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Dropping out of a PhD programme as an All But Dissertation (ABD) - advice?

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Why bother with a post grad course - waste of time? 17-10-2016
    • Thread Starter

    Hi all. I've been a long time lurker on these forums but this my first post.

    I've been a full time PhD student at a UK university for 4 and a half years now. Things haven't gone so well for me and after a series of extensions, during which I have tried to get my thesis ready for submission, I have decided to temporarily walk away from the ivory tower until I can work things out.

    Issues which have held me back;

    1. A long term health complaint which I take regular medication for, but which evidently needs a small operation to fix which is proving hard to get done on the NHS. It will cost me around £8,000 to get done privately which is not the kind of cash an in-debt PhD student has lying around.

    2. Supervision issues; First supervisor (the reason why I came to this particular university to study on this particular programme) is completely disillusioned with academia, rarely gives proper feedback, has been disinterested in my project from the go, and complains openly about how he wants to leave academia (even recently writing an open "I Quit" letter in a major education publication).

    3. No second supervisor; I changed the focus of my research early on in first year and we agreed to use a different second supervisor for the bureaucratic side of things, but he then left to take a consulting role and I was never allocated a second supervisor. This is partly my fault though as it was made clear that I could find my own second supervisor from within the department.

    4. My transfer from MPhil to PhD at the end of the second year was a bit of a disaster. My research proposal which was signed off by my first and second supervisor was trashed by the internal committee and I had to rewrite taking onboard their criticisms. My supervisor's advice? "write what they want to hear then just do your own thing again after they pass it."

    Because of a combination of all of the above, I really didn't start making headroom with my thesis until the start of 3rd year, and because of these ongoing issues I came to the end of the 4 year limit for full time students (we have a very tight cut off point in the UK for those American PhD students who don't know) without a finished thesis, although things were well on their way.

    I managed to get a series of extensions over the last 8 months due to my medical condition in an attempt to try and put a finished thesis together, but unfortunately a combination of stress and depression has meant that I am still no longer in a position to submit. The only thing that makes me feel good at the moment is the thought of packing everything in yet the thought of walking away from the thesis at such a late stage with nothing has been a major factor in me staying.

    I made the decision to quit this week though and have discussed my options with the head of the PhD programme. They are fully supportive of my decision to leave although they did offer me the following options;

    1. submit for an MPhil. - I'm not keen on this as I would not be able to use the same material to go for a PhD at a later date.

    2. more extensions - again, not so keen as I haven't got very far with the previous ones.

    The reason why I wanted to do a PhD (work in academia) is still valid although having been inside the ivory tower for so long I realise that job prospects are grim at best so have been actively looking for work outside.

    I really feel as though I am making the right decision but it would be interesting to hear from anyone else who has been in this situation. I fully intend to finish the thesis once I get my feet back on the ground and it would be good to hear any positive stories of people who felt that they needed some time out before finishing.

    Rather than dropping out entirely, is there the possibility of going 'off-books' or suspending your registration for a period? A friend of mine did this twice during his PhD, though in his case it was to acquire work experience related to his thesis field. What it meant was that the 'clock' was paused, and a new submission date calculated based on when he resumed after the suspension. You may still have to apply for another extension in order to acquire a new submission date, and then have a further date 'recalculated', but since you have a health problem, could this be an avenue to pursue? You could take some time away from the PhD, but still have the option of coming back, and you could still work on the thesis during the intermission, albeit not as intensively as you would if you were officially on the register. You mention the possibility of coming back eventually when you say you aren't keen on the MPhil idea. This might be a middle path between taking the MPhil & dropping out entirely, but you'd have to check your uni's regs for exact info.

    Ultimately though you have to decide what is best for yourself and your health, both physical and mental. If you really can't stomach the final stages and would genuinely feel ok with walking away, then do it. I totally get where you're coming from in a sense, as I'm in the midst of finishing up myself and it is hard, finding the motivation to write the final sections, edit and so forth. Personally, I don't know if I could walk away when I feel I'm close. But then, I don't have the same circumstances as you, so I can only provide my own viewpoint Best of luck, whichever path you choose!
    • Thread Starter

    Hi gutenberg thanks for the support and suggestions.

    I had thought about the option you suggested (going off the books with a long term suspension) but decided that this approach doesn't really address the supervision issues. I would love for a new supervisor who has a bit more knowledge (and most importantly passion) about my research topic to come in and help me with the writing side of things. I could speak to the head of the PhD programme though and see what they suggest.

    Also, my university has very strict guidelines on submission deadlines and would rather the candidate drop out than issue indefinite suspensions. They are actually trying to push through a "finish in 3 years or we push you out" rule which is ridiculous as it doesn't take into account the differing thesis lengths or requirements between subjects. For example, my thesis (philosophy) will be around 100,000 words once finished whereas my girlfriend got her PhD our of three 10,000 word papers following the scientific PhD by publication route in a different university. Again though, it might be worth it if I speak to the tutor again before formally submitting my withdrawal notification.

    (Original post by phdadios)
    I fully intend to finish the thesis once I get my feet back on the ground and it would be good to hear any positive stories of people who felt that they needed some time out before finishing.
    It's interesting that this is your final thought in your post: the solutions that you've presented all point to wanting to be completely finished with your PhD, and you don't seem to have explored options for "time out" rather than quitting completely. So, I was a little surprised by this end to the post. Do you have plans for how you might finish the project one day? Wouldn't you have to re-apply and start over again if you quit, and is that really better than the other options? (Just throwing out some thoughts that struck me as I read your post).

    I sympathize with the struggle to finish, and with what sound like far from ideal conditions, so I can understand your desire to be out and moving on with something else for a while. You say that you know how crappy the academic job market is, and you also want to be out of academia for a bit; since you are contemplating leaving, I would think really hard about what you want for your career, and whether you can achieve that without finishing your PhD. Would getting the M.Phil open up any possibilities career wise? If you leave with the intention of eventually coming back, are you in danger of putting your career/life on indefinite hold just to finish something that most likely will not get you the academic job that you originally wanted any way?

    Basically, I think leaving properly, without the intention of going back, could be a healthy, smart decision; but, if you'll be haunted by the lingering 'what if,' it might be better to just stick it out. The "I'm leaving for a bit and will go back eventually" option seems to me a half-in, half-out move that could backfire, leaving you with no clean break, and preventing you from fully committing to an alternate career.

    I suspended at just over 2 years in, took a year out, then withdrew when I couldn't find a resolution for the issues with my research (turned out to be outside my control). In hindsight, the year out let me get used to the idea of stopping. By the time I put my withdrawal form in, I was well past caring and very glad to stop. My uni had a central Graduate Support Department who were as much use as a chocolate teapot, but maybe your uni has one which might be of more use? Could be handy just to have someone familiar with the setup, to some bounce ideas off?

    I've come to realise from inside the system, that linking a PhD to a career in academia, is a longshot - in my field, almost to the point of being a red herring. There are far fewer post-doc jobs/opportunities than there are post-docs. The odds of landing one were - for me at least - always slim. And knowing what I know now about working at a uni, I feel like I've had a lucky escape.

    Apart from that, I feel your pain about the transfer. Had pretty much the identical situation, which was compounded by my supervisors subsequently claiming that they hadn't known of my submission plans (although I'd kept their approving replies to my emails where I'd told them all about it).
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