We hear a lot these days about people quitting the PhD – they have institutional difficulties, experience appalling discrimination, have serious supervision troubles, struggle with funding. These are dreadful experiences and we do need to hear about them. We also hear quite a lot about how hard the PhD is and the struggles to get finished. I don’t want to dismiss any of this discussion. It’s all important, right and necessary. However, I worry that the narratives about the awful sometimes outweigh the more optimistic. I do think that maybe we need to hear more about what makes people hang in and what helps them finish.
Now I need to say here and now that I don’t think that starting a PhD and not finishing is necessarily a problem. I’ve seen people who didn’t need the PhD for their careers, and in the end couldn’t justify the amount of time and energy it was taking. And I’ve seen people who were interested in their topic but were ultimately much more interested in doing other things. They tried the PhD and it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. It just wasn’t for them. There’s nothing wrong with this in my view.
But I’m probably not a very good person to talk to about hanging in, because I am one of those nauseating people who loved their PhD and finished in record time. Yes it wasn’t easy, but it was the kind of intellectual work that suited me. But I’ve worked with a lot of people since then who haven’t been so lucky, and talked to a lot more. So I wanted to kick off a discussion about hanging in with a bit of reflection on some of those experiences.
Three new Doctors I’ve worked with will graduate this summer term. They have things in common, besides having me as a supervisor. Two of them are busy head-teachers with young children, and did their doctorates part time. The other is a former head-teacher and did her PhD full time, but it took longer than she or I or the university wanted. But I can immediately recollect times when they were all close to giving up. But they didn’t. Why?
My first guess is that they all wanted the PhD. They wanted to be Doctor. They really wanted it. This strong desire motivated them when times got tough. In the end, nothing else got in the way. Despite jobs, families, life, the achievement of the PhD was seen as crucially important. I recognize this because getting the PhD was also important to me.
This wanting was matched, it seems to me in the case of these three Doctors, by a refusal to give up. These Doctors didn’t see themselves as non-finishers, as quitters. It would be more acceptable to fail by not being good enough, than to fail because you’d just given up. You had to try.
Two of the three had great tenacity. When the going got tough, as the cliché goes, they persevered. Yes, there were times of doubt. Yes, there were times when it seemed impossible. But it really was a case of one thing at a time, crossing each one off the list, gradually moving closer to the end. They were able to focus on the immediate things that needed to be done, in order to manage what seemed like the almost impossibly long process. They were able to plan, to formulate a strategy for going on.
Two were also very decisive – during their doctorates they both reached a point of real crisis when they could have given up, and this seemed like the logical thing to do, but they just decided that they wouldn’t. This is the kind of resolute decision-making that underpins going cold turkey on smoking. You decide and then you do it. And we know that not everyone can do this. But in these two cases, a strong sense of agency and efficacy underpinned their decision-making. They also had people around them who they could rely on to talk through what hanging in might mean. These two also knew that if they really decided they’d do it, because this was a pattern in their lives. They were tough–minded people. Now just deciding and doing it is not the only way to finish a PhD, and it only works for some people – but of course it does work for some people. And it may just be the only way out of a really desperate crunch, that actual point where you feel that it’s literally now or never.
Of course this is not all that matters in hanging in. Context is critically important, not everything is in the doctoral researcher’s control – but the researcher, their actions and their sense of identity and agency are still important. So, given this, and given that these are just three examples, is there anything else you would add to hanging in besides desire, refusing to fail, tenacity and decisiveness? I’m happy to compile answers and suggestions or to host guest posts on the topic, because I really do think we need to talk more about the ways in which people do do the PhD and succeed.