When I started my PhD, I expected the next three or four years would follow a well-trodden path. I would study my chosen topic, keep going until I got some results, and – once the work was good enough – I’d publish a paper. Along the way I’d get more ideas and become more independent, hopefully repeating this process once or twice more until I had enough content for a thesis worthy of a doctorate.

But it didn’t occur to me to ask: what happens if something goes wrong?

Given that I’m writing this article, it is perhaps unsurprising that something did go wrong for me. You might think it should be perfectly possible to manage the problems you encounter during a PhD – so why did these obstacles prove to be some of the most difficult times in my life?

Unfortunately, shortly after I started my PhD in astrophysics in September 2019, two major events shook the world. First, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a horrendous time for everyone in many ways. I was barely six months into my PhD when the UK went into national lockdown and the academic support systems I relied upon suddenly disappeared or became almost impossible to access.

Then in May 2020 George Floyd was brutally murdered by police in the US. Unfortunately, this demonstration of police violence and systemic racism was not an isolated event. Similar actions happen in the UK, and the sudden wave of stories rightly being put under the spotlight brought to the surface extreme levels of mourning, fear, anger and injustice that made focusing on my research near impossible.

Chaotic thoughts It can be hard to focus when difficulties occur during a PhD, such as research problems, health issues and global events. (Courtesy: iStock/useng)

I was struggling. Around me, my friends and colleagues were able to continue their research and publish papers. But due to a mix of bad luck and personal issues, I could not. I was faced with not enough content, various COVID-related emergencies, and being unable to adapt to the steep learning curve all newcomers have to climb when doing scientific research for the first time. I couldn’t concentrate at all on my work and would often find myself staring into space thinking and feeling nothing in particular, or in a state of what I now realize was anxiety.

All of this left me with no tangible evidence of the first two years of my academic journey. Some horrible and sobering yearly reviews left me flailing for answers. I needed to find out what was wrong with me that meant I was struggling where others were not.

Eventually I found out I had undiagnosed ADHD in addition to the dyslexia I already knew about. To avoid failing my PhD, I needed to get help faster than the National Health Service could provide it, but doing so wiped out my savings and put me into debt, which I’m still trying to pay off. With all this going on, I had to simultaneously manage the deep situational depression I was falling into.

Luckily, the situation is no longer as dire as it was – I started taking medication for my ADHD, which has improved my concentration, and I was able to switch to a new project within the same research group that has been progressing a lot more smoothly. But questions still remain. When will I finish? How do I get enough research for a PhD thesis? I’m in debt, time is running out. What do I do?

In looking for answers in the obvious places – including end-of-year reviews, university counselling and careers services – I’ve had “MPhil” thrown at me a lot. The idea that I should downgrade my ambition and leave university with only a Master’s degree is not only demoralizing, but also doesn’t solve my problem. While an MPhil is the simplest way for the university to get me out of its system without me completely failing, would any other department accept me if I then tried to apply for a PhD again?

An imperfect system

It’s been hard finding out what academia is truly like if things don’t go perfectly. There’s no clarity about what level of research is considered “good enough”, and if an experiment doesn’t work it’s often treated as a failure. Furthermore, if you’re sick or have to take time away for personal reasons, the academic system does not provide the support you need to get through. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this – despite lockdowns and laboratories being inaccessible, PhD extensions were hit and miss, with some being as little as one month.

I should state here that I am critiquing the system in place that we are working under, not the people. In addition to PhD students struggling, many supervisors are snowed under with work – much more than they should be doing and certainly more than they’re being paid for. I know that despite my bad experiences, I would not have made it as far as I have without the compassion and support of my supervisors, as well as my department and friends.

Overall, I want to finish my PhD – the goal of getting a doctorate is one I have had for most of my life and I still wish to achieve it. But while I’m doing research in the field I’m most passionate about, my experience has taken the fun out of science, and I do not plan to stay in academia because it is simply too unpredictable and unstable for me. Contracts are short-term, grants are not guaranteed, null results do not count as successful research, you often have to move around institutions, and the bureaucracy can overshadow the science. I also don’t particularly like teaching, so climbing the academic ladder to become a lecturer wouldn’t make sense for me. When the time comes, I will be looking for a job with lower stakes where I can switch off at the end of the working day and rediscover my love of science.

In the meantime, I’m trying to prepare myself as much as possible for when my funding runs out. For example, I’ve got in touch with my university careers service for help looking for part-time work; I’m dealing with my debt through the charity National Debtline; and I’ve tried to do research in a sustainable way by prioritizing socializing, exercise, eating well, keeping my house clean, and maintaining a good work–life balance. But all the preparation is not enough to remove the frustration and fear that I have for the future.

Not the only one

While searching for answers and help, I discovered something very important – I am not alone. I’ve heard many stories of other students facing similar struggles, and in the process I’ve became more and more confused. Why are null results, which are a completely normal part of science, so taboo that they are rarely mentioned formally, and the only option if they happen is to fail? If research can and does go wrong so often, why is it such a universally bad experience? Why is it so hard to get answers, and why isn’t there a well-established support system in place? Furthermore, of those I’ve spoken to who have had problems, the majority have left or plan to leave academia, which raises the question: are universities losing good researchers because they don’t support them during the early stages of their career?

Seeking help It is important to ask for help if you are having problems during your PhD, whether it’s turning to a friend, supervisor or professional. (Courtesy: iStock/elenabs)

With the sheer number of PhD students who begin every year, a “non-standard” PhD journey is all but guaranteed for many, and a void exists in how to manage this, leaving these students at risk. Unfortunately, I do not have any obvious, clear-cut solutions beyond my own preparations. I’m therefore looking to set up a support group for PhD students who are also struggling with their studies, with the hope that we can help each other and find solutions.

Among the students I’ve contacted since starting this process, three have given me permission to share the problems they’ve had during their PhDs (though two of them wish to remain anonymous because their accounts contain sensitive information). I hope our stories provide some help to those currently going through similar situations, and highlight that these difficult PhD experiences are not unique.

Last-minute changes

Name: Pruthvi Mehta
University: University of Liverpool, UK
Academic stage: 4th year particle-physics PhD student – writing up and nearing deadline
Research area: Improving detection of supernova relic neutrinos

Pandemic problems COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns meant PhD students couldn’t access vital research resources, but extension lengths and funding were varied and often inadequate. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Nadya_Art)

When did things start going wrong?

I had a decent chunk of my thesis written prior to my funding running out, so I thought everything was on track. But then I had the sudden realization that one part of my analysis would be ongoing beyond my funding period because I’d been asked to switch to a new analysis code at the tail end of my third year. COVID-19 also impeded my work as my experiment is in Japan, and communication with colleagues was very limited and face-to-face help unavailable. On top of all this, I had personal circumstances that affected my studies, including chronic pain, mental health issues and family tragedies.

How are you surviving with no funding?

I had to get a part-time job doing teaching and demonstrating for about 20 hours a week. I rely on savings as well, which I only have because I severely restricted expenditure during the first two years of my PhD.

Have you had any help with managing it all?

I’ve had very little to no help. And since coming back from the pandemic and re-entering the office there have been numerous cases of sexual harassment and bullying that the institution has yet to deal with.

Funding wise, I was given a six-month extension because of the pandemic but only three months of it were funded. My original funding arrangement involved three and a half years paid and a six month, unfunded, write-up period, but with the COVID extension not being fully funded, I’ll be working unpaid for longer than originally planned.

Any idea of an end date? Do you know if you’ll have to start paying fees?

Fortunately, I don’t have to pay university fees, but only because I filled out a special form and got it signed off to state that I was writing up my PhD and intending to submit it. One has to wonder why this is not automatically done instead of having to wrestle with admin.

I know when my current admin-set end date is, but nothing has been allocated or made clear to me about safety nets if things go wrong again. What I have heard (from professors within my own department) is that the uncertainty of this period should “make it easier and more likely for a student to want to finish writing up ASAP”.

How do you feel about it all?

Having to juggle chronic pain, mental-health issues and personal family-related tragedies during COVID, as well as difficult situations stemming from my own place of work, has made finishing up difficult. The idea that being unfunded should motivate students to write faster and finish quicker – something I’ve heard from people who are supposed to be guiding and helping me – has made me sick to my stomach and very angry. No-one should have to do any unpaid labour of any kind, especially the mentally challenging and tough labour of finishing the highest educational qualification available on the planet.

Have you heard other stories of similar situations?

While searching for help – whether for mental health, chronic pain or funding – I saw very little regarding solutions. Mostly it was just a litany of articles detailing other former PhD students suffering the same issues. One has to wonder why nothing has been done despite the mountain of evidence showing how poorly PhDs are funded in the UK, and how terribly the mental and physical wellbeing of students are treated.

Do you have any advice for other students?

Ultimately it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of the student to improve the system they are suffering under. It is up to those in power to improve the system – we’re not the ones wielding the funding. Having said that, connecting with other students is key. For instance, Karel Green is setting up a support group for PhD students in the UK who are or have been struggling during their time in academia. And as always, join your student union!

What are your future plans?

As of yet, I’m pretty undecided. I do really like research, but the environment and the tenuous nature of postdocs is turning me against it. Outside of academia I’m interested in science policy and science writing – something that will allow me to help others, and improve the academic system and the way research is carried out.


Triple conditions

Name: Anonymous
University: UK institution
Academic stage: 5th year particle-physics PhD student – writing up and past the submission deadline
Research area: Particle cosmology

Stress, anxiety and burnout PhD students often have to push themselves to their limits to achieve their doctorate, which can have negative health impacts. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Buravleva stock)

When did things start going wrong?

There wasn’t a specific moment, but three particular events stand out.

First, there was the 2020 lockdown. My flatmates at the time were in the process of moving out, and my new flatmates decided to delay moving in due to the pandemic. The effect of isolating, alone, for six months had a profound impact on my mental health. Looking back at my lab book and GitHub contributions, you can practically see my productivity nosediving during this period, and bouncing straight back once people were around again.

The second event was my funding expiring. In our group it is practically unheard of to finish within your funding period, which is typically 3.5 years although four is not uncommon. Even during my first week, older PhD students were warning me not to spend every penny of my stipend as I’d likely need savings to finish. I completed my research more or less as my funding stopped but even then I could see no way I could keep working without pay, certainly not long enough to complete a thesis to satisfaction. I had no choice but to pick up work, and got a full-time job as a programmer in the same city. That was 15 months ago, and although my career has been generally successful, I regret not taking a part-time job instead so as to leave me with more time to write my thesis. Having a second job has left me burnt out, exhausted and unproductive.

Finally, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I spent a month looking after her, and a month organizing the funeral and the will, not to mention trying to support my dad who had just lost the person they thought they’d spend the rest of their life with. Of course, to add to all of that, I’d lost the person I’d have turned to for support during this sort of situation.

How are you surviving with no funding?

A full-time job.

Have you had any help with managing it all?

Yes and no. I can hardly hold anyone else responsible for not helping me through my mental-health struggles during the pandemic because I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. However, my supervisor has been very supportive during the family crisis and is fighting my corner with the university to reduce the late submission fees accordingly. I only got a six-week funded extension due to COVID, and am applying for a further eight-week extension, which will not be funded, to help after losing my mother.

Any idea of an end date? Do you know if you’ll have to start paying fees?

Hopefully I’ll be submitting my thesis very soon. It’s almost in a state where I’m happy with it. Regarding funding, I started building up a debt to the university six months after my original submission date, which was itself three months after my funding ended. It will be paid as a lump sum to them after submission. I try not to think about it, but I am careful to put enough away from my job to cover it each month.

How do you feel about it all?

Honestly, it’s been really hard. My personal life has taken a beating. I see friends maybe once every two months or so. I spend only one evening a week with my partner, with whom I live, although this is as much about her work schedule as mine.

Do you have any advice for other students?

If you can, just bite the bullet and use savings to finish. If that’s impossible find part-time work to pay the bills, otherwise it just hangs over you forever.

What are your future plans?

I’d like to get a dog at some point.


Ignorance is bliss?

Name: Anonymous
University: UK institution
Academic stage: Recently graduated with a PhD in particle physics – submitted five months after funding ended
Research area: Particle cosmology 

Daunting deadlines PhDs are inherently stressful experiences, with the threat of funding ending looming overhead. (Courtesy: iStock/nadia_bormotova)

When did things start going wrong?

In general, I think my PhD started off on the wrong foot, and then problems built up and forced me to go beyond my planned degree time.

While I didn’t have bad supervisors, I lacked the necessary support from them to really flourish in academia. They certainly had a “hands-off” approach, and throughout my entire PhD I didn’t have the guidance that I needed. I didn’t do as many talks as I should have; I didn’t attend enough conferences; I mostly stayed on one project; and I didn’t do enough networking. All this culminated in me being ill-equipped for writing a thesis and lacking in my actual research. I remember being jealous of fellow students who had more “hands-on” supervisors.

So when it came down to actually writing, I simply didn’t have enough work. One of my supervisors assisted me with more research, but it meant I was writing and researching at the same time. At this point I was already two months over my funding end date, but this really delayed submitting even more.

During this time, I realized that my background knowledge was seriously lacking. I think this also stemmed from not having as much guidance as I wanted or needed at the start of my PhD. For the most part I acted a bit like a calculation monkey, just doing maths for datasets rather than actual analysis and drawing conclusions – which in all fairness I enjoyed. But it left me unprepared for the challenges of the thesis. This further added to the delay, and the extra background reading that I did showed me the holes in my research methods and work. This only left me feeling more demotivated about my thesis, as I was worried that my work was not good enough to pass my viva.

In all fairness, could I have had a bit more initiative to seek out opportunities myself? Probably. But the lack of support towards the start just did not set me up for a successful academic career.

How did you survive with no funding?

I managed to save some money that I could live off, at least for a couple of months after my funding ended. However, I didn’t have the money to continue to live near the university after that, so I had to move back in with my parents. Additionally, I had to take out some savings to tide me over and pay for the deposit on my next house when I started working. Overall, I’m quite lucky in that I had savings I could dip into and my parents had space for me to stay with them, so I didn’t struggle too much in this aspect. But I would have preferred to finish closer to the end of my funding period, of course.

Did you have any help managing these issues?

Not really. I kept telling myself “this is how it has to be”. I had a bad start with my PhD, so I was already in a bit of a hole. My supervisor really was helpful with advice, but I did feel like I had to tackle it all on my own at this point.

How did the end date compare with what you initially thought it would be? Did you know how long you would be funded and unfunded for?

I had always planned to go over my funded period by a couple of months, so in a sense I had a self-imposed end date. In the end, I handed in my completed thesis to be examined about five months after my funded end date, well after my self-imposed deadline but thankfully this was about a month before my final hand-in deadline (after which I would have to pay extra fees to continue my thesis writing). 

In terms of whether I knew how long I would be funded and unfunded for, I was well aware of all the deadlines – as I said, I planned to go over my funding period while writing anyway. But what I didn’t quite realize was how long the process of writing would take, or what kind of work I needed to put into it. I don’t think I was fully made aware of it either, or at least there wasn’t much urgency from my supervisors. This added to the stress of it all, as I felt like I was a complete failure for going over my self-imposed deadline.

How do you feel about it all?

In terms of paid work and other struggles, I was mostly fine. But the actual writing period made me feel completely hollow. It made me feel like all of the research I had done was terrible and not even worth doing for those three years. There was also the anxiety of not finishing on time and going past my hand-in date, or not passing. I just felt completely awful and sick to my stomach because of the work. Overall, my mental health remained steady as most other aspects of my life were good, but writing that thesis was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was the most mentally challenging piece of work I’ve ever completed and not in a good way.

Do you have any advice for other students?

It feels hard to do so but take every opportunity to learn and grow throughout the PhD. And be proactive when it comes to asking for help with supervisors, especially in relation to networking, organizing talks and finding conferences to attend. Finally, be more vocal to supervisors if they’re not offering the support you need. They only want you to do well, so it’s not like you’re a failure for asking for help. Everyone’s different and a PhD is incredibly mentally challenging, so you shouldn’t be expected to have all the answers.

Do you have any future plans?

Working in tech is my plan, but I was 50:50 about going into academia. Even though thesis writing was a bad experience, it hadn’t put me off. In the end, I decided against staying because I didn’t think my PhD research really prepared me to become a postdoc. I feel I just don’t know enough and my knowledge is lacking compared to my counterparts. More fundamentally, the life of an academic doesn’t look appealing. The moving around, the volume of work, and the low pay are not things I want out of a job. Finally, I don’t think I’m interested enough in my topic. I enjoyed what I did but compared to my fellow PhD students I don’t have the same level of enthusiasm, which I think you need to carry you through the bad parts.

If you’re going through or faced similar situations in the past, and have any advice or simply wish to vent, please get in touch. I and many others would like to hear from you, even if just to be reassured that we are not struggling alone, e-mail karelgreen1996@gmail.com

The post Stress, overwork and no support: what happens when your PhD funding runs out appeared first on Physics World.

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