To PhD or not to PhD?

View of Bristol Square and the McEwan Hall, Edinburgh University, from the Dugald Stewart Building on a sunny February day
A linguistic overview of the university

In 1997, I abandoned a PhD in mathematics, which I had begun in 1993. It had started to go seriously wrong in 1996, if not earlier, but I persisted for a ridiculously long time with the illusion that I could still finish.

I was completely unaware at the time that a combination of anxiety, depression, gender dysphoria and probable neurodivergence were factors in the breakdown of my PhD, leading to months of lost work and assiduous avoidance of my supervisor. The same factors very nearly led to me dropping out of my first undergraduate degree, a decade earlier – I still have anxiety dreams from that period about collecting post from pigeonholes! And they almost certainly led to me losing my first graduate job too.

So when I had the opportunity to try again for a PhD, I wanted to do things properly. After my undergraduate degree in linguistics, I took two years to decide on a PhD topic that I felt I could tackle. I didn’t want to make the mistake of changing topic after a year like the last time, and I wanted to have a break to recoup my energy.

At first, things went fairly well, though I was disappointed by the office arrangements. In my maths PhD, I was allocated a desk in a room with two or three other postgrads working in the same general area. We all went to the same weekly seminars together. But in linguistics, PhD students were allocated one of two large open-plan offices with hot desks. Hardly anyone else was working in my field, and I couldn’t cope with the noise levels in the office, so I chose to work from home instead, meaning I was quite isolated from other students.

Anyway, things went awry again, with my work going downhill during third year, culminating in a month when I couldn’t focus at all, despite my supervisor having given me a very clear task to do for my PhD that month while she was away.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I did things differently™️ this time. I spoke to my supervisor rather than hiding. I saw my GP and was put on a low dose of citalopram for anxiety. I sought counselling. I came out as trans. I took time off.

A lot of time off, as it happens. At first I went for a three-month interruption, but once I had come out as trans and had other things on my plate, I needed longer, so after a brief return I began a series of consecutive interruptions that will soon have run to the maximum allowable three years.

I now have until the end of July to phase my return, which I hope will be part time, as I need to be able to earn some money to support myself. But if I’m going to apply for the special dispensation needed to do my final year and a bit over two and a bit years, I have to submit a completion plan by the end of May. Bear in mind that I haven’t so much as looked at my PhD for the best part of three years, and it’s nearly the end of April.

So at the moment, struggling as I am to cope with living alone for basically the first time ever, I’m once again deciding whether I should just abandon this enormous, ridiculous project that I’ve started and write it off as a mistake never to be repeated.

Why should I carry on?

Reason 1: to prove (to myself) that I can do it

One big incentive to keep going is the same thing that made me stick it out for so long last time, but amplified by the fact that this is my second chance. I have a deep-seated need to prove that I can accomplish something at this level, and will doubtless always feel a nagging sense of regret if I don’t finish it, particularly as I don’t even have any postgraduate qualifications – unlike many of my PhD cohort who used an MSc as a stepping stone to a PhD. (That option wasn’t financially viable for me.)

I set myself the challenge of doing a PhD, and not finishing it would definitely leave me wondering whether I was ever in principle capable of doing one or not. Doctorates are horribly stressful for most people, I realise, and are probably a really bad way of finding out whether candidates are academically qualified to conduct research or to teach, especially the latter. Perhaps something about my neurology or predisposition to mental ill health is particularly at odds with this kind of assessment. On the other hand, perhaps I’m just not brilliant enough to succeed. (But beware impostor syndrome!)

On a crude level, being awarded a doctorate would validate my research in the same way that being awarded a ‘like’ validates one of my tweets on Twitter, or indeed one of my blog posts. (The difference is only really a matter of degree.)

Reason 2: to avoid letting people down

So many people have invested their energy, their time and their hopes and dreams in my success.

My ex’s desire to be the wife of a doctor is no longer a deciding factor, thankfully. And she is working towards an MSc at the moment. But she certainly put up with a lot from me during the course of my studies.

My parents were, I think, deeply disappointed when I gave up on my first PhD, and were very sceptical when I started this one (indeed, even when I started my last undergraduate degree). I don’t know what they’d think if I abandoned another PhD. It would, in any case, be nice to achieve something for their sake, too, after all they’ve invested in me. I’ve let them down often enough.

Many more friends and acquaintances have taken an interest in how I’m getting on, and it would be hard to tell them that I’d given up.

Of course, the people who have invested most in my PhD (besides me) are those most directly involved: mainly my principal supervisor, but also other academic colleagues and the lovely postgraduate office staff, along with several other people who have supported and encouraged me at various points.

(Thinking about those people, I do wonder what my acknowledgements section for a PhD thesis would look like. I’m aware that most theses mention numerous academics with whom the author has had helpful conversations related to the thesis, but I’ve probably only had about five such conversations in total, apart from discussions with my supervisors. I don’t really do academic networking.)

Reason 3: to keep my university connection

I don’t like change, and having been a student for most of my life, including a total of around 17 years (!) at my current university, I would miss various things about the university (and academia in general to some extent) if I were to have to leave for good.

There’s a kind of sense of belonging (maybe it’s just academic Stockholm syndrome, I don’t know). There are familiar places to hang out, like the university chaplaincy, where I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have a good excuse to be there. There are always seminars and lectures to go to, and I’d miss tutoring to some extent too, even though I haven’t done much of it.

And then there are practical perks of being a student or staff member, such as access to a university library and automatic wifi access at universities and academic-related institutions all over the place (even in my doctor’s surgery!).

I’d miss the people most. Probably more the support staff than the academic staff, to be honest, though.

Reason 4: to get an academic job

I started my PhD with the strong possibility of an academic career(ette) in the back of my mind. I have never been comfortable working in a rigid business environment, and perhaps a rose-tinted view of academia as seen from outside led me to believe that a university is more distinct from a commercial enterprise than it actually is.

The opposite of that restrictive environment, which I enjoyed for ten years or so, is the world of the freelance. But the downside of having spent more time being self-employed than employed is that I’ve rarely earned much and have no savings or pension to speak of. (I do have a student loan, though, which I’m unlikely ever to have to repay.)

So there’s some appeal in having a job that has an element of security and financial compensation but also a reasonable degree of freedom and flexibility. Maybe I’d even be able to retire one day!

However, I’m well aware that academic jobs have their downsides. There seems to be a lot of bureaucracy associated with working as a researcher, and I dread the prospect of constantly having to apply for research grants. The pressure to publish is apparently very real, and as I’ve never published an academic paper or presented at an academic conference, I find that quite scary too.

That’s all assuming I could even get a job. If I finish my PhD, the chances of me getting a postdoc in my field are extraordinarily slim. And even if I could, it would almost certainly entail a move to another city, possibly even another country – something I really don’t want to do. I’ve had enough upheaval, thank you.

Reason 5: to make all the effort worthwhile

If I were entirely rational, I would say that making any additional effort to complete my PhD, no matter how little might be needed (it’s actually quite a lot!), would only make sense if the outcome of doing so were likely to be measurably better than the outcome of doing something else instead – regardless of how much work I have already done.

But I am not entirely rational, and I am as susceptible as anyone else to the sunk-cost fallacy. Having spent nearly three years working on a project, do I want all my efforts to date to have been ‘wasted’?

It’s not just about my own future prospects, of course. If I complete the research that I’ve started, and write it up in a thesis, that may be a sufficiently valuable contribution to linguistic science to justify the extra work. Then again, it may not, and it’s very hard to quantify. Selfishly, I also have no real desire to sacrifice my mental wellbeing to gift the world a slightly better understanding of Gaelic syntax.

3 responses to “To PhD or not to PhD?”

  1. Re point 5, is there any chance you could tidy up bits of the work you’ve already done and submit them as journal articles? That would probably mean the work would be read by more people. That might also have an impact on point 1, re finishing things.

  2. Another idea – might there be any (p/t?) jobs at university that do not require a post-graduate degree but could be interesting?

  3. As someone who took seven years to finish a PhD, when I scrolled past your post, I thought you were wondering about whether to start on a PhD and (before reading anything about you) I was inclined to respond nooooo! Not unless you have a concrete plan to save the word and/or want to work at a university!

    However, if you’re half way done? Then yes, I would very much recommend that you finish. Don’t even devote too more self analysis to answering this question. Part of the reason for my advice is just simply because at this point there is no way out but through.

    I don’t even know what country you’re in. I’m in Australia, and I finished a PhD in literature in 2003. At first, I wouldn’t say that graduating with a doctorate in literature had much benefit at all. It probably made me less employable to begin with. But since about 2008, it’s changed everything. Just having that title opens doors that you didn’t know existed. As a (then) young woman it meant everything in terms of being listened to and being respected. A trans woman has, in many ways, an even bigger mountain to scale before people take her seriously. Just do it. Being Dr Anna Nicholson has a gravitas that can’t be underestimated. It will be hard, but you’ve got this far. Just do it. You can!