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So thing aren't going well for me with my PhD and I sort of think I'm not going to get there (hard deadline is September and frankly I think I'm fairly close to having a breakdown). I'm in the UK and the hard deadline is university policy.

How soon should I start looking for work outside academia? How should I go about explaining my (likely) failure?

I'm not sure I know what to do from here.

I don't feel confident about bringing this up with my supervisor. If I did, he would brush it off (he doesn't really get me, I don't think) with something along the lines of "What else are you going to do? Just get on with it.". He has expressed concern about my progress before now. Also, part of the motivation for asking this question is feeling well-researched on this topic prior to having a conversation, which I'm hoping will show my supervisor that I'm serious about it.

If this information is useful I'm based in the UK, I have a pass at Master's level already and a 2:1 BSc in physics and I am in an allied field at the moment.

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    Think about this: An acknowledgment in my doctoral dissertation says, "... Dr. C, who never gave up on me, even when I had given up on myself." – Bob Brown Dec 11 '14 at 17:33
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    In an interview for a job play it up as you realized you are better suited for practical jobs than academia. – Celeritas Dec 12 '14 at 21:58
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    Many people outside academia would think of better of you for leaving the PhD program. If you decide leave, play up your departure as an affirmative choice, not as failure. – JeffE Dec 14 '14 at 18:40
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    If you're so stressed, you might not be able to evaluate your progress. I hear every PhD student goes through some crisis (I certainly did), and many get out of it. – Blaisorblade Dec 15 '14 at 15:03

11 Answers 11

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I am going to answer from a rather different perspective, that of someone who has been involved in technical hiring, the sort of person who is going to be looking at your job application and possibly interviewing you if you go into industry. I'm a retired computer programmer and computer architect, and have spent many hours trying to pick the right people to hire.

I had a colleague who started on a PhD. and decided after a few months that he was not suited to that path, and would do better in industry. That was absolutely no problem.

On the other hand, quitting at this point, or later, in a 4 year project is a potential red flag. It would make me worry that you may throw up your hands and quit a few months before a deadline if the going gets tough, rather than rising to the challenge. That would be a serious negative for most technical jobs. Moreover, even if you think you know what went wrong, why you did not complete the PhD., you would have nothing to show that would give me confidence in your analysis.

On the other hand, suppose you continue with the PhD. through September, putting together the best thesis you can in that time. If it is accepted, great, carry on with the academic path.

If it is rejected, you still have something to show a potential employer. You would need to analyze what went wrong, and understand your strengths and weaknesses. You either need to correct weak areas, or pick a job that plays to your strengths and does not need your weak areas. For example, if your thesis has insufficient original results but is well written and presented, you could apply for jobs where original research is not required, but organizing and presenting technical information is important. There are plenty of those.

In a comment on another answer, you say "my supervisor has had a lot of successful PhD candidates". That means he is both good at picking students, and good at shepherding them through the thesis process.

I think the time to start looking for industry jobs is after the very best thesis you can write by the deadline, taking full advantage of your supervisor's advice and shepherding skills, has been rejected.

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    What sort of jobs require "presenting & organizing technical information" without original research? – Paul Dec 11 '14 at 17:28
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    @Paul: Almost all of them in any technical field outside academia. Think about planning, selecting, and installing a major information system, for example. – Bob Brown Dec 11 '14 at 17:31
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    @Paul In the later stages of my industry career, after about 20 years, I was in jobs where patentable inventions were expected. Before that, just applying ideas I could find in existing books and papers was sufficient. If I had gone the management or technical writing route I would never have been required to produce anything truly original. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 11 '14 at 20:02
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To Pete's brilliant answer I want to add that there is a chance that you are not as bad as you think. There is a lot of people suffering from the "impostor syndrome", and if your supervisor brushes if off it is very possible he has a different perspective, and thinks that you have done enough; but he is not conveying it effectively.

September is ten months away, more than a quarter of your PhD is left. Keep a cool head and don't rush to conclusions.

In case it helps: a friend of mine, also PhD student in the UK, was panicking because he had only six months left and no results. He is now a successful postdoc where he wanted.

  • I really don't think this is the case but I suppose I'm a bit of a pessimist. I could be wrong but regardless, it would be good to know what to do when this seemingly likely eventually comes home to roost. – Reluctant_Linux_User Dec 11 '14 at 13:58
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    You do seem pessimistic. OK so you don't think it likely you will pass. However, don't you want to find out, just so you know? Otherwise it might bug you for years! I'm sure you have done something worthwhile, even if it seems a trivial contribution. If your supervisor is not worried, then it is unlikely you will fail outright. The worst case outcome is probably that the examiners ask you to spend 6-12 months reworking and expanding your work. Is that the end of the world? – P.Windridge Dec 11 '14 at 14:50
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    @P.Windridge The worst case outcome is that having thrown myself at this work for years and sacrificed my wellbeing to trying to get it done, I fail, walk away with nothing and can't get any kind of job afterwards with a record of failure on my back and sink deeper and deeper into depression and never get out of it. The worst that can happen is pretty bad. That said I'm hopeful that I can do better than the worst case scenario I just need help working out how to do that. – Reluctant_Linux_User Dec 11 '14 at 18:47
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    @Reluctant_Linux_User "Failing" at a PhD after doing well enough to get to the final year without being kicked out, and with your supervisor still optimistic, is a very mild form of failure by most standards. I went through my entire industry career without knowing whether I could have got as far as a graduate student as you have already done. So do most people outside the academic world. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 11 '14 at 19:12
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    @Reluctant_Linux_User There are very few things in life that have gone down as bad as I thought they would, and the more I stewed about them the farther off my prediction was. That said, do you have a support network for your emotional wellbeing? I am not a psychologist nor do I play one on TV, is seems like you have some markers for being currently depressed, aside from the stress and worry you are under. With a little perspective... and SLEEP, you might relax more, or at least find your decision easier. – kleineg Dec 11 '14 at 19:15
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Your situation sounds tough. It is also very hard to specifically advise, but let me try to be at least vaguely helpful.

The natural person to talk to about this is indeed your supervisor. You say that he "would brush it off". That doesn't sound like a fully rational way of evaluating the situation to me. Either he will brush it off or he won't: you can't proceed further until you know which it is. Moreover, if you tell a PhD supervisor that you think you will have to drop out of the program and by the way you're fairly close to a breakdown and he brushes you off, then he's in worse shape than you by far. From my safe distance of total ignorance of your situation I am going to guess that if you bring things to him in a sincere and serious way, he is not likely to completely brush you off.

How should I go about explaining my (likely) failure?

I'm sorry, I don't really know. I think explaining why you feel that your failure is likely is plenty for one conversation.

How soon should I start looking for work outside academia?

I think you should process the "likely failure" part before you seriously start looking for work: first find out whether you can still get out with a PhD. (Unless you no longer even want to get a PhD, in which case you should also bring that up with your supervisor and should start working on an immediate exit strategy.)

If you and your supervisor -- or someone who can function as your supervisor if he is really incapable of stepping up to the task -- agree that your failure really is a likely outcome, then at that point you should start looking for outside work. If there is really little or no hope of success, you should start applying for jobs right away and feel free to take a job as soon as it is offered: you have a master's degree, so if you can't get a PhD then there's nothing keeping you there except the financial support you have.

A lot of people drop out of PhD programs for lots of reasons. (In many programs the overall completion rate is less than 50%.) You should speak in terms of leaving the program, not in terms of "failing" it. All that any prospective employer needs to know is that you are deciding to leave the program and the academic track. Try to have the positive spin on that originate in your own mind: if your present path is so unpleasant that continuing on it feels like heading towards a breakdown, won't it be an immensely pleasant relief to do something else? I am not a psychologist, but in my experience the real root of unhappiness is not so much the bad things that you have but the good things that you want and don't have. If you really want to be in a PhD program, you could try starting again somewhere else (maybe someplace where there isn't a hard deadline: that sucks). But it seems more likely that you really want to do something else. What is that something else? Identifying it and experiencing the sensation of moving towards it could make you feel much better.

  • Yes I should think about what else I want to do. It's a bit of a blow to be honest. I've always wanted to be a scientist ever since I can remember I wanted to go into academia but looks like I'm not cut out for it. Maybe I'll carry on until I can think of something else. I suppose that is a very big uncertainty for me that I should try to address. Get a sense of direction, try to think of anything else I want to do with my life. I'm not sure I'm really cut out for it at the moment. Maybe if I just crash and burn and try to pick up the pieces afterwards it won't be any worse than anything else. – Reluctant_Linux_User Dec 11 '14 at 13:52
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    "It's a bit of a blow to be honest." I understand. " I've always wanted to be a scientist ever since I can remember I wanted to go into academia but looks like I'm not cut out for it." It is not at all clear that such a general conclusion is warranted. Definitely consider less drastic options like transferring into a different program or even starting over in a PhD program in a different place and/or scientific sub/field. Also: think about why you want to be a scientist. That will help you decide what you would enjoy and value doing instead. Good luck. – Pete L. Clark Dec 11 '14 at 13:58
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    and, think about whether it is science in general or something specific about the program that is a bad fit. – ako Dec 12 '14 at 8:59
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I did subscribe in order to answer your question. The usual thing that you'll hear is that "it's not that bad, you'll have your Ph. D.". And, might you believe it or not, this is both true and the right ting to hear.

Your advisor has better grasp of what's in the field and the scientific contributions of your work. Trust him. Maybe your thesis won't win you a Nobel prize, but if he's confident it will win you a Ph. D. degree, then this is almost a sure thing.

You tend to compare your work with your own standards or maybe with the wrong people's work (e.g. experienced researchers etc.). Take a broader view of the topic and maybe read some really bad Ph. D. thesis. This will boost your confidence level.

This is not to say that you should lower your own standards, but to get over hopelessness. Then, trust people more experienced than you are (the Ph. D. advisor). And finally, remember that a Ph. D. degree is not there to prove that you are a researcher. It only proves that you are fit to become a researcher. Much more work will be needed.

And... a Ph. D. student is just that: a student. You have your doubts, the name "Ph. D." is quite frightening, but you should keep calm, organize your work, and commit to an effort without desperation.

Stopping the Ph. D. right now, on these grounds, looks for me like a "fuite en avant" (that's French. The best English translation that I did find on the Internet is "unconscious mechanism that causes a person to throw himself/herself into a dreaded danger".) Avoid that and only focus on getting things done.

You are also at a moment of your Ph. D. when much of your work is not yet organized and results might seem inexistent. This is because the work that you did was precisely that: a research work. You did explore many spots, contributions seems lost in the bigger picture, but when you start organizing all those, things will become clearer.

My advice: start writing your results in a document, let's say a draft of your thesis and of your Powerpoint (or LATEX) presentation.

This is of double usefulness:

1) will be helpful to you later, in writing the final version of your thesis 2) the strengths and weaknesses of your work will appear much clearer once you try to integrate your work in an organized presentation. The strengths that you'll see will boost your confidence. The weaknesses are the things you have to address.

Good luck.

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I'd like to offer a completely different perspective. We are about a week away from the winter solstice. Dec 21 will be the shortest day and longest night of the year. Many people, myself included, are strongly influenced by the shortened photoperiod. You've probably heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which can cause depression and disturbances to the sleep cycle. Do you find that you are a lot more energetic and confident in the spring and summer months? If so, then you might wish to read a few articles about SAD.

I have personally found it very helpful to bathe my office in light throughout the day. Using a photographic light meter, I determined that my previously preferred office illumination level was about 100 lux at the surface of my desk. By switching on all of the lights and keeping the window blind open, I was able to increase that to 700-1000 lux, depending upon the weather. I am now keeping my office fully illuminated all day, and I find that my mood and energy level are elevated. I have read that it is equally important to have reduced illumination in the evening hours to ensure a good night's rest.

A very simplistic explanation is that light (and exercise) increase serotonin, which lifts the mood and increases energy levels, while darkness increases melatonin which causes drowsiness. So get as much light as possible in the morning and throughout the day. Take an outdoor walk at midday if possible. And then dim the lights in the evening. Give it a week or two and see if you feel any better.

Also, if you want an easy, economical way to increase your office illumination, purchase a T5 high-output fluorescent light fixture. Each 46" high-output T5 tube emits 5000 lumens. One of those fixtures would probably double the illumination of your office. Three of them would turn your office into an operating theater!

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    Would you care to explain how this answers the question? – scaaahu Dec 14 '14 at 4:14
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    The original post included the phrase "frankly I think I'm fairly close to having a breakdown". A subsequent entry by the original poster included the phrase " I fail...and sink deeper and deeper into depression and never get out of it.". Having worked with numerous PhD candidates in a research setting, these phrases have an all-too-familiar ring. Based on those experiences, and my experience with SAD, I thought my advice might be helpful. – user2979790 Dec 14 '14 at 5:17
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    I see how this could be perceived as tangential, but if clinical depression is the real reason the OP is considering dropping out, that is the problem which needs to be solved. Up here in the sub-arctic, this particular syndrome is a lot more pronounced than in the UK, but whatever the reasons for psychological distress, if they are external to the actual PhD work, they certainly deserve attention; and this answer does not deserve downvotes, IMHO. – tripleee Dec 14 '14 at 10:56
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Short version: This is perfectly normal; don't panic; hold on tight.

As Patricia said, this would be the worst time to drop out, so don't do that.

Your question refers to ‘my probable PhD flop’, but who says ‘probable’? If it's you, I doubt you're the best judge at this point. Many/most PhD students go through something like this, at around this stage, and you're in excellent company. [long list of sample late-PhD worries deleted, in retrospect, on the grounds it's too depressing].

You say your supervisor ‘would brush it off’, not ‘brushed it off’. Try talking to him about how you feel: since you say he's had a lot of successful PhD students, he'll also have had a lot of them having the screaming hab-dabs at about the same stage. This is your first PhD, but it's his n-th, and he's probably OK at spotting any real warning signs. He may or may not be good at being reassuring, but if he's not worried, then you perhaps shouldn't be worried either (and I agree that's easier said than done). No-one doesn't care about whether their PhD students fail. A lot can, and usually does, happen in the last 6–12 months of a PhD, and there are strategies for dealing with problems.

  • Personally, I'd be interested in your list of "sample late-PhD worries". Of course, I'm not trying to complete a PhD. – Faheem Mitha Dec 14 '14 at 15:33
  • Well (folk at this stage should look away now): you know a great deal about very little, which feels like knowing nothing. All your office-mates seem to understand your work, but you don't really understand the details of theirs. At conferences, people are either doing something much more interesting/important, or are doing the same as you, better/sooner. And they seem to give better talks. And you've got to start looking/schmoozing for a job/postdoc. And... all the familiar academic anxieties we're all used to, but they bite baaad at this stage (or was that just me?). – Norman Gray Dec 15 '14 at 14:22
  • Hi Norman. Yes, some of that does seem familiar. Except the "office-mates seem to understand your work" stuff. I never experienced that. Thanks for writing. – Faheem Mitha Dec 15 '14 at 14:49
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Building on the other answers, I'd like to offer the following advice:

Focus on publishing papers, as soon and as well as possible

Let me break down the reasoning:

  • If you don't finish the PhD, but you do have a publication record, you have a better chance of being taken seriously academically. It depends on your location, but there are situations where you will be able to graduate later if you just add to your publications in later jobs. You may not get a postdoc position, but a job as a technician might be enough.
  • In the end nobody will care about the thesis. The publications are what people actually read.
  • As noted before, you are feeling pessimistic. Pessimism is great way to kill your productivity. If your only goal is the big one, you'll be depressed until you actually make it. By setting up smaller, intermediate goals (such as publications), you will rebuild your confidence and positivity step by step.
  • Finally, if you do make the switch to industry, you'll have something to show for your work. You worked as a researcher for four years, and you produced publications. The PhD didn't quite come together, but I don't think you'll need to explain it beyond that. Most likely the interviewer won't know much about academic life, and if you give him a brief, honest answer, they won't really care.
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Do check your university's policy on extensions. It should have one, though financially you may be in a difficult place if you get one. Now is a good time to start thinking about it, though you might not need to apply just yet. Get in touch with the postgrad officer in the student union if there is one - they may have a realistic idea of when extensions are granted.

Within your department/faculty there should be someone with responsibility for graduate students. They may well be more suited to this discussion than your supervisor, and will be well placed to see the big picture.

During my PhD each student was assessed annually by 2 academics who weren't their supervisor. This was a very useful process (though preparing for it felt like a waste of time sometimes). These assessors were similarly able to advise informally on progress. You may not have such a system, and even if you do, it may not work so well for you as it did for me.

It's a little later than typical in your PhD but everyone hits a stage like this, sometimes more than once. You will at some point need to involve your supervisor. Those great results that both you and your supervisor were hoping for after your early successes were always unlikely really -- but the majority of supervisors would have let you know by now if you were well short of the necessary progress.

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Just to be clear, you are talking about a deadline of Sep 2015, right? Perhaps you can elaborate on your current status. What is your situation with your work, do you have a thesis draft? If not, start writing one immediately. If it helps, I spent the last year of my PhD basically freaking out, though I don't think it was obvious to anyone else. I think I did a lot of smiling out of sheer nervousness. I did eventually get a PhD, though. I know other people (friends, acquaintances) who also had a bad time.

Bottom line; lots of people have a rough time in the closing stages of a PhD. Try to stay calm and relaxed. Definitely talk to your adviser. Also, talk to your fellow students. Try doing something else at least part time. You can't work the whole time, and if you try to, you'll spend the time you can't work panicking. I recommend going dancing. Excellent exercise, and as good as anything I've found for taking your mind off things.

For what it is worth, I agree with what the majority are saying here - try to get your PhD if you can. For one thing, you have already spent all this time on it. Second, it seems you are interested in doing research. Maybe it won't work out eventually - nobody can see the future. But the time to give up is not now. Getting a PhD is only the beginning of a research career, unless you are already 70. :-)

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Usually, there is considerable motivation for your adviser to get you successfully through the program. At my university in the Netherlands, a research group would get something like 80,000 euro from the University for each successful PhD candidate. Also, a professor's career will partly be judged on his or her ability to successfully graduate PhD students. So your professor has every reason to take your concerns seriously.

Second, it's important to understand what a hard deadline really means. Again, my experience in the Netherlands was that a PhD student got a 4 year contract at the University. After that you had to either: start as a Post-doc with the understanding you would finish up very soon or move on to a professional career and try to wrap up final papers and the thesis while working. I think less than 50% of PhD students finished within the 4 years. The rest used one of the other two options, including myself. I work with someone who got a PhD in the UK and had a similar experience there, so it seems likely to me that there will be a way for you to get a PhD even if your official time at the university is up. It will be more difficult, but then it will be down to whether you really want it or not. Again, though, it will be in your superviser's interest that you finish your PhD at some point rather than walk away.

  • I have to hand in my thesis inside 4 years and my supervisor has had a lot of successful PhD candidates. If I fail it would have very little effect on him. I don't have to have done my viva and I can do corrections after 4 years but there is a significant deadline that could be completely fatal to my work in September. – Reluctant_Linux_User Dec 11 '14 at 15:40
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    @Reluctant_Linux_User Whether or not it will have any effect on his work is very different from whether or not he will not invest effort in preventing it from happening. No one here answering has a vested interest in you getting your PhD, but none of us want to see you fail to get it. – Compass Dec 11 '14 at 17:04
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In addition to the other answers, it's very likely that your university has some sort of system for providing free counselling/therapy for students. (Try googling for " student counselling".) A counsellor can help you understand to what extent your feelings of failure are based in reality versus (extremely common and normal!) PhD-induced depression, help you find ways to cope with stress/breakdown/feelings of failure, and help you figure out what path is best for you. Helping you cope with these kinds of situations is literally their job -- please take advantage of them!

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