Careers intelligence: can stalled PhDs be rehabilitated?

Queen guitarist Brian May completed his PhD after enjoying rock stardom. Jack Grove looks at how doctoral dropouts can land second chances – and supervisors can help

March 14, 2019
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Brian May’s reason for abandoning his PhD in 1974 was unique. The guitarist, then aged 26, had realised that he could not complete his astrophysics research at Imperial College London while also touring with Queen.

But his decision to restart his studies at Imperial 32 years later was less singular. Many PhD candidates pick up their studies, or consider doing so, after an extended break, although few wait as long as Dr May did to return to their PhD, which was awarded in 2007.

With doctoral candidates often taking a new job before writing up is complete, struggling with research or having to deal with illness or family issues, PhDs can be interrupted for many reasons. But the desire to gain a doctorate may remain strong.

However, restarting a PhD after a hiatus poses many challenges for doctoral candidates and their supervisors, said Chris Cowton, professor of financial ethics at the University of Huddersfield, whose paper on “delayed doctorates” was recently published in the International Journal of Management Education.

In it, Professor Cowton reflects on Dr May’s unlikely PhD journey and the revived doctorates of three students under his supervision, one of whom returned to empirical data collected 20 years earlier.

Reviving a PhD using old data – as the Queen guitarist did – is not always possible, acknowledged Professor Cowton. “It is likely, in some disciplines, that the field has moved on,” he told Times Higher Education. “If you are operating in an area where there are big teams of active researchers working, all of your original research questions may have already been answered.” Updating data may also prove “impractical, if not impossible” given the time lapse, he added.

This scenario is, however, less likely in the social sciences where researchers have often collected novel datasets that can still prompt worthwhile discussions, argued Professor Cowton.

“Even if the descriptive data might not be current, the relationships which they describe might have relevance to advancing understanding of an area,” he said. In one case discussed in his paper, a PhD study on NHS management structures started 15 years earlier still had contemporary resonance despite massive organisational and technological changes in the sector.

Modifying the original research question posed is one way to get around the difficulties of working with old data, although this approach can be risky, said Professor Cowton. A thesis can feel “contrived, perhaps even dishonest” if it does not reflect how the research was planned, although such “messiness” in adapting a study is not unusual for research projects, he added.

These issues can, however, be overcome if they are acknowledged and the data’s relevance to current literature is fully set out, Professor Cowton continued. In Dr May’s case, he was required to comment on new zodiacal dust observations made using satellites after 1974, and the links to his own research, before his doctorate was accepted.

Accepting that your PhD’s conclusions might be different, perhaps even more modest, than those you envisaged years earlier is wise, suggested Professor Cowton.

“It might not turn out to be the great PhD you expected to write, but many PhDs turn out this way,” he said, adding that “it probably won’t be as bad as you feared, but it might be the passable PhD you need”.

And doctoral examiners might not be as resistant to the idea of a thesis based on old data as candidates might fear, he said. Many will be used to reviewing for journal papers that have been a long time in writing and revising, and may themselves quote literature referencing older data.

That said, supervisors should check whether doctoral examiners are happy to judge a paper where candidates are focused on mainly old data, Professor Cowton advised. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable to put them on notice that old data is being used and if they have a fundamental objection to this, they can make it clear,” he said.

With concern growing over PhD dropout rates, academics should be more open to the idea of helping students to rehabilitate an interrupted doctorate, Professor Cowton argued. About a third of PhD students in Europe are failing to complete their PhD in six years – with an unknown amount of these stopping altogether, a European Universities Association survey revealed in January.

“We need to recognise that, in some fields, the major part of a doctorate is assembling a decent body of data,” said Professor Cowton, adding that supervisors must be “wise and sufficiently courageous to encourage candidates [to continue] where appropriate”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Reach for the stars: how to revive stalled doctorates

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