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I am less than 2 months away from the end of my PhD (Europe, bioinformatics/machine learning in cancer research). My publication record is super bad so far, submitted my first paper 7 months ago and now we are retracting it and will submit it again as the handling editor was unable to find suitable reviewers as of today (after the manuscript had been accepted for peer review by him...). We are considering to write another paper, which will be very difficult to get accepted as the validation results are bad etc., so that's only gonna be a chapter but not a publication in the end... Earlier on, my PhD committee made it clear that I have to have only 1 accepted paper and two other chapters in my thesis. So the bar is low, yet I'm still unable to finish now. Actually, 1.5 years ago my supervisor did doubt whether we can publish the manuscript we submitted earlier this year as it does not include validation on real data (just a sort of simulation). So that doesn't exactly makes me confident about the whole thing, having my degree depending on a single potentional paper that even my supervisor had doubts about.

My supervisor doesn't want to give me an extension (other than 1-2 months, which in this situation woudn't change much), so the deal now is that I'm trying to finish it without an extended contract after I have found a job. In the meantime, I started job search but unfortunately I'm more interested in positions where a PhD degree is required (obviously I'm not looking for a job in the academia, I wanted to work in the industry after I finish anyway). I'm not really into classic bioinformatics, would like to work on machine learning research instead (preferably healthcare/cancer related), but I didn't work on complex projects or anything that involved more hands-on math during my PhD, so I doubt that I have a good chance to get a job that I want with a crap and unfinished PhD.

I don't know what to do now as I feel my self-esteem is completely damaged and that I will probably be considered a failure wherever I apply, even though a lot of things went wrong during my PhD that were out of my control (including problems with supervision). I don't even believe that I would be capable of doing the jobs I'm interested in.

Shall I still try to finish, even if it technically seems impossible? I guess a crap but finished PhD is still better than a not completed one... But I'm very much afraid that it won't be possible... and then all these years were just wasted and I basically have to figure another career/job that I'm able to do.

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    What country is this? You might be able to extend your timeline without it being covered by PhD funding (like your supervisor suggests) and have a defense after landing a stopgap job in the industry to sort out financial issues for the time being. You are not married to that job and can quit it after half an year or an year without great repercussions, you know.
    – Lodinn
    Nov 8 '21 at 9:52
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    Is a published (or in process) paper an absolute requirement of completion? In many fields/locations it isn't
    – Chris H
    Nov 8 '21 at 14:42
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    Let's say you fail to get your PhD. Is there any scenario under which, in 2+ years from now, you are going to look back and cry over the extra 2 months you wasted? Unless you're dealing with some kind of immediate family or financial emergency, or unless someone is offering you millions of dollars to quit without a PhD, I reckon the answer is an easy "No". In which case the answer should be obvious: put all your effort into it for the next 2 months, and let life take its course. Worst case you wasted 2 more months... whatever.
    – user541686
    Nov 9 '21 at 6:07
  • Thanks for the comments. The thing is that here the bar is quite high as for the number of publications (ideally 4 years --> 4 papers, which I think is a bit insane if you don't get lucky with good projects and collaborations...), so I don't think they'll let me get away without a single paper published. I am planning to stay for the next 2 months of course, that's not a problem. It's more like that I'm worried about finishing it at all and based on the current situation, it can still take years to get there (with the never-ending waiting for the reviews).
    – antev
    Nov 9 '21 at 10:31
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    hey @antev - sorry for the late comment, but many of the European systems which have these requirements also allow a form of thesis without papers, typically called a monograph. It may require a special exemption from the dean, and is generally treated as sub-par, but at least you can graduate then. Look closely into the doctoral regulations.
    – juod
    Nov 11 '21 at 5:05
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This is my original answer, but please also see the update below where I changed my advice based on some clarifications in the comments.

I think you should try to finish the PhD. You are so close, and really it's the major reward you get for the years of toil on your projects. If you drop out now, you will not have a tangible record to show for all your troubles. And a PhD is a nice prize that shows you have valuable experience.

There is not much you can do about whether or not these papers get published at this point. Given your timeline, it is what it is. Don't assume the rules your committee gave you are set in stone. No one wants to see you fail, least of all your advisor. Write up the work you have done, and be honest about the submission status of the various papers. I think it is more likely than not that this will be fine, in the end. As pointed out by @user347489 in the comments, a reasonable committee may simply look past a publication requirement, because you are planning to leave academia and enter a field where your publication record does not really matter; make sure your committee is aware of your plans. But in the event that it is a major sticking point, let them decide this, rather than you deciding it for them. Get your committee and your advisor to tell you what steps you need to take to complete the PhD; they are the ones who are responsible for this decision. For now, assume everything will work out, and concentrate on your part of this: getting your work written up into a thesis.

There may be some part of you that is angry that you have come so far, and are facing obstacles so close to the finish line. In my opinion, this feeling would be very normal and could actually be put to good use -- try to experience some of that anger and use it to motivate you to do the work, and talk to the necessary people, so you can finish with the degree. Don't give up on yourself now.

Job searches take a long time. You need to balance this against finishing your degree. Try to plan your time realistically, and don't expect more from yourself than any human can deliver. When you do get time to focus on your search, read the job descriptions for ads in the field or fields you want to get a job in. Start by making a resume that demonstrates how your skills match what the companies are looking for in a way they can relate to, by using words in their job descriptions. Try to talk to people who do those jobs -- perhaps there are people in your PhD program who have gone on to some of these jobs you can talk to, or people in your broader network, or see if there are job fairs for your field in your local area.

Please keep in mind that impostor syndrome is incredibly common in academia, and while I don't know you, I think it quite unlikely that you got into a PhD program and have made it through almost to the very end by being a "failure," and much more likely that you are a talented and hard-working individual who is burnt out by the PhD process (and, I'm not sure if you've heard, but there's a pandemic that has been going recently). On the topic of burning out... make sure you take time to practice some self-care. Go on walks or runs or bike rides. Make sure you eat well and get enough sleep. If you can, take a vacation.

Finally, I strongly encourage you to seek out a mental health professional, if you have not already. They can help you talk through many of these issues much more effectively than strangers on an internet forum.


Update

Based on discussion with @antev in the comments, it appears I misunderstood the situation. I was assuming that your PhD could be finished without about 2 more months of work, and that the requirement for a publication could be waived. Apparently, this is not true. Really, the situation is that you need to wait an indefinite amount of time to hear back from the referees. If the paper isn't accepted, then you have to do more work to get a paper published, in order to be able to defend.

First, I just want to express I find it completely ridiculous that an advisor would commit to a student for four years and then pull the rug out from under them at the end, by refusing to support them while they finish the degree, either by extending financial support while wrapping up the last stages of this paper, or by loosening the requirement to have a paper (or "going to bat" for you by arguing your case if this is an institute or department policy).

With that off of my chest, I think you basically have 3 or maybe 4 options.

Option 1 Find a job that you like that does not require a PhD. If you find one, then no need to finish the PhD.

Option 2 Find a job you like that does require a PhD, but is willing to hire you while you finish the last steps of your degree. I have heard of situations like this before. But, I have only heard of it when the candidate was "ABD", meaning all requirements were met except for the dissertation. In your case, the situation is murkier because you have a hard requirement for publishing a paper, and you can't guarantee if or when it will be published. So I don't know how likely it is you will be able to find a job like this -- not to say you shouldn't try.

Option 3 Find a part-time job to pay the bills while you finish your PhD. Once you have your PhD, or at least have the published paper part of your degree finished, I think it will be easier to find jobs that require a PhD.

Option 4 As suggested in the comments, apply for a leave of absence. I don't know much about how this would work -- you would need to look into the details at your location.

Obviously there are some major pros and cons to each option, that will come down to personal factors. Option 1 is probably the "cleanest" option, but you have to be sure you really like the job and aren't selling yourself short. If you want a job requiring a PhD, to me option 2 seems better if you can find one, and option 3 seems like a last-resort back up plan. Depending on your institution's policies, Option 4 (a leave of absence) could also be worth considering, but I don't have any idea what that would look like in practice.

I also am going to reverse what I said initially. With this set of options, I think it makes more sense to focus on your job search now, and try to nail down what jobs you want and what options you have.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Nov 10 '21 at 4:13
  • Option 5: find a company that does not require a PhD but is willing to help/let you finish it. You would then have the PhD (which is whatever happens better than not to have it) - maybe to be used later (or not, but at least you leave that door open). (I would have added that to your answer directly, but do not want to modify it that extensively)
    – WoJ
    Nov 10 '21 at 19:55
  • Option 2 is pretty common. In Germany, most departments have now hard requirements of accepted publications for a PhD. Many students finish their PhD while being on unemployment benefits.
    – Roland
    Nov 11 '21 at 7:08
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First, I am really sorry for you as you are in a really stressful and difficult situation.

2 months is incredibly short to get a paper published. But I know people that get their PhD with a paper under review, you may ask your PhD committee is that is okay.

If it is not, I really encourage you to discuss with your supervisor how much time he thinks publishing your paper may take and see with him if he can keep you for this long.

Third, I don't know your country but in France there is academic position (ATER) where you do teaching which are often attributed to people finishing their PhD but who ran out of credits. The pay is quite low, but it can help. You may want to check if something like that exists in your country.

Wishing you best luck.

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  • Thank you! I'm afraid my supervisor has no idea how long things can take, I've asked about that already. I'll try to see if I can discuss things with my committee in more detail.
    – antev
    Nov 9 '21 at 11:14
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I think it really depends on the University, but I finished my PhD without a single paper. My paper was written 1.5 years before my defense, but my supervisor could never stop with his improvement ideas. When I realized that there is no way to finish my PhD I pushed it to defense like that, without a paper. In the end, everyone is interested in students defending their theses. The university needs a good record also. Try to check with your PhD program coordinator if you have one, or with the ombudsman (that should be there in any Uni), what are your options.

Also, stop thinking that you are a fail. No result is also a result. Unfortunately, modern academia does not support it, and it is uncommon to share your fails, but you should be really lucky that your research project ends up with some result. I had to quit one PhD position after 2 years of research and start something else because all projects that I started did not bring any result, but then I was lucky to start a fruitful project, but with bad supervision again :) It is pure luck, especially in biology.

With machine learning, it is also not so hard as you think. I am now working as a data scientist and believe me, in many companies the entry-level is pretty low. We just do not know what we can do as PhDs.

So no worries, just fight till the end. Good luck!

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    Thanks a lot for the good wishes! I know, I know, luck plays a big role in this... (which often makes me wonder about the actual purpose of doing a PhD but that's another story). Unfortunately, here I cannot have much word about the circumstances and requirements of my defense, if the committee says that it should be according to their terms/requirements than that is the end of the story (I haven't heard of anyone whom they let to finish without at least 1 publication). I'll try to hope for the best, thanks for sharing your experience!
    – antev
    Nov 9 '21 at 21:04
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I think that, unfortunately, a lot of thoughts are focusing on the medieval idea of a piece of paper giving enormous advantage with respect to not having it.

The work you need to finish your PhD is probably enormous, you may have the chance to find an employer that is in favour of you ending your PhDs in the first months of employment (possible benefit for the company: setting up a good connection with your advisor/department ... if the company has interest and is smart enough to understand this).

However, most likely, you will have 6 months (probably more) of hell, where you cannot focus on the new things you need to learn at your new job, nor you can fully focus on your PhD completion. If you are now under stress, that woud only increase exponentially in that period.

My advice is to drop the PhD, who cares about people or the social pressure of "you should finish it", if you have learned something in your academic journey, good for you, if you did not, it's a pity but at least you had a salary and even if you did not notice, you contributed to the research apparatus moving forward.

Plus, if you got your PhD under extreme working condition (or unethical, like in Germany where most of the PhDs having fundings issues use their unemployment time to wrap up the thesis) you are contributing to the next PhDs undergoing the same path of pain (you know, whatever you achieve to reach a result become a possible business-as-usual for the next generation of people aiming at the same result).

Stop it, for your well-being and for who is coming after you.

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