By Claire Aitchison
In a world of spiralling credentialism where employers require ever higher qualifications, and institutions compete to recruit and keep doctoral candidates, it’s easy to see how students and supervisors can feel pressured to keep students enrolled. But what if you decide that doctoral study isn’t for you?
Recently I met up with a former student and in conversation she reminisced about her time as a doctoral student. Despite the many challenges she had experienced, she said how much she had enjoyed herself, especially the intellectual stimulation and sense of purpose she had as a doctoral scholar. She told me how she still loved her topic and wished she could have completed. I understood all of that – but then she went on to say she deeply regretted dropping out of her PhD.
This took me by surprise, because, all those years ago, when she contacted me about withdrawing she was so definite and had already made the necessary arrangements with the Grad School. There had been a series of institutional and personal circumstances that had meant she had already, once before, formally withdrawn for an extended period of time. Her life was complicated in a way she couldn’t control and there was scant likelihood this would change in the foreseeable future. She said her mind was made up and I made very little attempt to dissuade her; instead, I opted to support her in the choice she’d made. Now I wondered if I had made the right call.
As we talked further she revealed that at the time she did not have the support of her immediate family, in particular her husband.
I left our coffee date feeling regretful: I wish I had been more insightful at the time. I should have been more inquisitive and pushed her harder to reconsider. Perhaps I could have made a greater effort to find the right support? I was experiencing supervisor guilt. Had I failed? Had she? Had the institution?
I am familiar with another doctoral student who withdrew, let’s call her ‘Jane’. Again, this was an incredibly capable person whose candidature had been disjointed with difficult family circumstances and a very demanding job. Jane hadn’t fully appreciated the demands of research scholarship and struggled with the writing. From the outset she seemed to resent the time it took and never really settled into a routine of reading and writing. She resisted engaging in theory and after 18 months of changing topics and direction, she withdrew. Jane explained that she had come to realise other things were simply more important to her and she wasn’t prepared to spend so much of her time, over so many years, on doctoral study. No regrets.
Both these women had rich, full lives. I respect both enormously as successful, capable individuals contributing to society. One chose to undertake a PhD at the end of her working life: she sought stimulating intellectual engagement, a time to reflect on her professional career and synthesise what she’d learned. The other woman’s career was at an earlier stage, newly blossoming, rewarding and demanding. I suspect her original motivation to undertake a PhD was for job security, however, in the meanwhile she had secured permanency. This, along with an already fulfilling life, made her reassess her priorities: academic scholarship and academic writing did not come easily and were not skills she cared to spend time developing.
Many factors impact the decision to undertake a PhD. Too often advice books focus on issues such as choosing the right university, targeting the best supervisor, focussing the research project, taking prerequisite courses, having the right English language level, access to writing support and so on. Perhaps into this mix we should put aside some time to make more holistic assessments including identity and desire, stage-of-life, personal circumstances and the importance of support networks.
There are no guarantees in life and sometimes circumstances don’t pan out as hoped. In each of the cases I described, even though concerns around writing and scholarship were factors, key drivers for withdrawing were not primarily study-related. Very often, I suspect, neither students nor their families fully appreciate the impact of a parent, partner or child undertaking a PhD. Even for the most capable candidates, doctoral study can make unexpected and extended inroads on family time and personal relationships. For international students studying abroad, these pressures can be particularly onerous (Ali & Kohun, 2007).
The decision to withdraw usually involves both pull and push factors. When something needs to change, withdrawing may be the right thing to do, but then again sometimes a timely conversation or the right kind of help can change everything. We know that support from significant others can make a difference (Mantai & Dowling, 2015; Aitchison and Mowbray 2013) – but so too can adequate prior information so that people sign up for doctoral study with eyes wide open.
There is also the matter of timing. In my experience, if a candidate is very far down the track and reasonably close to completion, the economic and emotional cost of dropping out is likely to outweigh the pain of hanging in to the bitter end.
We need to remember that PhD study isn’t necessarily right for everybody – recognising this, and taking the appropriate action, isn’t failure. What is important is making well-informed and supported decisions, thus minimising poor choices, lifelong regrets and unhappy outcomes. It is in no one’s interests to have people enrolled in years of study, frustrated and resentful – doing (and supervising) doctoral study is hard enough, even for those who love it! Having said that, I do wish to acknowledge that even when it has become apparent that PhD scholarship is the wrong choice, for some, there isn’t really an option to withdraw. And in such circumstances doctoral candidature can be extraordinarily taxing for everyone.
This wee musing fails to cover all the myriad of social, psychological, cultural and writing-related factors that constitute decision-making about undertaking doctoral study, nevertheless, perhaps it speaks into the current silences surrounding the personal challenges and outcomes for those in this very fraught situation.
Does anyone wish to share how their institution goes about helping students make these kinds of difficult decisions? Or perhaps you would like to discuss the implications for supervision when a candidate wishes to, but feels they can’t, drop out?
Aitchison, C. and Mowbray, S. (2013) “Doctoral women: managing emotions, managing doctoral studies”, Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 18 No. 8, pp. 859-870.
Ali, A., & Kohun, F. (2007). Dealing with social isolation to minimize doctoral attrition: A four stage framework. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 2, 33-49.
Manti, L. & Dowling, R. (2015) Supporting the PhD journey: insights from acknowledgements International Journal for Researcher Development, Vol. 6 No. 2, pp.106 – 121
(NB: Aspects of these scenarios have been altered to protect privacy)