Are you delayed with your PhD?

#60: Are you delayed with your PhD?

Are you having anxieties about handing in your dissertation later than you’re expected to? We encourage you to do something about your delay and never giving yourself and your project up to fate! Instead, elaborate on the reasons that cause your delay and start turning things around!  

Do you sometimes worry about being delayed with your PhD project? Are you afraid that your contract or stipend will run out before you can hand in your dissertation? Are you anxious what will happen to you if you have to take up another job before receiving your PhD? Do you wonder if you’ll ever be able to complete it or whether you will end as an ABD (all but dissertation)? 

All of the above are common thoughts of PhD students who are afraid of handing in their PhD dissertation with a delay. With this blog post, we’d like to mention the most common reasons of a delay and illustrate the consequences. But most of all, we encourage you – by all means – to do something about your delay as soon as you detect it, instead of giving yourself and your project up to fate! We’ve included an amazing worksheet “Identify main reasons for the delay with your PhD” that will help you to detect the reasons why you are, or might be, delayed and what you can do to turn things around. If you want to learn more about how to complete your PhD without delay, or in spite of a delay, sign up to our next free Webinar for PhD candidates.

PhD delay – the facts

Today, PhD graduate programmes and universities often have standardised completion times for a PhD education. That means that as a PhD candidate you are expected to finish within that time period, which often is 3-4 years (but might also be as short as 2 years, or as long as 5 years). A delay happens whenever you need more time to complete your doctorate than you’re officially granted or financed for. There is clearly much variation in how strictly individual countries, universities or graduate programmes handle completion times, and therefore what exactly may happen to you in the event of a delay. 

Completion data from studies that were mainly undertaken between 2008 and 2017 in a range of different countries, all demonstrate that the majority of PhD students take longer than expected (see ESF 2017, HEFCE 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education 2013, US-CGS 2010). While a minor delay of a few weeks and even a few months may seem acceptable given the length of the entire PhD, it is clear that many PhD candidates finish after a longer delay with often serious personal consequences and detrimental effects on their future careers (see van de Schoot R., 2013). 

PhD delay – the consequences

Despite the frequency of delay, there’s an astonishing silence around the issue, and PhD students are often left in limbo to figure out what to do and how to complete their projects. In the more favourable circumstances, your supervisors, the institute or university can grant an extension and make additional funding (often from 3rd party funded projects) available to you. While this is at least securing your momentary livelihood it can well mean that you’ll have to spend the majority of your time on work other than your PhD project and – needless to say – this further prolongs your delay (see van de Schoot R., 2013). 

If you’re less lucky, or you’ve heaped up a longer delay already (and the possibilities for extensions have run dry), you may be left without supervision, without access to offices, facilities or labs, and without financial support. In this situation, PhD candidates are often forced to take up other jobs just to make ends meet. You may have to accept a job below qualification, because you’re indeed missing one crucial thing – your PhD certificate. Your chances of getting a postdoc position without it are slim to zero. And needless to say that under these circumstances (e.g. you are working full time in a job NOT related to your PhD anymore) the chances of ever completing your PhD are dwindling. 

Apart from the obvious material consequences, this of course causes much distress with negative effects on your mental health. In addition to a bruised ego, you may suffer from anxiety, self-doubt, doubts about your abilities, and low self-confidence. 

The right attitude – you can turn this around!

Would you ever want to be in such a situation? “Not over my dead body!” you might say and that’s exactly the right attitude! Because it is wrong to accept that delays are a necessary PhD obstacle! 

Instead, try and spot the signs of delay early on and take the bull by the horns and change the way you work on your PhD, rather than burying your head in the sand! 

  • If you are still in your standard PhD time and a little behind (weeks to a few months) you may be able to catch up entirely (or almost entirely) – so it’s totally worth working on that!
  • If you are significantly behind (let’s say 1/2 a year or more) you can still aim to minimise delay – or at the very least: do not let it grow bigger!
  • If you want to conquer PhD delay, sign up to our next free Webinar ‘The 4 secrets to a successful PhD’.
  • We also suggest you download the worksheet “Identify main reasons for the delay with your PhD” and make changes to how you work on your PhD now: Take stock, drill down on what is causing your delays and find out what needs to change!

Common reasons for delays:

In my PhD course ‘How to complete your PhD successfully’ I always ask my participants why they or other PhD students are delayed, and they list the most common reasons on flip-charts. Over the last decade I heard many ordinary, as well as some hilarious or heartbreaking, stories about why PhD students face delays. The list below is by no means exhaustive, I am just trying to give you an impression of some typical reasons for delays. If you have anything to add to the list, please share it with me at

1. Failed experiments

This includes a long list of mishaps and failures, from wrong or distorted measurements to flawed data. It could be destroyed or damaged samples (e.g. melted ice-cores, organisms that contracted illnesses, or rotten soil) as well as human error (one PhD got wrong data all the way through, because as it turned out much later, he forgot to put a lid (!) on a liquid in his experimental set-up). 

2. Broken equipment or instruments

The list is long here, but the equipment used by PhD students is often rare and sensitive. The need for replicability and reliability of results may mean that one cannot simply replace one instrument or piece of equipment by another, but only by exactly the same one, which might be hard to repair, difficult to get or expensive to replace. Long waiting times for repairs or spare parts are also common, as well as long waiting times for specialist technical staff to undertake maintenance and fix broken parts. 

3. Problems with field campaigns

This ranges from shifts in the political situation in a country where fieldwork should have taken place, to administrative issues and natural hazards. To give you an idea: I had PhD students: 

  1. whose interviews in the end were too dangerous to be carried out (in Nepal), 
  2. who intended to sample snow on a mountain each winter but had 2 out of 3 winters without sufficient snow fall
  3. were on expedition in the Antarctic, but could not take the required number of samples on the ground due to poor weather conditions
  4. could not carry out their planned fieldwork recently due to Covid-19 and the stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions

Additional issues may be: problems with customs to get samples from field campaigns from the country of origin to the country where they will be analysed; denied permission to undertake fieldwork; denied access to data, archives or repositories; or rejected ethical clearance. 

4. Inadequate projects

This includes projects that are too big, too comprehensive, or too ambitious to be carried out in the given time frame. This can be driven by the PhD student’s overly high ambitions, as well as by high and unrealistic expectations from supervisors. 

5. Poor planning

The reason here is that the project was not well thought through. There was a lack of detailed planning for the entire PhD time, wrong time estimates, or wrong assumptions regarding the ability to carry out the sequence of project tasks in the given time frame. 

6. Poor time-management

This often means that the PhD candidate lacks awareness of how scarce time is in a 3-4 year PhD project, has no system in place to spend their research time in the most meaningful way, and lacks skills to organise their work days. There may be problems focusing on project work on a daily basis or working on important tasks, instead of non-important ones, as well as problems with procrastination.  

7. Lack of focus on PhD study

There could be an overall lack of focus on the PhD project itself, for various reasons. E.g. the PhD student loses interest in their main topic and includes other aspects that seem more interesting; or there are difficulties with the PhD work and the candidate looks for distractions. Engagement in side-projects or doing (more than the required) teaching are also happening.

8. Problems with publications or dissertation

This ranges from writing problems and being stuck with dissertation writing to rejected papers or an overly long review process. In particular, many PhD students think they have to wait until they have all data gathered before being able to write on the dissertation, so starting too late t be able to finish the writing process. Requirements for changes or amendments in the dissertation by supervisors or requests to include further chapters may also be among the reasons. See also our blog post “Why you should not leave dissertation writing until the end!”

9. Lack of supervision

Not all supervisors are equally supportive and help PhD candidates work towards timely completion. Lack of guidance in the research process, lack of regular support, as well as lack of timely feedback on drafts of papers or chapters, or requests for additional work are common reasons that contribute to delay. For an overview over standards of good PhD supervision, see our SMART ACADEMICS blog post no. 10

10. Further reasons

It is also important to mention mental health issues, periods of sickness, family issues (think of having to care for close relatives or children or a divorce), parental leaves or educational periods with part-time work if you’re not entitled to these per contract. 

You see, the list is virtually endless. After they brainstorm the reasons, I ask my course participants to assess each item and determine if they have influence on delays or not. The result is simple: participants always end up realising that they actually have influence on the majority of the issues that can cause a delay. Now, this is not the same as saying a delay can be entirely avoided, but with a bit of awareness, clever planning, timely action and, if necessary, course-correction, the delay can be minimised! This is your chance to turn things around! 

Take action – before the moment passes!

It’s never too late to change the way you work on your PhD! There’s always a possibility to make up for lost time, mistakes, accidents, mishaps, and improve. But you need to take action as soon as you realise you might be delayed. Here are a few basic options:

  1. You can make changes to your project for the remaining time, so you can catch up.
  2. You can increase your focus and how you spend your time, and you can change the way you work on your project.
  3. You can change the way you organise the writing process for the remaining time and the rest of your dissertation writing. And you can learn the skills that help you become better in writing if that is an issue for you. 

Never take a delay for granted but always aim to get your PhD done! 

If you want to succeed with your PhD, join our next free Webinar for PhD candidates 

Relevant resources: 


  • European Science Foundation: 2017 Career Tracking Survey of Doctorate Holders. Project Report.HEFCE 2010: Research degree qualification rates. 
  • van de Schoot R, Yerkes MA, Mouw JM, Sonneveld H (2013) What Took Them So Long? Explaining PhD Delays among Doctoral Candidates. PLoSONE 8(7): e68839. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068839
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education (2013). Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much?
  • US Counsel of Graduate Schools. (2010). Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Policies and Practices to Promote Student Success.  Summary here:

More information: 

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Photograph by Andy Beales, at

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