Faking my way through...


I just posted this in the 'lessons learned' thread, but I really want to know if anyone else has similar experiences/feelings toward their PhD...

I'm a history PhD student in the UK, just coming up on three years now- I had an extra language-learning year, so in theory there's one more year to go. And here's the thing: I really don't know what I'm doing. Ask me what my thesis is about (or worse, what my thesis IS) and I can only give a very general, hesitant answer, which is the same one I would have given you three years ago. I try to avoid the question altogether. Talking to other students is a weird combination of bluffing and being EXTREMELY interested in what they're studying. So, what have I been doing for three years? Language-learning aside, I've been reading in the general area I'm looking at and looking at primary documents (probably not nearly enough), hoping that somehow I will discover something new, something that gives direction and structure and makes this thing seem doable. I haven't so far found anything. My thesis does not exist.

Now, I know that a lot of this is my own fault- the biggest problem being that I never ask for help, or at least never make clear the extent of help that I need. My advice to anyone in a remotely similar situation is, of course, to very clearly ask for help, because regardless of how blame might be distributed, you are the only one who will bear the consequences. However, the thought strikes me that it should not be possible to do what I've done. There should have been some system- some means of checking that I was actually making progress and knew what I was doing.

In theory, of course, there is: the supervisor system. The supervisor is, however, just one person. In my first year I had a supervisor who left the university at the end of that year. I actually had classes with him, but in terms of actual supervision meetings- as I recall there were only four. And the really strange thing is, during those short meetings, I don't think we ever discussed my thesis: the questions I was trying to answer, the sources, related reading, theory, that kind of thing. All I can remember doing in these meetings was together trying to work out the timescale for transferring from probationer research student to PhD candidate. It turned out it had to be done by the end of the second year, and since I wasn't really getting anywhere, I just decided to go for that, and he agreed. When he left I met my new supervisor once before heading off on my language year, which I hoped would allow me to sort out what I was doing- but, without much time to work on my 'thesis' anyway, I didn't email him and again didn't ask for help. I did transfer, a term late, by working up a quick essay with no obvious connection to the (nonexistent) broader thesis and a 'thesis plan' which, while apparently good enough for the assessors, doesn't in my opinion provide anything more to work from than the original application for


Oh God, the character count didn't tell me I'd gone over until after posting and now the end of the post is missing...

OK, short version...

...original application for the PhD itself. I assume I was passed because students failing looks bad for the university. I again didn't properly talk to my supervisor about what I was doing, and went abroad to do research/reading/trying to work out what I was doing. Nearly a year later, and now I've got to submit an actual thesis chapter from my nonexistent thesis... so I'm going to find out exactly how much universities dislike failing students.

So, if anyone read to the end... what do you think? Is it all my fault for not asking for help? Is this kind of situation at all familiar or is it an exciting new form of PhD disaster?

Finally... even if you do think it's all my fault, if you're planning to be or are in a position to supervise students, for the love of God ask them what they're doing, ask to see their work, etc. Don't assume that if you don't hear from them they're doing fine. Without wanting to deny my own responsibility, I'm pretty sure that is actually in the guidelines for supervision anyway, but... please do it. And to any students in a remotely similar situation: ask for help ASAP.


Something similar happened here and I am not out of the woods yet. My belief is that the problem comes from not knowing what is a phd, what it requires. It is not just another exam (you must be used to pass through them easily if you got to phd level). Writing one chapter should be all right, you can still 'fake it' as no body expects the chapter to be anywhere near a final version. But you probably still have three years ahead of you if you want to finish. During this time my advice would be to:

1) find an unofficial supervisor, anyone, a more senior friend or coworker in your research field or related. You need one. He needs to question you about your progress, ask you to write chapters and read them. Give you deadlines. He or she will help you find what your research question should be.

2) Read a thesis or two in your field cover to cover, to know what you are expected to produce. Even if it's disheartening.

3) Read books about phd writing and understand them

4) Make contact with your official supervisor again, even if he is unlikely to help you more than in the past, but involve him, show that you respect his opinion

Good luck


this is a difficult one, but there is a way forward, for one thing you have done loads of reading so know your way round your topic. I would get hold of a copy of Clough and Nutbrown's book on methodology. This is not because of the methodology bit, although that is well worth a read anyway, but because it has loads of exercises along the way which might just sort out where you need to be going. It won't take too long to read through, although you must do the exercises to make it work. 'Doing A literature Review' by Hart may also help you as it describes what I can only call the thinking behind the process of sorting. It too has diagrams and things which you can adapt. Once you have had a go at the exercises you should have an idea of where you are going. Get yourself some large sheets of paper and write down everything you can think of that needs to go into your topic, from that sort out the bits that go together, do your outline plan with this in mind

Also, get writing, doesn't matter if you scrap it all it is the initial doing that counts it will help a lot in sorting out where you are heading.

All is not lost, good luck :-)


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Don't you have a thesis monitoring system at your university? At my university this system is in place to check that students are making adequate progress and that supervision is working ok. Full-time students see their thesis monitoring committee twice a year; part-timers once a year. Both the student and the supervisor fill out a questionnaire, and then the student has a discussion (usually about an hour long) with the staff on the committee - which usually change each time, so you get input from lots of people in the department over the years. It's a safety net to make sure that everything is going ok.

My supervisor left half-way through my PhD. He was going to continue to act as my supervisor long-distance (500 miles away). But at a subsequent thesis monitoring committee meeting it became clear that this system was not working well for me. So another member of staff volunteered to take over as my supervisor, and was superb.

But, yes, I totally agree about speaking up and asking for help when you need it. And the sooner the better.

Good luck!


I think that most universities have a system to assess the progress of postgraduate students. Ideally, this would help the completion of the PhD programme. Realistically, many times annual research interviews are only a pro forma.

What surprises me of your story though, is that you must have applied for your PhD, and thus you must have written a rationale for your project, even if for broad lines. Usually you start researching in an area that has been overlooked, and even if you didn't have a complete knowledge of all the literature you should know already where are the gaps, what you might add and how.

So, forgive me if I am wrong, but the impression that I have got from your message is that you are still missing the research questions. If you don't have those well laid out and clear in your mind - that is what you are going to research, why and how - all the reading that you are doing ends up being an exercise.

It is clear the your supervisors, for different reasons were not capable of doing their job, or they should have picked up the problems that you found along the way. Again though, I can tell for personal experience (for what it worth), that there aren't many lucky people out there who have supervisors that are actually helpful. I cannot go into the detail of my own experience, but had I waited for my supervisor's help I would have probably never completed. It's not just matter of being supervised by an expert in the field, is about finding a person who is available to sit down with you and go through all the necessary steps that lead to your completion.

I think that if you are motivated to complete you have to go back to the first, basic steps. Stop reading, start writing. Even if they are just ideas and don't sound logic. Also, in my uni there are academic skills courses that you can attend on critical thinking, how to manage your PhD, how to write, etc. If your uni offers such course take the plunge and do them. You are not too late if you really don't want to waste this experience, but you need to make things move.


I can relate to you concerning the "not properly asking for help" issue. I'm like that sometimes in the lab...
And the supervisor then thinks you understood everything etc., but you actually don't and then this goes on and on and finally it's too late to ask, otherwise you would look sooo stupid.
That's one resolution I have for my coming PhD. Ask everything from the beginning and if it is stupid sounding. Only that way my sup will know what I actually understood :)


I really hope things work out for you I had a similar situation and came close to being removed from my PhD. But after sitting down and talking things out a plan was agreed that helped me take steps forward and I am on that road right now. I completely understand how you must be feeling everyday I would check my uni inbox expecting an email of WTF is going on or sorry but you are no longer a student here.

The suggestion of training courses is a great idea, I did this and it really helped me find solutions to the problems I had been facing. I also moved from full-time to part-time which freed up an extra year for me to complete my research and I feel it has given me the time I need to complete my work.

Moving from a taught to a research structure is not as easy as it sounds in my opinion. I was so used to the structure of a taught program I misused the time. Again I really hope you can find a solution to your issues!


In my uni heretofore there has been very little ongoing checking to ensure students are progressing properly. Oh, there are progress reports but up until about two years ago these were 'tick-box' exercises and quite honestly a bunch of us doubted they were even read! I can completely understand how you have got to where you're at feeling that you really don't have a handle on what you're doing.

I think as an immediate help you should look at other theses in your field. No doubt your uni's library catalogue has some but if not register [free] with the British library, download a few in your general area - doesn't have to be exactly on your topic - and skim read to get a feel for what a completed and presumably successful PhD thesis is. By reading a few theses introductions I think you will better understand how a PhD research topic is framed. Here's the link if you don't already have it: http://ethos.bl.uk/Home.do;jsessionid=B70CA576E236A5092E3BF910B921342B

btw, while I understand you are feeling lost, even students completely on top of their topic sometimes don't 'cement' their reserach questions until well into their write up so don't despair. :-)


Quote From ady:

In my uni heretofore there has been very little ongoing checking to ensure students are progressing properly. Oh, there are progress reports but up until about two years ago these were 'tick-box' exercises and quite honestly a bunch of us doubted they were even read! I can completely understand how you have got to where you're at feeling that you really don't have a handle on what you're doing.

Same here, except I'm convinced they're not read! Fail to see the point of them to be honest.


Thanks so much for your replies, guys. In a way it's reassuring that other people have had similar experiences- but in another way, of course, it's a pretty damning indictment of the system(s). Bilbo's thesis monitoring system sounds fantastic. In theory I guess the transfer of status at my university serves a similar function, but as my case demonstrates it's very easy to slip through the cracks of that if there's no pressure from the supervisor. Another point is that passing the transfer visa is a formal requirement, so it works like a job interview- and who uses their job interview to discuss their doubts?

I agree with the suggestions that I need to write something- which, handily enough, is also my requirement at this stage. I'm kind of relying on me producing... something through a sheer effort of will, but I'm going to make damn sure I ask for specific help from as many quarters as possible. I think that one thing that prevents me from asking is the feeling that I need something- anything- to show people- but I'll try to get that 'anything' together. I'll also try looking at books about thesis writing- and I have a few existing theses I can look at- it's more that I can't really see how mine can shape up, but they are a useful guide in general.

And to Corinne- believe me, I find it odd as well. I do wonder who OK'd my initial thesis proposal and what he/she saw in it that I haven't been able to find- in fact, I really should ask if I can find that out. It was a fairly general document that I was planning to narrow down- and I think I failed to find leads for the narrowing down. I know that one of the assessors when I transferred was pretty sceptical about whether I could come up with anything very new- the problem is that I'm inclined to agree with him...

Finally, to all the people who do have inactive supervisor woes- apart from asking for help, I think the other thing everyone needs to do is to mention the problems at every feedback opportunity. The job requirements for supervisors are, I think, specifically written to avoid the university being able to say 'the PhD is an independent project, so the student bears full responsibility and it's their job to get in contact with the supervisor'- at least in my case, there are also clear requirements for the supervisor. I think what a lot of universities lack- mine perhaps more than most- is an effective system for ensuring that the requirements on both sides are met throughout the PhD. Where this is the case, the universities really need to be told.