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First week...should I quit?

Quote From mouse33:
Hi, new here and just looking for advice. I have just started a 4 year funded PhD straight off the back of my undergrad and having major doubts. I suffer with anxiety and depression as it is and I just have no motivation. I'm supposed to have started this week but im already bored, anxious and tearful and just can't make myself do anything....am yet to read a single paper and my hearts just not in it.

Any advice?

It's difficult to advise without a deeper understanding of the 'why' you feel this way.

It could be academic reasons - insecurity, lack of interest, lack of study strategy. Or it could be something completely outside of work that's making you unhappy.

You absolutely need to focus on tackling the anxiety/depression; easier said than done I know. The call you need to make is cause/effect - i.e. if the PhD is causing the anxiety/depression, or the anxiety/depression are making motivating yourself to work impossible.

Generally the advice people can give here is on the former, i.e. that it's the PhD stressing you out. It sounds a bit like it's the latter though. This sucks and I can say as a former sufferer it did pass for me with time and patience, but when you're in the middle of it I know how hollow that sounds. Ultimately you have to decide if a different job would make it easier, or whether the problem would still be there. What you don't want to do is quit and do nothing, because that's far more likely to make things worse than any alternative.

I would say it is normal to feel completely lost in the first year of a PhD, never mind the first week. I present it as a curve to my students that, done right, has a massive brick wall at the start then a gentle slope to completion, or done wrong has a gentle slope at the start then a brick wall at the end. The solution is to start reading, without it really mattering what, then keep reading until what matters clicks.

I want to quit my PhD. Advice and Reassurance.

It's understandable as you'll probably get very mixed advice on this.

Probably your uni don't want to lose a student they've either stipended, or who is a paying customer. Whether your supervisor tows their line or is impartial can be 50-50. There is a logic to 'just write it up and stick it in'. The bar for success with corrections at viva is typically lower than people think. But that's the uni caring about having a completion, not your future.

I'd think there's a deeper issue here that's probably rooted in the fact you don't want to be an academic. You really need to throw yourself in hard in the first few years, which takes a lot of initial passion, for the last few years to not be an excruciating catch-up against a looming deadline.

A PhD is of limited value outside of academia, so if you don't want to be an academic, there's little reason left to pursue it. But the logical thing to do - especially if you're stipended, is to get a job offer then quit to accept it. It's considerably easier to explain you're a PhD student but open to other opportunities, than it is to explain a 'failed' PhD or 3 year gap in a CV. In particular if you're worried about mental wellbeing and don't have another job to move into you should consider the potential negative effect of doing nothing, or applying for jobs (with the inevitable consecutive rejections that everyone goes through), whilst unemployed.

In short - move on, but formally quit the PhD the same day you sign the contract for your new future. Until you have that contract, prioritise applying for jobs and work on the PhD to keep you occupied in the meantime.

2nd Year PhD, Still haven't finalised a topic! need help

The best advice I can probably give is a bit generic, but...

Take your head out of the books/web. Accept there is no perfect RQ. Think just based on your intuition for a few minutes about what's interesting in the topic area - or even just what you don't know. Scribble down the first few ideas you have no matter how bad you think they are.

Then take a second look at them, with some limited web searching and literature scanning. Your criteria needs to be not 'is it perfect', but 'is it reasonably ok'. Reasonably ok is a PhD. Aiming for perfect is a guaranteed fail after wasting 10 years of trying. Leave it to other people such as your DoS to try to tear it down, don't do it yourself.

A lot of PhD students waste countless amounts of time and effort trying to find the 'perfect' RQ or the 'correct' topic. Often when interrogated they actually have a half-dozen perfectly viable RQs but are actually stressing because, either consciously or subconsciously, they're trying to pick the 'best' one when there's no such thing.


You need to be vocal in raising this to your University. Many students struggle in silence, and many hardship funds go underspent, because every student assumes their 'hardship' is not actual hardship, when it is.

No University wants the media story 'our PhD students are going hungry because they've been screwed by our precarious teaching contracts under covid'. This is the reality for quite a lot (you're not alone); and a typical stipend, as you say, is *maybe* enough to live on if you're the 'ideal' single, bedsit-accommodated student who lives in the office, but not even close to enough if you have dependents or don't fit the fictional ideal.

You need to communicate this to your University in a way that isn't threatening or naive but will set the necessary alarm bells ringing so someone that can take action does. There are a lot of ways you can do this; e.g. the PR threat - 'Can you please confirm you're unwilling to support, so I can take this confirmation to charitable organisations and promote my case for support to a wider audience'; the league table threat - 'As a result, I see it as unfeasible to complete my PhD in the designated timeframe and we need to discuss how this could be accommodated', or the massive-inconvenience threat 'I will not be able to fulfil the project deliverables, since as we have agreed, my PhD must take precedence'; or the triple-threat (all the above). Do dilute these in advance, and only if you've exhausted all sensible options, in the spirit of picking your battles!

Best/accepted practice for citing private/personal (email) communication in PhD thesis

Sorry if my OP sounded too critical,

Yes you're completely correct you only need to explain how things work to the extent the results are justified.

There's not a right answer in many cases since, taken to the nth degree, can we be sure SPSS gave us the right answer? Probably(?); and nobody's going to question that it did, since otherwise 90% of papers would be taken up on the inner workings of peripheral software.

There's still an intrinsic academic risk in assuming closed source stuff works as claimed (I know this from experience - and this might not be from malice on the part of the creator, but no software is bug free); no matter who claims it, it's still a risk. When presenting findings it needs to be a managed & communicated risk (and in the SPSS example, simply saying 'We used SPSS' is often sufficient, since if it's later found to have a bug it can be quickly related to the findings).

There's a lot of common sense there and consequent vagueness; if the software is e.g. integrating via a finite element method, that's a well-known thing and provided results are in the bounds of common sense it's unlikely to be questioned. If it's Facebook and they're claiming x algorithm doesn't discriminate because the developer says so it will be dug into. It's likely to fall somewhere in between (probably towards the former), in which case it's not a big deal, but I'd stand by the convention of explaining the algorithm used within the paper, and citing the developer's input in acknowledgements. The risk of citing email exchanges is you give reviewers something to criticise that would probably be a non-issue if omitted.

Best/accepted practice for citing private/personal (email) communication in PhD thesis

It would be more 'normal' to add the name of the developer into acknowledgements, with brief detail on their contribution. The idea of a reference is something someone can find and read; it's a bit odd to make an email exchange publicly available (and if it's not, what's the point of referencing it). Whilst it's possible, you'd envision an email exchange to be referenced if it's something social-sciencey reflecting on context and perspectives; not because it explains how something works.

This does put it on you to convey how things work themselves, but if you're confident to publish you should be confident to describe how you got the results, so it should - hopefully - be straightforward.

The risk you run if you cite it as justification/explanation, is it being interpreted as 'we didn't know how the black box worked, but we got the explanation of the guy who made the box, and present it here as fact'. This may not be as problematic as it sounds, but is it probably the reason it's rare.

A hazardous supervisor?

It's great to hear this.

It's a sad fact in academia often subscribing to unobtainable targets is a lazy way to boost a grant's success chance. Why propose a 10-person study when you can add a few zeros on a page then rely on a PhD appointee to pull it off?

In my experience some (and I hesitate to say it, but - EU/H2020) schemes are very vulnerable to this. It's seemed par for the course to me that successful grants promise the moon then result in 3 years of delivering well below target whilst scraping through review.

This is perhaps the way of the world but a supervisor's willingness to over-commit should not be something they pass on to their PhD students.

References for many applications?

I can't really speak so much as an applicant (though I did a long time ago get an academic post), but I've interviewed/appointed PhDs in the past.

At my Uni, and I suspect many others, a reference is required by HR, but rarely viewed by the actual panel. It's often at Prof level or above that references really count (in some cases); usually at PhD stage unless HR flag a really bad reference ('this person is a convicted criminal who embezzled £40k from us'), it's unlikely to be a major deciding point. This means a generic 'to whom it may concern' reference is not going to have any real impact on whether you get the post when compared to a compelling, handwritten document - because it won't have been read by the decision makers at the point the decision is made.

I would always in a PhD application say references available 'on request', rather than supplying them unsolicited - because as above they're not going to be make-or-break. But it's not unusual to get a lot of reference requests as an academic, and in honesty these do indeed become copy-pastes of the original reference with slight tailoring to the post, if the applicant provides this information.

In short you shouldn't hesitate to ask a previous supervisor for a reference, but I'd be aware there's no gain from asking them to supply one before it's required by HR for rubber-stamping, as they're seldom even involved in decision-making, let alone a major factor.

Why do some universities publish master's thesis online?

It's a given continental thing; it's just how the system works. In the UK it's the opposite; it's rare for them to be published and I generally counsel students to consider it carefully if approached as publishers will sometimes opportunistically raid your wallet in an elaborate vanity scam.

Considering you have a copy yourself and can submit it or link to it on an application that's what I'd recommend. If you think it's useful and could be cited, then ResearchGate etc. would provide you with a means for making it accessible. Few (no) employers will actually read it in full, but the majority will (hopefully) dip in if it's available, and if it showcases your ability to write and present research it's a good thing to have, but not a deal-breaker.

Writing on the wall, Switch supervisors, or is there hope for my PhD?

He sounds like a jerk frankly.

I can't comment on the actual quality of the work, and there's always the thing that what a student hears vs what a supervisor says are often not the same thing.

But honestly; I'd make sure your co-supervisors are onboard, work hard, spend the rest of the PhD proving him wrong, and at your graduation speech slip in comedically 'I remember, last year, my supervisor said...'. The best way to deal with jerks is to channel the energy they generate by winding you up into proving them wrong; this will help you a lot with resilience if you stay in academia.

That said, if he's exceptionally backstabbing and will e.g. go to lengths to pick examiners to fail you, then you should get shot of him. But before doing so I'd have a meeting in which you explain the impact of the last meeting on you and that you're considering if a change in supervision would be the best way to go, as you may find it was a misunderstanding or you're misjudging his opinion.

Either way you will get the best result by standing your ground professionally rather than trying to administratively avoid him.

REF has nothing to do with PhD students, right?

The crown copyright is not something to worry about. It's if you're a public servant (like work for a government department) Her Majesty technically owns the copyright which I think makes a headache for publishers.

REF returns are limited to staff, the fact you're a student makes you ineligible to return. If you are staff, then there are further complicated rules. Universities extensively game their ref-returns based on these rules (the government pays them cash-in-hand based on their result). It's generally better for them to have a small number of staff returning high-quality outputs, they can do this in a range of ways some of which work better for the academic (suddenly promoting them from RA etc. so they qualify), and some which don't (deliberately trying to manipulate them into teaching-only roles so they can focus a group's output on one individual).

The truth is;

- As a PhD student, you will not be returned.
- If you produce outputs on which a co-author is eligible (an academic at the University) this can be returned. Hence your supervisor and the university in general will want you to produce these outputs and add an eligible academic as a co-author. They may not be transparent about this.
- There is still benefit to you, as when you apply for a job after your PhD you can transfer your outputs into the new post. You can also in this REF submit the same output as your previous institution. E.g. if you co-author a paper with your supervisor which they return, then move to a new university, you have an eligible paper to return too. This means a prospective employer will be 'buying' your return for ROI as much as employing you. It's for this reason that REF outputs are very important for getting job offers.

Do impact factors matter?

Those of you who are planning to join academia as a career have a responsibility to seriously question things like impact factors and league tables otherwise you risk being part of a problem I think we can all see.

Just wanted to add to this as an academic;

I think we all agree. The sector chasing of league tables in an absolute joke.

This is not entirely an issue academics can fix, though, unless we manage to pull of some kind of mass action, and even then, we'd need to know exactly what we want instead.

The problem for me, in the UK at least, stems from how these league tables translate to money for Universities; it's easy to rail on overpaid VCs etc., but ultimately they have boards to answer to and these boards want income and growth.

REF is the prime example, which is a direct paycheque based on a (arguably suspect and certainly cliqued) peer-review against which seeks oddly to derive foremost the vague, manipulable criteria of whether work is 'nationally-leading' or 'internationally-leading'. It breaks not just because of the review criteria, but also - how does a University self-evaluate its staff in anticipation? If you internally peer review on a faculty scale, the level of in-fighting, 'so-and-so-isn't-in-my-field-so-how-can-they-judge-it' moans, and outright corruption is easy to forsee. So a flawed bibliometric is often the lesser of many evils.

The only complete solution is to ditch the concept of the government paying universities based on league table performance; under the acceptance they can't measure research institutionally in a sensible way. Funnel the money into grants instead and let academics compete for it (and maybe fix the issues there too) rather than institutions. Yet of course this will not happen, as government are disproportionately alumni of the institutions that benefit most from the status quo.

Training in PhD

The typical level of support you get at PhD level is 'not much'; partly this is reasonable (you're expected to be a capable learner who is steadily becoming independent), sometimes this is unreasonable (disappearing supervision). The realistic expectation is a bi-weekly 1 hour meeting with a supervisor and feedback on written work around the same timeframe.

I think it important to add a PhD will not necessarily help with a job down the line; unless the job you envisage is an academic one. This is not obvious, since as a student you've possibly been through 18 years of being told grades and qualifications are everything, but this ceases to be the case in a lot of postgraduate circumstances.

Negatives out of the way; you can always quit at any point and if you're not enjoying it there's nothing stopping you applying for jobs and being able to pick and choose (since you have a fallback). It might be a PhD is not for you (or you could find you love it), but you're in a better situation having something paying the rent than not. A mistake I see early-career academics (or employees) make is a misguided sense of loyalty to their employer; like they're doing something wrong if they look for other opportunities whilst in-post. For people with an ounce of experience, this is a normal thing to be doing and not traitorous/unfair/unreasonable, and whilst you might think the University and supervisory team are having sleepless nights if you quit, the honest fact is in the grand scheme of things it's next to nothing.

Give it a chance; the things that make a PhD a good experience are often not the topic or your ability; but the lab/group environment and relationship with supervision. These are impossible to guess at until you start.

Should a PhD be paid for work for a company.

If this is a UK question, it's unfortunately rare that extra work or income generation = bonus. As a prof, you can bring in a million+ grant, and probably will not see any of it directly - rather some of your existing hours will be assigned to manage it.

If you weren't stipended, you might have a case to ask; as you are, it would generally be unlikely you'd be able to argue for extra money, unless the work is completely unrelated to your PhD.

As a stipended student you probably also signed an agreement that the IP you generate belongs to the University. You're then trying to negotiate backwards from an existing arrangement - this can work if you're willing to walk away from the table, but rarely will if you aren't.

In terms of actionable advice:

> The first thing in project management that academics are terrible at is identifying sub-tasks and costing. Work out exactly what you're expected to do (this will probably take some effort in itself; expect woolly, frustrating answers), and 'cost' it in hours.

> Look at this and ask 'does it help my PhD'. If yes, then it's probably still worth doing for free.

> If 'no', make sure you have a strong argument why it's irrelevant. Take it to PI/DoS, and explain 'I'm happy to do x, but y seems like a lot of extra work, which is not related to my PhD because of z'.

> Follow up with, if you wish 'But i'm happy to do y, it fits my skill set; however, it would have to be on a contractor basis and I could only work n hours on it'

It's important if you do this you don't propose unrealistic hours, considering your PhD is already an FT job.

COVID Funded Extensions

I'd be inclined to push for a stipended extension, and collate evidence as to why you weren't able to work.

University polices are seldom rational, but academic dispute panels usually are, so if you raise a dispute and clearly evidence that covid didn't just mean working from home (as that's not alone a great reason to be delayed); but that you were unable to collect primary data, access essential lab equipment, or pastoral reasons such as a sudden caring responsibility etc., you should hopefully find common sense prevails.

A non-stipended extension doesn't seem fair to me since it's effectively furloughing you without any income. The UKRI policies are broadly reasonable so if you're funded by one all you should need to do is ensure your Uni doesn't administratively drop the ball in administering it (sadly, likely, and you'll need to send multiple emails typically to ensure they don't screw up).

If it's an an institutional level, evidence of how this affected your research is key. Collect and collate. Universities in general have been bombarded with extension requests, and often have to sift legitimate reasons vs an assumption covid = free 6 month holiday. This is not as good a deal or policy as blanket extensions; but it's always worth arguing your case as the squeaky wheel very often gets the grease.