" and not "topic".

So, as regards academia,
completed Phd =

a) I am qualified to be a professional scientist -so you have the professional credentials to start working in academia as a autonomous scientist. The "autonomous" is the critical component here.

b) I know my way around a discipline - so you have the credentials to work in a university/research Dpt that has something to do with this discipline.

c) I know my way around a subfield of this discipline - so, and as long as you do not have accumulated published work that tells something else, we will consider you for positions that have to do something with the subfield of your PhD.

d) I am an expert in the topic of my PhD - no you are not. In order to (may) be recognized as an expert in the topic of your PhD, you have first to successfully publish peer-reviewed papers on this topic.

You're not an expert, you're not even a specialist, so no, you are not defined by your PhD, even if you 'd wish so. But as long as you don't have something else to show, the PhD will open the door but will also somewhat constrain you professionally at the beginning -and this is reasonable. "Open the door" is the critical component here.

And, it appears you are working towards "having something else to show." Well, nowadays in many cases people don't go from PhD to work in academia as autonomous scientists, they first do postdocs. So complete your PhD, and maybe turn these other collaborations of you into a post-doc if need be.

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    Thanks, these are also good points. But concerning the "Open the door" here the situation is critical. Might be reasonable to question "which door?" What if this door bring me to a predetermined path I didn't choose and I wasn't even aware of it? To find my independence (because I lost the trust of my institutional dependence) I'm always looking for backdoors. My point is contributing to what I'm interested, by avoiding the constraints that are basically sustaining the untouchable and questionable status quo of my community of reference and its hierarchies. – pat Apr 15 at 10:14
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    @pat You should be asking the question, "What doors will be closed if I finish this PhD now?" and then considering if those are doors you were likely to go through anyway. (There's no way to keep all doors open, even "do nothing" closes a lot of doors.) – user3067860 Apr 15 at 12:41
  • @user3067860 This is very complicated to predict. I'm struggling for years on this point. The thing is that I don't see very attractive prospectives from these doors. But I can be wrong. – pat Apr 15 at 13:30
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    @PAT I think it should be clear that my position is that it opens the door for an autonomous career in academia. – Alecos Papadopoulos Apr 15 at 14:42
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At this point in your PhD, considering that you are so close to defending, it's much better to finish. The only ways I could really see a completed PhD hurting your future career would be if the dissertation were fraudulent (not just flawed, but if you actually made up data or citations), plagiarized, or otherwise profoundly unethical. None of these seem to be the case based on your question.

An incomplete PhD after several years of effort can be much more of a CV red flag than a mediocre PhD. Unless you presented solid evidence to the contrary, a big employment gap with an incomplete PhD could suggest to a future employer that you were a perfectionist who had trouble getting things accomplished, or that you were incapable of compromising to get things done, or that you had more trouble than most people managing interpersonal conflicts. Conversely, you can use your experience finishing a PhD to argue that you can take a complex project all the way to the finish line, and that you are capable of compromising or "managing upwards" to work with others when necessary.

Overall, my impression is that you may be prone to seeing your work in a more negative light than others will. For one thing, while I believe you that there are "objective problems" with your dissertation, this is also true for almost all completed research. Further, as the person who has performed this research, you are probably in the best position to notice these problems. You mention yourself that your standards may be unreasonably high. Finally, in my experience it is not uncommon for people to have crises of disillusionment and self-doubt when they are approaching a major deadline, inflection point, or time of change in their academic career, or when they are about to show something they've produced to the world. In other words, the feelings you're feeling right now are normal, but may also be distorted relative to how others will perceive you. I think it will probably be important to keep that in mind given that you're making a major life decision right now.

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  • "PhD hurting your future career would be if the dissertation were fraudulent [...], plagiarized, or otherwise profoundly unethical." Unlucky yes, there are some (maybe soft) versions of the issues you pinpointed and they are there with a tacit (but aware) consent of the supervisor. This motivated the other question I posed here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/147641/… ... indeed, I'm suspecting my supervisor is leading me to a failure for these reasons. – pat Apr 15 at 21:46
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    I actually hesitated to qualify my statement because I suspected that you would find a way that those things applied to you :) It's hard to give concrete advice without knowing exactly what you're talking about here. I think you should ask someone else in your department for a reality check about whether these are issues that most people in your field will perceive. Do you have a thesis committee? Your dissertation should at least have other readers besides your PI who will give feedback. This is a good thing because it will help you put your misgivings in context. – Patrick B. Apr 15 at 22:39
  • Indeed, I'm working on this, I also thing is a good idea. The problem is that I have the feeling that no one what to get involved with this hot potato. As I tried to explain here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/147731/… any attempt to ask support from other players of the institution failed. They always put me back to my supervisor. I tried looking for co-supervisors, co-tutelle, external opinions... seems that the institution is doing everything to centralize all the control in the hand of my supervisor. – pat Apr 16 at 10:49
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It looks like a dilemma between future remorse (of having done, against present costs) and future regrets (of not having done, against present benefits).

Those who completed a PhD are generally glad to have completed it, whether they enjoyed it (nicely done, what a joy) or not (eventually done, what a pain). Take note: probably this readership is biased towards people who did complete a PhD. There are surely plenty of people blissfully and lastingly happy for after not having completed their PhD study; respect. To a guaranteed extent, we all are bound to proceed at our own risk.

I wish to bring in my experience in which the very topic of my PhD turned up to be relevant for my job just two employments after. And not because I was seeking anything to establish this relevance. I kind of realised that, "after all", I already had a baggage of useful notions stored in long-term memory. Stories are anecdotal, but please do not rule out future serendipity.

Additionally, the title offers a 'wrap' of certification that a story tale has not: think of shortlisting in any job application. Without a PhD you might hit a glass ceiling afterwards. Also outside academia.

I could finish with a bang with the classical "what does not kill you makes you stronger", but there are certainly other pills of wisdom pointing in the opposite direction.

My two cents.

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  • I appreciate your consideration of the dichotomy present/future... this is actually another very important perspective. Indeed, maybe my disappointment is also given by the fact that since more then 10 years I invested very much in my future, in term of studying. The thing is that I started to regret it already, because I can see that even the best outcome is way far from being a decent one. I think that my goodwill in investing on the future became actually a reason for exploitation. This might be a huge argument, but I have the feeling that this is a very common condition in academia. – pat Apr 15 at 15:19
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Academia is challenging for those without PhD's. It's challenging for those with PhD's, but more so for those without. It is difficult to plan on an academic career without a PhD. Of course, this depends on how you define academia. If "teaching calculus in a college", for example, is part of your definition, certainly this is more possible without a PhD than, say, starting and maintaining a research lab in the life sciences.

You must also define "bad". If a university allows to defend and bestows a degree on you, you've met their requirements, and have proven you have the skills necessary to earn a degree. This is hardly "bad". You seem to be defining "bad" as "in an area I have no real interest in", and I can hardly speak to that.

I'm going to say I disagree with those that say nobody cares about what your PhD was in two years after you get it. People WILL very much care if you can be competitive for funds in the area you propose to do research in. If you can't make a credible case for that, you'll find the job market to be very tough. If you don't think your current PhD path can help you make this argument, you're putting yourself in a tough situation.

It's time for you to lay out your career goals. Where do you want to end up? What sort of research do you plan to do? Are there steps that you can take along the way that help you develop the portfolio you NEED that make use of the portfolio you HAVE? Can you start by doing research in the field in which you're training, and morph it to the area you want to end up in?? How long do you think this will take? Will it be worth it in the end?

For your proposed academic career, mot getting a PhD has its cons. Getting a PhD that doesn't advance your career has its cons. Jumping off the current path and working towards getting the PhD that you want has its cons, too. From where you are now, you don't have a perfect path. Careful planning, at this point, is your only best hope of finding a path that's the least objectionable to you.

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  • "bad" means having to figure out research questions in the end of the dissertation, after having formulated the answers. "bad" means putting some papers/chapters together just because they are linked by a keyword, "bad like being forced to reference texts that I never read, "bad" in being pushed in self-plagiarize stuff I'd done earlier. "Bad" because I can write any sort of stuff because I suppose it will be made pass like "artistic license". – pat Apr 15 at 19:01
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    @pat - if these are the worst bads of your PhD, this is fine. I was doing my PhD for around 10 years, which has a big financial impact on my life. In the beginning I didn't care at all about that, and now I regret that very much. Though I hope to finish soon. If your colleagues are fine with your PhD, then don't be idealist. To get the problem solved, it took me more than 10 years. If it takes undefinite time to finish that or publish now - do it now. If you can improve the text in one month - of course, fix the worst problems. – Yaroslav Nikitenko Apr 16 at 9:03
  • @YaroslavNikitenko This is a reality check... very valuable to me. But I have to say that I'm not happy to hear this. Idealism has always been a problem for me, but also the reason for getting in the admirable world of knowledge. Indeed, I'm facing also this dilemma in turning toward practicalities instead than idealism. But for me this is betray myself and the actual reason of being in a university. Anyway, allow me this demagogy... but all this should force thinking of how the things works and if it just fine they are this way. – pat Apr 16 at 11:08
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    @pat I think that idealism must be limited. If you do some cooking, probably you don't spend a lot of time for that. The answer depends very much on your attitude to the problem. Recently an elder colleague was surprised and said to me: "PhD is just a qualification exam". If you think in this way, it may be much easier. I think that was a mistake that I considered the thesis as an important contribution to science. You can continue and deepen your research. Just think about PhD as a formal bureaucratic thing, which should give you more freedom and confidence to do what you consider important. – Yaroslav Nikitenko Apr 16 at 12:34
  • @pat I don't know what you do, but an important example for me is programming. Maybe 10 years ago I was thinking "in full generality", and created some large "general" code, which didn't move my research much. Now I understand that the code must correspond to the problem. You can know a lot of ways to improve it, add good parameters to your functions, but if it already solves your problem, you should stop. – Yaroslav Nikitenko Apr 16 at 12:37
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I concur with the (nearly?) unanimous view that it is far better to complete the PhD than not. This is about as close to a no brainer as I've seen.

But I didn't bother to post just to rehash what everyone else said.

Don't take this the wrong way, but I think you could benefit from counseling. You start the 2nd sentence "I might be too self-critical." You go on to suggest you might end up being ashamed of your PhD. That's a very dark place to be.

I have no way of evaluating your work, but I certainly have no inclination to believe your PhD will be of low quality. Do you know how many times JK Rowling was turned down before getting a publishing deal? Do you know how many hit songs were almost tossed in the waste basket because the songwriter thought they were bad?

I interpret your even contemplating quitting when you are close to getting the degree as a self-destructive act.

Something is wrong. That's what you need to address.

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  • I'd like to second this. Impostor syndrome is extremely common among graduate students and academics of all stripes; even the best of us often find ourselves in a place where we feel like we're not as good as everyone else. Talking to someone is the only way I know to fix it. – Reese Apr 16 at 22:27
  • @Robert Morelli you are 50% right and the other 50% not. Actually you pointed out to something real, I've been already into counseling and actually for this story. About that the point is: even if I may have a distorted view of the situation what is objective is that shortcomings and manipulations given by my institution brought me to a brake down. (50% right) The 50% you are wrong is that: of course is fine and necessary to fail and to see what is wrong, but in my case I don't have much agency on my failure, because is a pure response to the PhD process for how it was designed for me. – pat Apr 18 at 9:34
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Since you are going the academic path, it is best to finish your PHD first, as you don't have any prior job experience, if you do then it is a different study because remember the only thing they will see is whether you finished your degree or not. After you work for a couple of years they won't even care what you did your PHD on rather they will ask your last boss how you did your job and etc.(note people care more about your contributions, for example your work ethics and etc instead of what you did your PHD on.). But for now you don't have any experience working so they don't have anything besides your degree, and you certainly don't want the first thing that appears on your resume to be university drop out.

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There are many things to consider in your decision making.

First, you need input from people who know your field, and know the possible opportunities and likelihood to get them. In this, think about reaching out to people far from your institution or even your country, if moving for work is something you would consider. We are sometimes so isolated within a community of people that we can lose track of what exists and what is considered normal outside of it.

Second, you mention that you want to stay in academia, you need to think about what you are willing to sacrifice to do so, and consider what opportunities there would be for you outside of it. This will help you in figuring out when would be your threshold for letting go of your project to work in academia and exploring other routes.

Now, if you want to stay in academia, you almost surely need a PhD. Unless you feel prepared to start another PhD from scratch, then the one you're about to complete is the only chance you have. Look in your fields of interest, and find how many people without a PhD there are and what work they do, this will give you an idea of what you can expect if you don't have a PhD.

I will end by saying something that is at odds with the other answers, and it is that there are cons to finishing a PhD. I first need to separate between two things that I think are very different and that I get from your question.

The first one is whether a PhD is "good" or "bad", a "bad" PhD being one with few results, or that didn't advance a field, or that has mistakes or experimental errors, or that is not interesting. I will join the other answerers in saying that finishing a "bad" PhD is a pragmatic thing to do, hoping to do something better in your postdoc.

However, there is a second dimension and it is whether your PhD feels yours, and is in line with what you think or not. If you feel that you are in disagreement with every idea in your PhD, and now you need to write it and basically take a bunch of ideas and results, the methodology and possibly even the content of which you disagree with, and make them yours, then I would think long and hard about doing this. If you think you wouldn't be able to look yourself in the mirror after writing such a thesis, then I would consider not doing it. Obviously, this is something that would vary greatly with people, so you need to think about whether this is something that concerns you. Sometimes, it is better to take a bold stand by opposing something even if it has negative consequences as it can give us a momentum to do something else and restore our self-esteem, rather than trying to go too much against our own principles. Only you can know ;)

I wish you the best of luck.

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  • "Sometimes, it is better to take a bold stand by opposing something even if it has negative consequences..." I really appreciate your position. In the past it already happen to me to face similar situations, it that case, rising the voice against the problem and the unethical conduct of that professor (other place) gave me a lot of respect from the community, by loosing to make a point I actually win in terms of integrity. Now, I'm quite sure that in practical terms it would not work since I'm not able to expose evidences of the problem. So in practical terms I have no gain. – pat Apr 16 at 14:13
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Having no PhD is better than having a bad PhD, because being bad at something shows everyone else that years were wasted pursuing something you were not meant to do. Also, people can be more successful having no PhD, financially for example, so adding a bad grade to bad pay as a PhD is really as bad as it can get, IMO.

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  • The only "bad" PHD is one containing fraudulent research. In this case, get the paper asap. – historystamp Apr 17 at 22:02
  • In general sense I think it's right, but the thing seems to be more complex. – pat Apr 18 at 9:11

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