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I'm a PhD student. When COVID lockdowns hit I lost contact with everyone else from my department other than my supervisor. I subsequently pretty much lost all my motivation to work, and managed to work an average of 5-6 hours per week in the last 18 months. (I'm in a field where in theory I could have worked as normal, but in practice things didn't go this way). My supervisor somehow didn't seem to notice, so I never brought up the issue to a full extent.

I now got back to my department and feel decent motivation again, but by now I have 2 years left on my PhD and only a really crappy preprint on my book. So, I don't even know if it's even worth it to attempt to salvage my academic career or just finish the PhD asap somehow while transitioning out of academia.

Anyone else in the same boat? Did you manage to catch up? Is it even worth it to try at this point, or is 1.5 years thrown away too much at this stage of my career?

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  • 13
    I guess a question to ask yourself is if you were given the option right now to start the PhD you're doing, would you be excited to do it? If so, get on with it, and do your best to catch up! PhDs are usually fairly flexible with timing (what does 2 years left mean? 2 years of funding?) and if there's ever a time to waste 1.5 years, a PhD would be it.
    – Oxonon
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 23:16
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    A lot of people, including professors (ooh ooh, pick me, pick me), weren't productive for much of the pandemic. Presumably your supervisor is in the best position to advise you on whether you can complete a good thesis (and possibly delay graduation). Also note: publication expectations for PhD students vary greatly by field, and in my field your current situation would be no problem at all.
    – Kimball
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 0:25
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    Anyone else in the same boat? - Yup. Plenty of people.
    – justauser
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 14:14
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    This is doubtless nitpicking, as the "absolutely nothing" in the title is probably hyperbole, but you did manage to work a few hours a week, so you might describe that more accurately as "almost nothing" or "extremely little". Over a period of eighteen months, perhaps that added up to something small(ish) - better than nothing at all. Might not be much comfort, but focus on what you have achieved instead of what you haven't (yet). Not meaning to sound trite.
    – J W
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 14:42
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    Same boat indeed. In fact 5 hours would have been a “good” week …
    – shalop
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 17:30

2 Answers 2

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If your motivation is now back to the level it was before the pandemic, then it’s a pure sunk cost. That is, you’re returned to exactly the state you were in 18 months ago, so if the plan then was to do your PhD, it should still be the plan now. The number of years you’ve been in are irrelevant.

Well, two caveats. (1) the number of years you’ve been in could be relevant. But since you’re in a field permitting work outside a lab, that seems very unlikely. Time is incredibly fluid in many PhDs, and you may well find you can do three years’ worth of work in the next 18 months just as well as you were able to do three months’ work in the last 18 months. Maybe not, of course! But you did say your supervisor apparently didn’t notice your recent productivity levels—that’s some evidence toward the fluidity hypothesis. (2) The above argument is only valid if your pre-pandemic plan to do the PhD was actually the right plan for you. Even if you’ve learned nothing of relevance to completing your PhD in last 18 months you’ve definitely learned something about your motivation toward finishing your PhD. It’s not very intrinsic! Again, it’s entirely possible that this was all down to COVID. But it’s also very possible that it’s evidence that you’re not as inspired by your PhD work as is ideal for an academic career, and could be a sign that’s it’s a good moment to think about leaving. If you can finish your PhD quickly now, then all the better.

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Talk to your supervisor and make a plan.

FIrst of all, let's notice and modify your frame:

  • You didn't do "absolutely nothing"; you did some work every week and wrote a paper. Writing a paper is damn hard and isn't nothing! (For comparison, while I have had some periods during COVID when I was able to be productive, for the last four months I have done no original research at all....) And I highly doubt anybody is saying that your preprint is "crappy" besides you; that's surely a feeling more than a fact.
  • There's nothing to "catch up" to. There's no cosmic clipboard keeping track of how much research you were supposed to have done or where you are "supposed to be". Like everyone in the world, you did the best you could every day, and because of these once-in-a-century adverse conditions there were limits to what you could accomplish. And if your supervisor didn't "seem to notice", probably they actually understand the situation.
  • You didn't "throw away" that time; you pushed through it as best you can, with imperfect but visible success, and you're even feeling motivated again. Given the global situation, those are pretty damn good things to be able to show from that time.

Now, your main question is about your career prospects going forward. And it seems clear that the person who is best able to give an overview of your career prospects is your supervisor (and perhaps another trusted faculty mentor if you have one). Your supervisor can help you formulate a plan for how to use your time in the next half year/year/two years, and can give you estimates on how various levels of output would impact your job prospects. And, just as importantly, they can continue to check in with you over the next half year/year/two years, update their overview of your progess, tweak your plan for using your time, and otherwise help guide you to do the best you can do over the remainder of your time in the PhD program. They can even find out whether the time frame has some flexibility in it, which is even more likely than usual due to the COVID disruption.

It would have been nice if your supervisor had already initiated a planning/overview conversation of this type. But that's okay, you can initiate it, and I recommend that you do. Part of you is probably hesitant to do so, fearing the worst possible evaluation of your progress; but the reality will be much kinder than the ugly voices inside your head (that we all possess). And whatever they say, having a concrete plan for using your time going forward will be the best thing for you. Future-You will find out what it all means concerning the next stage of your career; Present-You can let go of that and just start doing the work that you want to do and are now re-engaging with.

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  • "There is no cosmic clipboard" bit is spot on. To me though it also means that talking to the supervisor is likely irrelevant: corrections to the plan is a part of the work process and are rarely required explicitly except for hugely time-sensitive bits (experiments). Like Kevin Arlin says, time is very fluid there: no one can tell if you make the most progress in the three first years of the PhD or the three last weeks. In short, I would disagree with performance evaluation being helpful here. Focusing on the future certainly is, though.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 2:09

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