Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go.

When I was writing my PhD I never thought I’d fail, but I did always worry about whether my work was ‘good enough’. And I did fear the scenario that perhaps one of the committee members would request a million modifications that would go against my ideas, or would be diametrically opposed to comments of the other professors. As is so often the case when you have a number of academics commenting on your work, especially when you are trying to tame a multi-disciplinary project. Yet failed PhDs (not counting the cases in which people actively quit) are extremely rare.

What I have learnt about PhDs going off the rails:

Universities do not want you to fail your PhD. Supervisors don’t want you to fail your PhD. Committee members don’t want you to fail your PhD.

It isn’t about you. It is about them. (Of course!) It reflects badly on them. It reflects badly on the university. It reflects badly on everyone involved. (Though naturally, they will put most of the burden for failing, if the project does need more work, on you if they can. So very classy!)

Also, it is a hell of a lot of work to prove the thesis isn’t where it should be, and committee members are hesitant to take this route… They have other priorities: their own research, most notably.

Take this to heart. It is not in their interest to make you fail.

“Don’t worry too much about your PhD. If you stick around long enough at one point they’ll give it to you.”

This is something a professor said to me, only half-jokingly, when I was in my second year and still very much wrestling with my subject, trying to wrangle it into submission. I was pretty shocked (I’m a perfectionist!), as well as amused, but over the years I have started to appreciate the truth of what he was saying.

When I returned to Florence for my PhD defence a professor complained to me about the people who received a PhD who absolutely definitely shouldn’t have passed. Yet these theses do tend to pass.

This may be a comforting idea: you will get your title. Your PhD will pass. Even if it isn’t absolutely electrifyingly brilliant from the first right through to the last paragraph. Even if there are obvious flaws (which there will be, there always are, and that is perfectly OK. But that’s a different blog post). Getting into the PhD programme is the bigger hurdle compared to finishing the thesis. You’ve already done the most difficult bit.

The disconcerting message though: your PhD may not be that much of a priority for other people. It may feel like your life work; to them, it is something they may simply want off their desk. Within deadlines, preferably. Without too much work or hassle.

Red flags everywhere!

Even if you are in a state where you just don’t care anymore and just want to finish, don’t sell yourself short. Supervisors should be invested in your work, at least to a degree! You need the dialogue, you need the feedback, you need the input, you need the debate. If you have absent supervisors who are not contributing as a mentor, and you are doing it all alone, you need to find others who will help you.

In one way my situation was similar to the one outlined above is I had no-one actively involved, due to circumstances (one of which was that one of my supervisors passed away, the other that I was finishing my PhD long-distance), and it was entirely disorienting. I didn’t know whether my work met certain standards. It did, but it would’ve been nice if someone would have been there to tell me! When I got appointed a new supervisor for the thesis defence specifically, it all turned around. I loved his comments (I really do believe love is the right word here. I was a bit intellectual-love-starved at the time) questions, and criticism, and although he wasn’t an expert in my field, the discussion helped me so much.

It also made me realise how much I had been missing out. If you don’t have much support and interaction, it has to change. Find your people. The people who will challenge and support you. They are out there. They want to hear from you. Go and find them, or let others help you find them.

The part you are responsible for, of course, is to engage with their criticism and work with their suggestions as appropriate. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this process, defining my own choices. Creating and defending my work. It’s the part you have to do, the intellectual part, and it is (hopefully) the satisfying part. (Especially once it’s done!!)

If you skip this, because you are lazy, fed up or out of time or money, and you have supervisors who are also lazy and busy, and don’t care so much, you may end up in a situation where the external examiner gives the thumbs down. That is if you are lucky/ unlucky enough (strike through as appropriate) for them to care enough to do so.

Do you have absent supervisors, and no idea where you stand? The HappyPhD course tackles the problem of how to re-engage, once you’re in a negative spiral of avoidance and neglect. It can be done! As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!