Have you been around PhD students who have worked on their PhDs for many many years? Came across a few who never finished? Well, so did I! Let me tell you my story of how a personal experience with PhD failure led me to teach PhD students how to complete successfully! And how I discovered that PhD success can be learned – and you can pick up the skills as well!
Have you ever come across a PhD student who has been doing a PhD for a long, long time? Or do you know one who gave up altogether? I bet you have – and so have I! My personal experience with cases like this is closely related to my motivation to teach PhD students to complete their PhD successfully. I’ve been doing this work for13+ years already, and I believe if you know what I discovered while doing my own PhD, you’ll understand what motivated me to set up a course to help PhD students deal better with their projects. I want to share with you a story from my own PhD time. This gets to the core of how my entire career developed and the origin of my role as a professional advisor for scientists today. It’ll help you to understand why I am on a mission to help PhD students every day.
And, of course, there’s a bold take-home-message for you in this story as well:
You can learn how to be successful with your PhD! Every PhD student can pick up the skills necessary to deal with their problems and increase the chances of timely and successful completion! But you need to reach out, speak up, and get help from those with experience!
If you want a head-start right now, grab our Expert guide: ‘5 reasons why PhD students delay and how to avoid’ with ample tips on how to avoid PhD misery!
But’ll come back to that at the end of the post anyhow, because by then you’ll likely understand what I mean on a deeper level! So take a moment and listen to my story…
PhD students at Roskilde University, Denmark
Let me start my tale by going back in time, when I was a PhD student myself. In the second year of my PhD, I transferred from Heidelberg University in Germany, to Roskilde University in Denmark. Initially, this was planned as a one year stay abroad, but since working conditions at Roskilde University were so fabulous, I stayed there until the end. I came into a department of five other PhD candidates, making us a group of six altogether. And in case you were wondering, my husband Gunther was also pursuing his PhD at Roskilde University, but in a different PhD programme. We managed to complete at the same time, but it was no easy feat.
So all the others in my group had started the PhD process before me. In contrast to me, they were all employed as PhD students. I had a scholarship, which brought prestige, but with little money attached. Some of the other candidates were financed through a large third-party national research project. I had many reasons to admire them: the exchange they had with other research institutes, the relevance of what they did and their contribution to a bigger research initiative, and also because they were further in the PhD process already. I felt a mixture of excitement and intimidation being around them, and I thought I better step up my game a bit to be able to keep up!
Over the next year, I kept my focus on my project, with one eye on the interesting research they were doing. We had occasional exchanges attending courses together in our PhD programme or talks at the university, or casual chats in the department. We went from loosely followed each others’ progress, to becoming colleagues and friends.
Trine packs up
It then came as a total surprise to me one morning when I arrived at my office in the institute to see Trine, one of the other PhD candidates, clearing out her office and packing everything into boxes. I asked her what was going on and she sat down on one of the boxes and told me that she had quit her PhD and was seeking a job outside academia. After discussions with her supervisor, she had come to the realisation that she would never be able to finish her PhD or produce a dissertation in the remaining months of her contract. While she had clearly made some progress, and done some field work up until then, it was not enough to merit a PhD degree in the end. She had not delimitated her PhD topic clear enough, nor organised her workload and had lost too much time with work that did not contribute to her PhD thesis. Perhaps even more surprising – we had no idea she had been struggling. If anything, she was one of the stars of our department! How had we not known? Could things have been any different if she had reached out?
This came as a real shock to me. She was abandoning her PhD! I’d never even heard of that before, or at least not given it any thought. After all the hard work she had put into it? So many months of reading and studying, gone down the drain? All that empirical work she had done already – and now it would never be completed? And she had everything going for her, funding, a good network and supervisor! I felt so sorry for her and at the same time, I had a twisting feeling in the pit of my stomach: Why did this happen? What were the reasons that this had gone wrong for her?
But the story does not end there, because from our group of six PhD candidates, I was the only one who completed the PhD within the regular time! One other PhD student completed five or six years later, after I had already done a postdoc and worked as a researcher. The other four dropped out one after the other. One of them did remain at the university, working as a technician. But I never would have predicted this outcome at the beginning of my stay at Roskilde.
Why do PhD candidates finish late or drop out?
The shock of that first experience with Trine dropping out stuck with me and never left me again. And when the others followed her, it only compounded my realisation that behind every struggling PhD student, behind each failed project, there is a personal story as well. I thought there must be a way to avoid so much misery and hardship! So much wasted time, energy, and disappointment.
And my experience is far from unique. It’s a serious problem for research institutes and funding agencies on a massive scale that projects are delayed or never get completed at all. While our Roskilde group of six is not representative, we are not alone in our experience of drop-out, so if you want more insight into completion rates, look at ESF 2017, HEFCE 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education 2013, US-CGS 2010.
As an academic, I started to become curious about the reasons why PhD candidates dropped out or finished late. I thought there must be a better way to deal with this! There must be a way to show PhD students how they can complete successfully.
Struggles of PhD students are not unique
Of course, it is normal to struggle with a PhD to some degree and mine was no bed of roses either. Some struggle more, some less, some sooner, some later. For some PhD students, the problems with their projects become so serious that they develop mental health issues and drop out (see Levecque et al. 2017, Hasgall/EUA-CDE 2018, Nature 2019, Scott & Takarangi 2019, Hnatkova/Eurodoc 2019). Why not getting engaged and do something about it? – Check out Eurodoc’s work group ‘Mental health’ . For others it is ‘just’ a temporary struggle with the project, equipment, or a time crunch, where they manage to bounce back and finish their projects. Still, it is often a painful process to sort out all on your own!
What I discovered after investigating the reasons that PhD students struggle, is that their problems are not unique at all! Nearly every PhD candidate experiences the same typical problems over and over again! Rest assured, you are unique, and so is your project, but the struggles that you face are not. People who deal with many PhD students, like experienced PhD supervisors, graduate school coordinators, or advisors who counsel PhD students, will confirm this observation: There are just a handful of problems that nearly every PhD student encounters!
What had made me complete and Trine stop ultimately was not the quality of the research, but how we organised the process of getting our research and PhD work done: it was the difference how we organised our project, how we set goals, how we managed our time. It was not our scientific skills, but a set of crucial complementary skills.
If I’ve piqued your curiosity now, I’ve got you covered: If you want more details on the typical struggles of PhD students, and – even more valuable – very constructive tips how to work through these and improve your own PhD process, get our popular Expert guide: ‘5 reasons why PhD students delay and how to avoid’
But PhD students think they are the only ones …
The fact that there are “typical problems” runs contrary to what most PhD students believe. As a PhD student, you experience your problems on an individual basis, and that’s normal. You think it’s related to your specific project, to the way you set up your research or the way you work. You probably don’t have much of an exchange with other PhD students, and if you do, your struggles with your PhD is nothing you discuss openly. So because you experience your problems as unique to you, you are reluctant to reach out and look for help!
PhD success can be learned
But knowing what the main struggles of PhD candidates are and that they are commonplace means we can do something about it! That is the reason that – as a trained researcher – I started teaching PhD students how to deal with the main challenges they experience in ‘How to complete their PhD successfully’. And for 13+ years I have happily been on a mission to help PhD students and teach them the skills they need to bring their projects to the finish line successfully! Because what makes you successful in the end can be learned – it’s not magic!
What I often hear from PhD students after they attended my course
“I wish I had taken this course earlier in my PhD. It would have saved me so much time . . . “ (PhD student Marine biology)
“I am applying the techniques that I learned in Bärbel’s course every single day! It has changed the way I look at my PhD. I feel so much more in control now.” (PhD student, Aerospace engineering)
“The things I learned in this course are unbelievably motivating and have helped me to forge a way through the problems with my PhD project.” (PhD student, Neuroscience)
“Bärbel’s course was an enlightening experience for me. After the course, I no longer hid from the problems of my PhD, like an ostrich that buries its head in the sand, but I started behaving like a dragon and faced my PhD head on to finish on time! The course reminded me of my true potential and goals in my PhD and in my life!” (PhD student, Immunology)
“This course gave me a completely different perspective on my PhD! It dispelled the myths that the PhD is meant to be a struggle, has to be stressful, is unmanageable, and not compatible with a normal life. I gained the knowledge and skills that a PhD can be made easier with proper techniques and tools in planning, organising, communication and management. I strive for a ‘summa cum laude’ in my PhD and I’d give that mark to the course as well! (PhD student, Archaeology)
Throughout the last decade, I’ve taught several thousand PhD students face-to-face! Help is there! It’s all around you – but you’ve got to make the first step and reach out! Don’t let yourself suffer in silence, reach out to your colleagues, friends or supervisors about your PhD issues so they can lend a helping hand!
You can learn how to be successful in your PhD! Divorce yourself from the idea that you’re the only one who is struggling or the only one who suffers during their PhD. Know that every PhD student can work on their problems and improve things for the better! Start right now: In our Expert guide: ‘5 reasons why PhD students delay and how to avoid’ we’ve a ton of great tips how to start!
And stick with us – because this is exactly what we do: We help PhD students complete their project more easily and successfully! We’ve just made our content calendar for the next few months and there is so much great stuff that we can’t wait to share with you! There are real rewards for PhD students who realise that their problems are not unique and desire to learn how to complete their PhD successfully. It’s not only ok to reach out for help, it’s what smart students do and it’ll make your PhD all the better!
- Expert guide: ‘5 reasons why PhD students delay and how to avoid’
- TRESS ACADEMIC course: Completing your PhD successfully on time
- Audio-file – blogpost no. 39: ‘Why I teach PhD students how to succeed!’
Further helpful resources:
- Smart Academics Blog #2: So you want to finish your PhD on time?
- Smart Academics Blog #4: How to find time for research?
- Smart Academics Blog #10: Good PhD supervision: What you can expect?
- Smart Academics Blog #38: Why you need a publishing strategy
- Smart Academics Blog #41: PhD highs and lows: Bärbel’s experiences
- Smart Academics Blog #48: Lessons learned from the PhD: Gunther’s story
- Smart Academics Blog #100: PhD success stories that motivate!
- Smart Academics Blog #114: PhD-journey with obstacles and happy end!
- Eurodoc’s work group ‘Mental health’
- European Science Foundation: 2017 Career Tracking Survey of Doctorate Holders. Project Report.
- Hasgall, A./EUA-CDE 2018: EUA-CDE explores mental health and wellbeing in doctoral education.
- HEFCE 2010: Research degree qualification rates.
- Hnatkova, E./Eurodoc 2019: Mental Health Issues and Early Career Researchers. Presentation at NICA PhD Master Class, Dubrovnik, Croatia, 1-4 September 2019.
- Nature 2019: Being a PhD student shouldn’t be bad for your health. Nature 569, 307
- Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education (2013). Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much?
- Scott, H., Takarangi, M.K.T. (2019). Measuring PhD students’ Well-being: Are we Seeing the Whole Picture? Student Success, 10 (3), 14-24.
- US Councel of Graduate Schools. (2010). Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Policies and Practices to Promote Student Success. summary here: https://projects.ncsu.edu/grad/about-grad/docs/cgs-phd-completion-project.pdf
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