Why do people quit the PhD?

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I’m interupting our usual programming to share with you some research in progress, because I am really interested in hearing what you think of it.

Next week I’ll be at the Quality in Post graduate Research conference (or QPR) the key gathering for research educators in Australia. I’m planning on presenting an analysis of the comments on a blog post written in 2012 by BJ Epstein called “Should you quit your PhD?”. As you can imagine, it has been a popular post; so far it’s been viewed more than 30,000 times. Two years later it continues to get around 100 hits a day and, the time of writing, there were 183 comments.

This is a shed load of data about people’s experiences and thoughts around the subject of quitting the PhD.

I started my analysis by putting the comments in Nvivo to identify themes in order to compare them with what we already know. This helped me with a big methodological problem: how can I know that all the people who said they were PhD students were PhD students? If the results of my content analysis broadly matched with previous findings, I could be more confident that most people who commented have some lived experience of the PhD.

As it turns out, we already know quite a lot about why people quit their PhD. In her 2006 paper, “The Changing Environment for Doctoral Education in Australia”, Margot Pearson summarises prior research, mainly conducted in the United States, and names a complex set of interlocking factors:

  • research mode (full time / part time or movement between the two)
  • structure of the programme
  • dissertation definition
  • advising
  • departmental climate
  • research money
  • type of financial support
  • campus facilities
  • and job market opportunities.

Barbara Lovitt’s interesting book “Leaving the Ivory Tower”, published in 2001, covered similar issues, and, amongst many other interesting findings, identified two key factors in the decision to leave:

  • Pluralistic ignorance”: failing to realise that the problems being experienced are similar to the problems other people are facing. People can then make the mistake of thinking THEY are the problem and ‘leaving in silence’. (BTW – this blog is dedicated to fighting pluralistic ignorance and demonstrating how many common problems and feelings there are amongst the PhD cohort, worldwide)
  • Feeling like you don’t belong to the discipline, or can’t conform to its norms of behaviour. (Lovitts uses Durkheim’s phrase ‘anomie’ to describe this phenomenon).

The reasons for PhD student attrition seem remarkably persistent over time. Ernest Rudd conducted interviews way back in 1978 with research students who had either quit, or had taken a very long time to complete their studies. In his book called “A new look at post graduate failure”, Rudd talks about the following factors:

  • Problems with motivation, including boredom, disenchantment and laziness
  • Injury or Illness
  • Family commitments, including marriage breakdowns
  • Loneliness
  • Lack of University jobs / attraction of a job offer
  • Problems in choice of topic
  • Cross disciplinary research issues (see “Is your PhD a Monster?” for more on this topic)
  • Failed lab work
  • Problems with ‘writing up’.
  • supervision issues (including neglect, incompetence and personality clashes)

As it happens, the result of my first pass through the comments was broadly consistent with the existing literature. In descending order, I found the following themes in my data:

  • Bullying or disinterested supervisors
  • Loss of interest in the research / Lack of internal motivation (essentially drift)
  • Don’t want to be an academic anymore and therefore see no point in continuing. Linked to the worry that PhD might make them ‘unemployable’ outside and wondering if ‘out there’ is better.

Mentioned less often were:

  • Being asked to do extra work to make the project ‘submittable’ (sometimes tied to lack of good formative feedback along the way, but not always).
  • Mounting debt (interestingly, in the two institutions I have worked, this is the most often stated reason for leaving a research degree, perhaps because it’s the most impersonal).
  • Not family / relationship / carer responsibility friendly
  • Desire to change disciplines / topic, but difficulty in doing so
  • Failed lab work
  • Stress / exhaustion / mental health issues – like depression

Mentioned much less often were the following:

  • Loss of supervisors / lack of appropriate supervisors
  • Intellectual isolation
  • Feelings of being trapped or powerless to act
  • Poisonous, competitive research environment
  • having to do work that is not your own – baby sitting, other people’s lab work, supervisor’s busy work.

Given all this, it’s interesting to look at why people say they stay. In the comments I found three main factors:

  • Sunk cost (I’ve got this far, might as well go the whole way)
  • Pressure / expectations of others like family and supportive supervisors
  • Sense of shame at failure

So my content analysis broadly matched the literature and suggested my data set was valid enough, but other than re-affirming what we already know, what else can we learn from this data? The comments are full of shame, blame and largely unspoken tensions. It seems that many people who are entertaining quitting thoughts find it hard to give them voice. It must be easy for a disaffected student to become quite socially isolated. How then, can these stories become a valuable source of knowledge about the PhD experience?

In his book “The wounded story teller” Frank explores how people with cancer talk about their experience of the illness. He identifies three key narratives, which he calls “listening devices”. These narratives, he claims, can help us better understand and respond to the experience of people who are undergoing treatment. The ultimate aim of this better listening is better treatment and more empathetic care giving.

Distressed PhD students certainly in need of empathetic caregiving, from supervisors as well as family and friends. Perhaps some “listening devices” might help? So I went back to my data again, this time asking myself: what sort of story or plot is being told in this comment?

Like Frank, I decided to stick with the three most common narratives I could see, while acknowledging that all the stories people tell are complex ‘hairiball’ stories with many threads. I hashed the multiple narratives together in a diagram which appears on the left. I then tweeted this to see what people in my network thought, and I’m particularly indebted to @katemfd, who is going through some pretty intense cancer treatment herself (and writing about it beautifully), for entering into a thoughtful discussion with me about it.

Here’s the tentative list of narratives I came up with after this conversation:

The resilience narrative

This is when people talk about the PhD as a journey or trial which can, or must, be overcome through the diligent personal effort.

I think this story line is what Frank would call a ‘preferred narrative”: many of the comments either follow reslilience narrative, or react / reject it in some way. A preferred narrative acts as a way of ‘disciplining’ people’s actions – in this case, to attempt to keep a student in the PhD, regardless of whether or not this is the best choice for them.

You’ll note, if you read through the comments, that many people who have passed their PhD are telling those who are thinking of quitting that “pushing on” is worth it. Many commenters, who seem on the verge of quitting, have ‘internalised’ the resilience narrative in their own self talk, telling us they intend to carry on, even though they are hating it.

People who cannot, or will not, ‘buy in’ to the resilience narrative seem to show signs of being alienated, sometimes extremely so. There are comments full of guilt or self blame for not ‘measuring up’ and being resilient enough. Others talk back to these expectations in defiant terms, especially those who have quit and say they feel liberated. I think, by the way, that this is one of the reasons that “The Valley of Shit” has become such a popular post: it speaks to this experience of feeling worn down by other people’s chipper “you can do it” comments.

When we hear the resilience narrative, or find ourselves repeating it, we should perhaps pause for a moment. What do we have at stake in this person finishing their degree? Are we actually just putting on additional pressure they don’t need?

The Chaos narrative

These comments speak of events in aconfused, non linear way, almost as if the person is having trouble putting their experience in words. Chaos narratives are marked by anger, fear, powerlessness, misery and apathy. I took this narrative idea straight from Frank’s work because the comments in this vein closely conformed to examples in his book. Frank points out that the chaos narrative is not a “real story” in that it doesn’t have a structure or clear ‘plot’.

Frank points out that the chaos narrative is “threatening to hear” because it reminds the listener how easily they might, themselves be “sucked under” by events. When we hear the chaos narrative we may be tempted to fall back to the resilience narrative as an attempt to turn the person’s thoughts in a more ‘positive’ direction. But it’s probably important, Frank insists, that we instead ‘witness’ the chaos narrative and don’t feel like we need to rush in and suggest to the person how they can fix the situation. This is not the same as doing nothing.

The ambivalence narrative

This narrative is marked by lack of faith in the future, or uncertainty about what the future holds. Generally these stories are marked by a “what’s it all for?” vibe.

Some people talk frankly about ‘not knowing what to do next’ and therefore allowing the situation to drift. Others talk in more pragmatic terms of just finishing in order to put the experience behind them. Still others seem to be falling into apathy, depression and general ennui. I noticed it was in these kinds of stories that many students expressed thoughts about not wanting to be an academic anymore.

Since I started thinking in terms of an ambivalence narrative I have started to notice how often it is voiced in my conversations with PhD students, and in blogs and interviews with them. It’s making me wonder if the ambivalence narrative is becoming the preferred narrative amongst students themselves?

Perhaps the ambivalence narrative is a reaction to the uncertain work structures in academia. I certainly remember employing this narrative myself while I was a PhD student. I knew I wanted to legitimise my academic work by getting a full time job when it was over, when I wasn’t at all sure this plan was going to work out. Sometimes I think I told this ambilvalence story as a way of testing out loud what other options and identities were available to me.

How should we listen to the ambivalence narrative? I’m not really sure, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on it or any of the others.

Do these narratives resonate with you at all? Can you suggest any others? Is this a helpful way of thinking about how to help people thinking of quitting the PhD?

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2 comments

PhD Thesis #permalink

Well you pointed out good factors for why people quit the PhD. Sometimes people don't have the faith to study ahead but start in this case it is general thing to quit.

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Four more reasons people quit the Ph.D. - World leading higher education information and services #permalink

[…] reading (and commenting on) Dr. Mewburn’s recent fantastic article on Why People Quit the Ph.D., I wanted to add four more reasons to her list. As a writing productivity teacher and coach, I […]

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