The PhD experience: this far, and no further

Five students on how doctoral study changed them and their futures

August 14, 2014

Source: Miles Cole

Who would do a PhD? Who would willingly submit to spending endless hours, over three or four years, in the laboratory or library, racked by self-doubt and money worries, in preparation for a career for which vacancies were never more oversubscribed?

The answer, it seems, is plenty of people. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students obtaining a UK PhD has increased by about 50 per cent over the past 10 years. Nor is there any sign of demand slackening despite research by Vitae, the research career development organisation, which found in 2010 that only 19 per cent of UK PhD holders were working in higher education research roles three and a half years after obtaining their doctorate.

Such statistics are part of the explanation for why the shape of the PhD has been rethought in recent years, with research council studentships being redirected into doctoral training centres that aim to give cohorts of students a range of transferable skills that are applicable to the outside world.

But do doctoral students really feel prepared for life beyond the ivory tower? And how ready are they to embrace it? Here, we speak to five current and former doctoral students from a range of disciplines and universities about why they did their PhDs, what their experience was like and where they see their futures now.

Most set out with more or less concrete ambitions to pursue an academic career. However, the harsh realities of life as an early career researcher mean that most now see their futures elsewhere. But it is also clear from their accounts that the candle of academic ambition is not easily snuffed out, and burns on through many a dark night of the soul.

The academy’s doctoral forge is clearly a searing experience for some, but the flow of both the unsuspecting and the clued-up, drawn by the beacon of knowledge, seems unlikely to dwindle any time soon.

Miles Cole illustration (14 August 2014)

I’ve scratched an intellectual itch, but now industry beckons

“I’m not one of these people who has this vitriolic hatred of academia and never wants to see it ever again,” says Matthew Gamble, who completed a PhD in computer science at the University of Manchester earlier this year.

Nevertheless, Gamble’s doctoral experience has made him extremely wary of pursuing a career in the academy.

He launched himself into doctoral study, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, after the start-up IT company that had employed him for two years post graduation was taken over by global giant IBM, prompting him to rethink his career plans.

His approach was to treat the PhD as just another nine-to-five job, and to make sure that he took time off. However, since his research topic was not one that had previously been defined, he “spent the first year and a half working out what I was doing”.

“The freedom is nice but it also adds an element of worry: am I on the right course? Is this topic the right size for a PhD project? That was tough…I went down all the usual blind alleys and had to backtrack,” he says.

Another onerous task that he was obliged to undertake was fending off collaborators who were intent on taking his project and incorporating it into their own work and publications without sufficiently crediting him.

“Academic work in computer science is becoming more and more collaborative, so there is this tension between collaborating and having to maintain control of your PhD. It almost forces you to resist collaboration to some extent,” he observes.

The highlight of his doctorate was a one-year leave of absence that he took to pursue “kind of related” work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, he is critical of how difficult it was to organise.

“Manchester did not seem to like the idea of it. I think it is related to the fact that the EPSRC is worried when PhDs go over the four-year mark. But my sabbatical was funded through my supervisor’s grant, so my EPSRC funding was stopped and then restarted when I came back,” he explains.

He thinks the four-year time limit “introduces a bit of unnecessary pressure” and contrasts it with the US, where doctoral students have “much more of a chance to take their foot off their core PhD studies and go and do an internship in industry or be a visiting student somewhere else”. He thinks this wider experience makes US PhD students more employable.

But his experience of watching even high-calibre MIT students struggle to find academic roles was sobering.

“I see that [appointments are] not a pure meritocracy and that there are elements of a lottery. There are always elements of politics involved in academia as well.”

Nor is he convinced that the positives of an academic career outweigh the negatives.

“I have a wife who is also career-minded and I am not sure I am willing to sacrifice her career by telling her I need to take any academic role that I can. I recognise that [an academic career has] significant benefits: it is flexible and it is work of the mind, but there are always frustrating aspects, such as the way it is funded and the countless hours that must be wasted on grant applications that never get funded,” he says.

He accepted a 12-month postdoctoral contract in his PhD lab primarily because it was “the path of least resistance” in terms of finding employment. But after that he envisages returning to industry, and is heartened by the value placed on PhDs in computer science by research-active companies such as Google.

“If you had been talking to me six months ago while I was in the process of finishing my thesis, I perhaps would have said different things. But, being able to reflect on it, I am happy that I did my PhD and I am in a better position than I was four and a half years ago – certainly not financially, but mentally – knowing that I have scratched that itch.”

Miles Cole illustration (14 August 2014)

Some days I would sit down on the floor and just cry

“I do not think the PhD caused my depression, but it did trigger it in some way,” says Natalie James, who dropped out of an EPSRC-funded PhD in chemistry at the University of Warwick in 2013.

She knew that doing a doctorate would be hard. But “when people said it was difficult, I thought they meant in terms of working things out and doing the research; it was the emotional and motivational side that felt very hard, and I was not expecting that”.

She never hankered after an academic career: her chief motivation for doing a PhD was a desire to improve her CV and to get research “out of her system”. But there was also an element of “stubbornness”: “I think somebody once told me years ago that I couldn’t do it. I did very well in my master’s project [and] I thought: ‘Why not take it that step further?’ I wanted to prove myself and strive.”

But she found a lack of structure to her days and an absence of feedback and support, even in a shared lab. From the start, she had feelings of anxiety about not being up to the task.

“I was quite hard on myself in terms of thinking that everyone else can do this so I should be able to as well,” she explains. “The fear of failure became paralysing to the point that I just would not go to work. No one was really monitoring my attendance, so that made it quite easy. But that then exacerbated the problem because I was not making as much progress as I had hoped.”

Eventually, she became clinically depressed. “There were days when I would have to sit down on the floor and just cry. I would think: ‘I want this PhD, I signed up to it for a reason, why is this so difficult?’”

It was not until it became clear to her that her lack of results meant that obtaining a PhD would be impossible even if she pulled out all the stops that she approached her supervisor – who acknowledged that he “didn’t really do emotion very well” – about her problems.

“He asked me what he could do, but that was not a question at the time that I could really answer, so that was a difficult situation to be in,” she says. “I’ve realised academics don’t really have as many social skills as [other people]. Their skills lie in their intelligence and their passion for the subject and maybe not so much in the management of the people, which is actually what a PhD supervisor should be doing.”

Nor did her lab mates offer much comfort. Her supervisor helped her to tell them about her condition, but no one ever mentioned it again.

“I don’t know whether it was [because of] a lack of interest; more likely it was [due to] a fear of upsetting me…That is a common problem with mental illness: people do not know how to start a conversation about it…When I did manage to get into the lab on some days, it was almost like everyone thought: ‘She is here; she can just carry on [by herself].’ No one ever acknowledged what a massive achievement it was to get up, get showered, get dressed, get out of the house and walk in that door to the lab,” she says.

Despite everything, she found it very difficult to let go of her PhD. She was given the option of either taking time off or writing up what she had done for a master’s degree instead. But even the thought of doing that “still makes my heart pound and makes me feel sick”. So, two and a half years in, she threw in the towel.

“It was associated with such a bad time in my life, I just thought I want to close that door now and cut my losses. As soon as I had made the decision to leave, I felt a weight lifted immediately,” she says.

Warwick’s “fantastic” counselling service helped her to realise that her dropping out was not due to any failure by the department to treat her sensitively enough, but happened because “the PhD was the wrong decision for me in the first place”.

She now works in administration at Warwick. Despite her regrets about having done a PhD given the consequences for her mental health, she acknowledges that it improved both her understanding of higher education and her budgeting and project management skills. More than a year on, she is still on medication but is thinking of stopping, noting that “things have been going well for me for a little while”.

She believes that efforts to encourage more communication between naturally competitive PhD students about the gritty reality of doctoral study would make a big difference – especially for students like her.

“It would be really great if you could just go into the lab and say: ‘This is really difficult’, or ‘God, it was hard to get here today’, or ‘This piece of research is not going well and I’m just really fed up with it and I don’t know what to do next’. Maybe people wouldn’t have answers, but just knowing that you are not alone [would be a comfort].”

Miles Cole illustration (14 August 2014)

I didn’t expect the isolation or the need to self-promote

“I got to a point with my PhD where I got really frustrated with it,” admits Lisa Ironside, who is three years into a doctorate in economics, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, at Keele University.

She had always thought that she wanted to stay in the academy without being entirely sure. “I’ve always found the teaching side interesting, and I decided that I didn’t want to do secondary school teaching and doing the research alongside teaching appealed to me.”

But even though she was interested in her research into the timing of retirement, she “never had quite the same connection with it” as she did with teaching. She enjoyed giving tutorials – which she has done every semester since beginning her PhD – but was surprised by how alone she felt as a researcher.

“I met some great people and my supervisors were very supportive, but it was more intense than I realised it would be,” she says. Although the university provides opportunities for PhD students to socialise with peers, projects remain very much individually focused: “I don’t think I was quite prepared for how isolating that [would be].”

Ironside had always been aware that competition for academic jobs was fierce, but she had not known “how much self-promotion you need to do in terms of networking and conference attendance. This is not something that comes naturally to me and is not something I necessarily engage with.”

Her lack of publications, conference experience and presence on social networks means that, in her view, it would be hard for her to secure a postdoctoral research position even if she wanted to. And although she would be in a stronger position to apply for a teaching-only position, she recognises that they are relatively rare.

Her interest in teaching dovetails with her interest in student welfare, and she even spent time as a resident tutor on Keele’s campus. This is why, when the presidency of the university’s postgraduate association – a 12-month sabbatical position – came up for election at the end of her third year, she was driven to apply both to pursue her interest in welfare and to give herself a break from her PhD.

During her presidency – which allowed her to implement a scheme whereby new PhD students are mentored by existing ones to “let them know they are not alone” – her “back-up plan” to work in finance became “cemented”. Although she does not rule out returning to the academy, her immediate ambition, once she has written up her thesis, is to use her research skills in the business world – perhaps in relation to pensions.

She believes her PhD experience has developed her skills in areas such as data analysis, writing and presentation. Nevertheless, she wishes she had been more aware, before she began, of all the pitfalls that lay ahead, such as the need to undertake several 12-month postdoctoral contracts before a permanent academic job becomes a realistic possibility.

“I’m in the position now where I would quite like to settle down somewhere,” she says. “In hindsight, doing the PhD has been really good and beneficial for me, but I think if I had had all the information up front I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Miles Cole illustration (14 August 2014)

Despite setbacks and a plan B, I have to remain optimistic

“To put it in a romantic way, after about a week at university when I was 18, I just said to myself: ‘This is where I want to be; this is me doing what I want to do.’ So I was working at trying to build an academic career from that point on.”

Nevertheless, it was not until Richard Thomas Gough had worked as a secondary school and further education teacher for six years that he took the plunge and enrolled for a PhD in English at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2011.

“I thought: ‘The job market is going to be [poor] for a few years; hopefully by the time I have submitted my thesis we’ll be on the other side of it,’” he says.

Gough secured a career development loan to fund his doctorate, but his problems did not end there: several months later, payments had not begun and the university “started to get upset that it had not had any money”.

“It was a recurring saga,” he says. “It was stressful because I would think everything was fine and then I would get an angry email or phone call about it. Sometimes I would not [even] get that and things would just stop working.” He thinks that the financial strains that afflict many humanities students without studentships is one of the reasons why it now typically takes four years rather than three to complete a PhD.

Intellectual impasses are also as great a peril as he had feared: “I went into [my PhD] with my eyes open. But knowing unpleasant things are going to happen doesn’t help. You do reach an impasse when you are trying to work [but] you don’t know what to do. That is so frustrating. You reach the end of your second year and if you are doing it right, you are the expert. So if you do not solve the problem, no one can. The best anybody else can do is offer you a different perspective. It is a lot of pressure.”

After three years of graft, and with a thesis plan done, Gough feels like he can see the light at the end of the tunnel. He is disappointed, however, by the lack of integration of PhD students into his department, which means that they are in the dark about the department’s strategy and impending staff comings and goings. And he is working on a “plan B” to go into publishing. But leaving the academy would be “very demoralising and quite upsetting”, and he remains determined to do what he can to remain there. He hasn’t had any interviews yet, but nor has he applied for many permanent positions.

“I have to remain optimistic because I cannot do anything else really. [But] I have been pleasantly surprised by the past six months and I have seen that there have been quite a few positions available…I have had good career advice from my supervisor and [other academics] and they haven’t been negative about the idea, so I still have the belief that it can be done.”

He is also sceptical about some of the scare stories he has heard regarding the difficulty of securing an academic job, noting that, in his experience, doctoral students who decide they do not want an academic career after all tend not to finish their theses, rather than “stalling in the job market”.

He thinks that a lot of the “naysaying” and sobering statistics come from the US: “I’ve no idea what proportion of people [in the UK] don’t get academic jobs,” he says.

“But it is one of those merry-go-rounds that we need to start preparing [PhD students] better to do other things, rather than just being academics. I don’t know about that. I think the point of doing a PhD is to train yourself to do research. You might not want to do research in higher education, but research is research. I’d be perfectly happy working in a thinktank, but I just don’t think there is much application for an expert in 18th-century education in the average thinktank.”

Miles Cole illustration (14 August 2014)

I thought I lacked the temperament, the workload really built up and I concluded it was not worth it

“I had not really thought about the long-term prospects of working in academia, but I had always imagined myself being in a lab doing experiments,” says Emma Lawrence, who completed a PhD in immunology at the University of Manchester in the autumn of 2012. “I enjoyed learning, and I thought [academic science] would be a job where you would be finding things out that other people didn’t know.”

So when the lab in which she did her final-year undergraduate project advertised for a student, she didn’t hesitate to apply. And, armed with a studentship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, she soon embarked on a doctorate.

“People said that if I wanted to work in a lab then it was best to do a PhD and work your way up; otherwise you’d just be stuck at technician level,” she explains.

But she soon began to have her doubts about whether the academy was really for her. For one thing, she met lots of postdocs who “had been in the same position for a long time and were not going to move up. I did not want to be one of those.” She was also put off by the length of time it took to secure a “safe” academic position and the thought that, even then, academic life “would always be a struggle”.

She also found a lot of the experiments she was doing to be “quite menial”, and felt that she “could be doing something more interesting”. In addition, she resented the element of luck involved in securing the high-profile papers on which academic progression relies: “Potentially, people could work hard, be lucky enough to get positive data and get good publications, in contrast to someone who could work really hard, get loads of negative data and then not get the publications.”

The bad days hit her hard: “It is the kind of job that you put your heart and soul into. It is like your baby, and if something does not go well it brings you down personally…Sometimes I think I am being quite bitter because my friends went through the same and they do not have these negative feelings. But that is why I thought I did not have the right temperament for [a career in the academy].”

It was only towards the end of the second year, as her workload “really built up”, that she finally concluded that it was just “not worth it”. Even then, the decision to leave the lab was not a quick or easy one.

“I feel like you are so institutionalised into that way of life that it is hard to imagine yourself doing something else. I was really focused on getting [my PhD] done, so I didn’t put any thought into what I wanted to do [after that],” she says.

A trip to Ecuador to establish a collaboration, plus the prospect of an academic paper, made her wobble in her decision to leave, and it was not until after a post-PhD period of working in an office job and travelling that she made her final choice. And she admits that she will always wonder how her life might have been different if she had decided to stay.

She also can’t help feeling that she has let people down, not least her supervisor. She rebuffed his efforts to talk to her about remaining at the bench because she “felt awkward” on account of having become “so negative about it all. It was not his fault, he was a good supervisor.”

She admits that, from a certain perspective, she could be seen to have failed, or to have given up. “But a lot of people go on to do a postdoc because they do not know what they do want to do. That is the easy option. Part of why I did not want to do a postdoc was that I did not want to just fall into the next step if it was not what I wanted.”

She has now secured a position as a project manager at Imperial College London, for which her PhD was a key factor.

“At times when I was in the middle of it I did regret doing a PhD,” she says. “But it has definitely shaped who I am and taught me other things beside science.”

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Reader's comments (4)

Interesting article.
What was absent from this article was an experience from the Visual Arts or Creative Arts, sure English is there however the Elephant in the room 'the Creative PhD' now dictates & effectively directs academic structuring of disciplines such as Visual Art (in all its manifestations) which is very disturbing. In UK the merger of Art Schools within Uni sector or as Universities in their own right (UAL) are new phenomena. The imposition of such wholly bogus academic justification (the PhD) as the defining criteria for those who may teach within the creative arts is fundamentally flawed. What are being generated through research funded models of academic teaching & learning are now nothing more than good 'lab rats' able to comply with funding criteria, write proposals which may attract funding & create bland & vacuous outcomes. Sadly the cancer has now been adopted globally.
Thanks for the interesting article. I appreciate reading the stories. It would have been more balanced, however, to include women who completed their PhD.
It is a good thing PhD students can talk about the bad side of research life. I'm a computational PhD student at Birmingham and it has been a lonely and hard-working ordeal. I am surrounded by experimentalists and lack support from my supervisor. If I'd have known it would be this emotionally draining, I wouldn't have done it. There have been some positives in terms of me gaining research skills. I hope it will help me in getting into the real world of industry but I'm not sure. I'm at the point where I'm too far in to quit, can't wait to get it done with and move on out of academia.