Loneliness of PhD Students

The loneliness of the PhD student

(by Francis Heylighen)

The creeping self-doubt

A universal complaint among people preparing a thesis is that it is a lonely job, and that they lack the stimulation and feedback that you can only get from interacting with others about your work. Writing a PhD thesis is not only a very demanding task on the intellectual and physical level, but also emotionally. After you have been digging deeper and deeper into all these complex and abstract issues, there invariably comes a time where you start wondering whether what you are doing is really worthwhile, whether you are getting anywhere, and whether anybody cares at all about what you have done so far.

At that point it is easy to get depressed, and simply give up completely. Another common reaction is to evade and procrastinate, and constantly invent new tasks (reading more books and papers, going to conferences, gathering further data, talking with other experts, taking additional courses, ...) that you first need to do before you can proceed with the really difficult work of writing down your ideas so far in the form of a paper or thesis.

I have gone through such a period when I was writing my thesis (happily it didn't last too long), and I know at least a dozen people who have gone through something similar. Several of those have effectively given up their PhD, thus wasting years of hard work. Others have merely postponed and postponed, finishing their PhD in double or triple the time they initially foresaw.

PhD duration

A general rule is that making a thesis always takes longer than you plan. That is not grave if the delay is a few months, but it can become dramatic if it runs into years and years. This happened with a well-known assistant here at the VUB, who after many years of research had become such an expert in his domain that he was teaching the courses on it, instead of his supervisor, in anticipation of the time when, armed with his doctor's title, he himself would be made a professor. Unfortunately after 20 years of this regime, his thesis was still not ready. As the arrangement that was intended to be temporary could not be prolonged anymore, he lost his job, and had to start teaching at a much lower level, in a non-university institute, where he is now approaching his pensioning age.

To give you a concrete idea: if everything goes well, a normal duration for making a PhD is 4-5 years if you work on it full-time (for those lucky enough to have a full-time job as researcher), and 6-8 if you work half time (typical for university assistants, who also must teach classes). In the very best case, if you have all the time you need, good guidance, a clear a and well-defined topic, and a reliable methodology to tackle it, 3 years seems a minimum for making a really good thesis.

Another general rule-of-thumb is that older, more experienced or more mature, people are able to work faster and more efficiently than people who just come out of university. On the other hand, older people generally are involved in all kinds of other things (jobs, family, friends...) that take up time, have their years as university students farther behind them, and therefore find it more difficult to single-mindedly focus on their goal of making a PhD. In practice, therefore, it's usually the younger ones that get their PhD first.

The need for feedback

By definition, a PhD is something you make on your own. Others may give you some help or guidance, but you will be fully responsible for the final product. Moreover, a PhD is supposed to propose original research. This means that in the end, you will be the only true expert on the topic of your research (if others would know as much about it as you, it wouldn't be novel). This leads to a situation where you have to get into issues that no one else is really involved in, or even cares about. This often produces a feeling of social and intellectual isolation, which makes you start to doubt about your goals, your capacity to carry this through, and even yourself.

What you need most in this situation is feedback: reactions from others that show you that you aren't alone in this enterprise, that others have gone through it or are going through it as well, that others are interested in what you are doing, that they either like or dislike particular steps you have taken, and that provide advise or tips on how to do things better or what to avoid.

Typically, you expect to get such feedback from your supervisor. Unfortunately, good PhD advisors must also be good scientists, which implies that they tend to be quite busy with their own research, management of research projects, collaboration with colleagues, teaching, and advising other thesis students. Therefore, a promotor typically doesn't have the time to give you all the feedback and guidance you would like to get.

The ECCO approach

It is in part for that reason that ECCO has started with seminars, a mailing list and and the collaborative website your are now reading. First, instead of having to give advice to several people individually, this can now be done to all of them collectively. Second, since ECCO PhD students are to a large degree in a similar situation, they can give feedback to each other, thus starting to function as part of a group, instead of just being on their own.

For a humorous view of the situation: Dave Pritchard: The Lord of the Rings: an allegory of the PhD?

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