PhD Plan B: Managing Detours on the Doctoral Path

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The journey towards obtaining a PhD is rarely a smooth path. Even under normal circumstances it is not uncommon for students to encounter setbacks. Below is a list of the types of detours a doctoral student may come across:

  • Having to switch supervisors
  • Someone else publishing on your topic
  • Financial difficulties/running out of funding
  • Having to juggle a job alongside your PhD
  • Realising your topic is no longer feasible
  • Having to switch to a different methodology
  • Recent events or developments that make your topic redundant
  • Being unable to obtain ethics approval for your research or risk assessment approval for conducting field work
  • Having to scale down your project
  • Problems with data collection
  • Feeling distracted or unmotivated
  • Falling behind with deadlines
  • Feeling too busy with side-projects
  • Physical or mental health challenges
  • Difficulties with field work
  • Thesis examiner pulling out at the last minute
  • Challenges with interview subjects
  • Loss of a family member or close friend
  • Relationship challenges
  • Failing an upgrade viva

To this list of common detours along the PhD path we can now add one that no one saw coming and that is ‘global pandemic.’

There are a number of ways the Coronavirus has impacted PhD students around the world. Field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, research funding may be in short supply, and regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home.

The ongoing crisis is also forcing students to rethink their timeframe for completion with many having to make formal requests for extensions in order to accommodate these unique circumstances.

As the full impact of this crisis continues to take hold, more and more students are having to come up with a ‘Plan B’ for their PhDs.

It is one thing to come up with a PhD Plan B, however, and another to fully accept it. When you’ve been forced to reconsider your plans due to external circumstances, resistance to any change in direction is perfectly understandable.

The thing that stands in between constructing an alternate path and learning to accept that path are the expectations we carry around about the PhD. Below are a few points to bear in mind, which I hope will help you begin to accept your change in direction:

It Doesn’t Need to be Your Life’s Work

Given the dedication and time it takes to complete a doctoral thesis, it is not uncommon to feel as though the end result must amount to your life’s work. However, this could not be further from the truth. In stark contrast to being overly ambitious, the purpose of a PhD thesis is to answer a single question or problem within a set of clearly defined parameters. In this regard, a PhD thesis tends to open up as many questions as it answers.

Some Element of Scaling Back is Inevitable

As you get further into your research you’ll realise what is possible and what isn’t within the scope of your project and the time that you have available. This will typically result in some element of downsizing. The ideas that don’t happen to fit within your project can still be incorporated in the ‘areas for further research’ section of your conclusion – which nearly every thesis will have. Highlighting avenues for further research is an important aspect of your project, even if you are simply identifying an area of research for another person to pursue. Alternatively, you can think of the parts you’ve had to scale back on as inspiration for a follow-on/post-doc project.

You Only Need to Pass

Unlike other degrees in academia, the PhD viva is a straightforward pass or fail. While that may sound daunting, the fact is that all you need to do is obtain a passing mark and no amount of going above and beyond the requirements will change that. As the end product will not be graded in the traditional sense, it is worth considering whether you might already have enough material on hand to pass the viva.

You Will End Up Revising It Anyways

Most students feel under pressure to ensure that their thesis is a ‘perfect’ piece of work when the truth is that PhD theses are rarely, if ever, published as they are. For instance, when it comes to publishing, students are often expected to revise their theses prior to submitting it to a journal or an academic publisher. This is the case whether the PhD consists of a larger book-style manuscript or a series of separate papers. The likely need for some form of revision or updating may lessen some of the pressures associated with producing a perfect end product.

Time-Frames Are Less Significant Than You May Think

Perhaps you’ve had to take a break, postpone your fieldwork or interrupt your studies while you wait for the current crisis to pass. In reality, the time-frame in which you choose to work on your thesis is less important than you think and may not have as much bearing as you believe. Any piece of research should be viewed as a general snapshot at a specific moment in time. For instance, take a look at something that was published quite recently (this year or even this month) which you consider to be a strong piece of work. Irrespective of how strong a piece it is, you can probably identify areas in which that piece could be updated,improved, or revised in line with recent developments. By its very nature, academic research is dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. As such, the time-frame for completing your research is perhaps more flexible than you may think.

The PhD is a Marathon, Not a Race

Although you began your PhD journey with a group of peers, it is important to remember that you are each on individualised paths. Every project is unique, as is each students’ working patterns, methodology and time scales for submission. In that sense, there is no genuine basis for comparison between you and your peers. Any supposed competition between you and them is more imagined than real. If your project is impacted by the current pandemic and that results in you submitting later than your peers, it makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line, it’s a marathon. You may run alongside others, but you run for yourself and at your own pace.

Changing Direction Is a Normal Part of the PhD Journey 

In order to fully embrace Plan B, it is crucial to let go of your past plans and accept where you are now. Plan A, or the plan we come into a PhD programme with, is often an idealised version of what we imagine our research journey to be before having taken any steps on the path. In that sense, switching plans is quite common, and a significant part of the journey is to realize when such a change of direction is needed. It is when we hold on too tightly to the original idea we had, or are unwilling to change direction, that things become especially challenging. The way forward (Plan B) may not be what you had imagined or hoped for, but it will ultimately lead you to the same end point.

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