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Background

A year ago I gave up on my (first attempt at getting a) PhD because I could not stand the needed time management. I am a mosaic autist but I do live with it without major issues. My only apparent problem is that I get emotional very quickly at anything that goes differently than planned, i.e. I do not like surprises and I recover (emotionally) very slowly from surprises.

Do not get me wrong, I have been often praised for my talks and seminars. I have worked in industry for years and I can live independently alright. The only thing that I always need to do is to plan things in advance, and plan them extremely thorough. I need to admit that questions and answer sessions after a talk are pretty difficult, but I can manage with enough preparation.

I gave up at my first attempt at getting a PhD after a year in. After that time I got so emotionally distressed I could not continue. This happened dues to simple disorganization of the environment I was in, for example:

  • I needed to change office three times during that period;
  • switched (university) email systems two times;
  • all courses for the PhDs were announced with only two days of antecedence;
  • courses were canceled with hours of antecedence if there were not enough people attending;
  • reports were not scheduled, my supervisor literally popped in my office and asked for a report within a week (not once, a couple of times);
  • some (internal) talks were to be prepared on an short (a day or two) notice.

(By "courses" I mean small lectures available to the PhD students as Learning to use the Library or Statistical Methods, and yes they were mandatory)

I understand that a PhD is a training exercise, where one learns to do research. Therefore learning different things, performing talks and writing reports are things that I definitely need to learn over the course of the PhD. I just could not perform any of it with a decent performance because my mind was distressed with things appearing and changing too fast.

I did raise the fact that I need a more stable environment with my supervisor and with the administration. Yet, the only answers I got were along the lines of: If every other PhD student can deal with this you can deal with it too.

I gave up just before my 1 year report. I really wanted to write there:

I did almost no research work because you did not allow me a moment of breathing to do any actual work!

(Of course, I did not write that)


The Question

A year has passed since I gave up on my PhD. Recently a friend of mine which does a PhD in a different institution showed me a programme topic that I would love to work in (a very similar topic to my original PhD).

My question is. Is it common for PhD programmes to be disorganized and everchanging? It is very likely that I will find an unstable environment in the new institution?

My original institution (which I explicitly omit the name here) was within the top 100 of several world rankings. And my (possible) new institution is way below in these rankings. I need to admit that I do not believe in these rankings, but, nevertheless, I am very afraid that my previous endeavor may repeat itself.

This all happens in the UK, in the field of computer security.


Career note: I am not planning to follow an academic career. In the field of computer security it is common to get to a PhD and then work in research labs that perform bug hunting and security analysis. Labs that are not part of academic institutions in any way. It is true that a PhD is not strictly necessary for such positions but it is very common (some 70% of people working in computer security labs do have a PhD), and I would like to advance in that career path.

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    I'm voting to close because I don't think we're in a position to be able to give you good advice about your personal situation. That said, the workload as a PhD, Post-doc and TT professor (if that's what you'd like to do) are very unstructured. Any given week you'll have surprise tasks popping up, unhelpful feedback from your dissertation supervisor or journal referees, or some new problem student to deal with. If those hundreds of little burdens are individually draining or would make you upset, I don't think this is likely to be a good career path. – shane Aug 20 '16 at 1:24
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    Visit the institution, ask around, see if the working environment is better. A lower-ranked institution might be less demanding, but you never know. Also consider studying in another country with different culture. – adipro Aug 20 '16 at 5:36
  • @shane - Hm... I am not really willing to follow an academic career. Computer security is kind of special because it has industry labs where most people do have PhDs. It is an industry career path but it pretty much requires a PhD these days (I cannot tell if it is a good thing or not but it is the reality, as far as I know). I have updated the question a little. – grochmal Aug 20 '16 at 18:40
  • @adipro - That is an idea I had not thought off. Studying in another country with a different culture does seem to be a very good thing to try. Many thanks for that. – grochmal Aug 20 '16 at 18:41
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    I vote for a UK part-time phd! – High GPA Oct 2 '17 at 5:25
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I understand that a PhD is a training exercise, where one learns to do research.

In a way, your misunderstanding is that you think that doing a PhD is strictly training you how to do research. I think it is more accurate to say that a PhD trains you to be an academic - and dealing with this kind of "instability" is part of that, the same as learning to do university teaching, dealing with the administration, networking, presenting at conferences, and all the other things professors do.

As for whether you are likely to see the same issues again in your new PhD, I think they break down into two categories:

I needed to change office three times during that period, switched (university) email systems two times, all courses for the PhDs were announced with only two days of antecedence, courses were canceled with hours of antecedence if there were not enough people attending.

I am sure that many, if not most, universities are better run than that, and I feel you have a good chance of not experiencing that in another university. Even better, since you know somebody in your new PhD programme, you can ask her or him whether any or all of the above examples also happen there.

More problematic are the latter items on the list:

reports were not scheduled, my supervisor literally popped in my office and asked for a report within a week (not once, a couple of times), some (internal) talks were to be prepared on an short (a day or two) notice.

This is exactly how, in my experience, the vast majority of research groups are organized, and if something like an ad hoc report to your supervisor, which is in the grand scheme of things rather trivial, stresses you emotionally, I fear that you will indeed not be very happy in academia. Let me give you some examples from my own PhD:

  • Close to all my thesis meetings were ad hoc. The usual pattern was that I was getting coffee (the machine was next to my advisor's office), and my advisor would "incidentally" come out of his office and ask me how my thesis is coming along. I think I had 3 scheduled meetings with my advisor during my entire PhD.
  • On multiple occasions during my PhD I was at conferences, and my advisor figured out that he could not be in a side meeting that he promised his input for and sent me instead, often with less than half a day of advance notice and no preparation except for a pat on the back. In one or two cases, he even forgot to tell the other meeting participants that he would not be coming, meaning my first order of business was telling them who the heck I am and what I was doing there.
  • My PhD advisor once went to a project review meeting, for which I prepared (parts of) the material for him. Despite asking for it I never heard feedback, so I assumed it would be ok. The night before the meeting, 17:00, when he looked at the material the first time, he discovered that it was not at all what he expected, and I ended up redoing large parts in an all-nighter.

Unfortunately this will also not really change once you rise to higher levels of seniority - I am now a senior postdoc with my own research group to lead, and my work life still consists of plenty of surprises that need to happen right now. Some examples:

  • On the ~ third day of my current job, I was asked to fill in the next day for a lecture unit in a topic I had 0 expertise in because the head of the department had to leave to an urgent meeting.
  • I am currently working on a very important personal grant application that is due in a month. I loudly proclaimed to everybody that cared to listen that I really wanted to focus on this in the next month. Despite, I have been asked to lead an audit for a multi-million dollar software project, been taken to multiple surprise meetings for a transfer project that my department is running, and have been asked to give a one-hour talk next week in a high-profile event that my department is organizing.

(of course, all of the above are exceptions rather than the rule - most days I get to work and do exactly what I planned to do this day; however, I got the gist from you that these kind of unexpected workloads could ruin your concentration for more time than what they actually take)

So, to answer your titular question:

shall I try a second time?

If you have found an industry job that does not lead to this kind of emotional stress, I would suggest you think long and hard before leaving it. I will be personally very surprised if you find academia to your liking, based on what you described.

  • Thanks, that more optimistic than I thought. I forgot to add to the question that I am not trying to enter an academic career (now edited/fixed). It is just that computer security labs (which are industry organizations) more-or-less require the applicants to have PhDs. I cannot judge whether that requirement is sensible or not, it is just something I probably need to go through if I want to work in proper computer security. I am currently working as a contractor because management career paths are a no-go for me. I'd argue that I'm trying to get a PhD as an industry path advancement. – grochmal Aug 20 '16 at 18:47
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My question is. Is it common for PhD programmes to be disorganized and everchanging?

Not as much "disorganized" as much as dynamic, changing, and "academic". The world of academia is very focused on academia. To an average person, it may seem disorganized. I've experienced that getting faculty together is like herding cats.

It is very likely that I will find an unstable environment in the new institution?

It will be "academic". Here's an example. As I was doing my graduate thesis paper, I'd submit it, and the advisor would want a word change, for example from "huge" to "gigantic". I argued with the advisor and another faculty that this wasn't editing or helping just being nit-picky. The other faculty told me to just do it, as getting done is just a series of flaming hoops to jump through. So, I make the change. Next draft wants me to change "gigantic" to "huge". Grr... So, I went through a process like that for a couple of months.

"shall I try a second time?"

"Do or do not, there is no try." This seems fitting. Since a PhD is a long-term commitment, takes a lot of patience, costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time during the term, it is not to be undertaken by an answer on the internet. It is your decision.

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What is your motivation to do a PhD? I guess the only thing you really need a PhD for is an academic career. Otherwise with computer security I don't see how you would benefit having a PhD to the point that it would offset investing all that time and patience.

Furthermore, there are no guarantees that a program that looks fairly structured on the outside and in the current moment won't also turn into a complete mess.

In the end however this is up to you: you need to think of the trade-off in terms of time, salary, stability, and any other factors that influence your satisfaction at the workplace.

  • Heh, actually your username is a good definition of my motivation to a PhD. Career advancement in computer security is mostly into management, which, for the same reasons as the PhD failure is a complete no-go for me. i.e. I was frustrated with the career path. Computer security labs (and exmaple) are the other option for a carer path. Although not related to academic institutions such labs expect people with PhDs, which is what I was (and more-or-less still am) aiming for. – grochmal Aug 21 '16 at 4:22
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    @grochmal: Possible approach for someone not interested in learning how to be a professor (I assume you're already top on the technical track at your current employer, because all more senior positions are in management): 1. Your experience should be able to get you an interview at some of the larger labs, where the leadership roles require PhD but the rank-and-file researchers do not. 2. Prove yourself in that environment, publishing and working your way up as high as you can. 3. Your achievements in that research environment will be as meaningful to the lab you want into as a PhD would be. – Ben Voigt Feb 3 '17 at 0:17
  • @BenVoigt - This should be an answer. It is the only one that notes that there are researchers without a PhD (and yes, there's a good deal of those). Your comment is petty much what I am trying to go towards since the time I posted this question/ – grochmal Feb 3 '17 at 4:47
  • @grochmal: I feel like it's a good answer to your situation, but not to the question you asked. I would not be addressing, even in the slightest, "My question is. Is it common for PhD programmes to be disorganized and everchanging? It is very likely that I will find an unstable environment in the new institution?" If you do ask a question about a career track leading to a prestigious research group with colleagues who hold PhDs, when you don't have one yourself, leave a link and I would write an answer. Note that workplace.stackexchange might be a better site for that question. – Ben Voigt Feb 3 '17 at 4:48
  • @BenVoigt - Damn, you're 100% right. That's what I get from thinking about something I wrote 5 months ago. Many thanks anyway. – grochmal Feb 3 '17 at 4:51
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It is probably a cultural thing. In the Netherlands where I study, everything has to be planned months in advance. I have monthly status meetings with my promotors scheduled year in advance and I have a weekly meetings with my supervisor every week at the same day and time. Courses, lectures or some mini talks/seminars are also usually planned cca 6 to 12 months in advance. Even beers with your colleagues has to be put into your agendas first.

  • It is actually very good to know that that madness is not everywhere. I know where I'm moving to when brexit hits hard :). Thanks. – grochmal Feb 3 '17 at 4:42

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