What happens if a PhD isn't doable


I can't go into much detail but what happens if a PhD isn't doable? In my opinion, it seems to have been ill planned without much thought as to whether it can actually be done and time is passing. I've been clear about my plans and concerns but think it would not be in my interests to voice these further.

Has anyone ever had an award pulled because the project isn't doable? If it's a University award would they find me another project?

Could well be getting ahead of myself but seriously time is passing, nothing of substance has been achieved and it doesn't look as if it will be achieved in the near future and so I thought it best to ask.


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Many PhD's appear to be 'undoable' in the beginning and are ill thought out by superisors, not purposely, but because they don't know what may be required to reach the final goal. What was initially planned as a 3 year project may require 10 years to complete i.e. 3 PhD's.
What you have to do is try and do a small part of it. If it's science based then do a few simple experiments. They might be simple and obvious, but have hey been done before? Try to eek something out as if you are laying the foundations for another student to take it forward. Don't think about the ultimate aim of the research topic, as it makes you feel overwhelmed and less likely to get anything done.


Thanks Gingersnaps. I don't feel overwhelmed, more concerned about the extreme lack of progress which has been beyond my control. I'll keep doing what I can from my end and hope for the best.


I know what you mean. I started with something and realised after some time that I would never achieve certain aims within the 3 years of PhD research. In fact some aspect of my work is bit of a dead end (but that is not to say that no science has come of it). Luckily I am also involved in other aspects of research, so I focussed much more on them. I think that whilst your project might not be doable as it was invisaged at the beginning, there might be still some good/PhD worthy research in it. I know that sometimes it is immensly frustrating working on something that does not yield results, so I suppose you have to develop the skill of asking the question that you can answer. As the previous poster said, looking for an aspect that no one else has checked before could be a good starting point. It is important to remember that there needs to be something original in your work, so developing a new approach/methodology/procedure/analysis tool will be good, especially if your overall results are not "amazing".
You are right in flagging this issue of "undoable" project, and I think it is important to keep your sup aware of it (all the time), because it can happen that come end of Year 3 and no results have come out of the project ( I have seen it and swore to myself that I would not be in that situation)... so, yes, stay flexible, maybe you need to change your approach/project focus at some point, and when you do, don't hesitate to do it, i.e. decide with your supervisor that you need to change tack otherwise you won't get a PhD.... Giving yourself (and sup) a deadline for achieving certain things, otherwise you "move" on to another aspect could be useful..
Best of luck.


Yeah, Delta, I am struggling with the similar question, randomly planned project, not sure whether it works. And the same, I have also 2 awards attached to this PhD study. I would think you can even change the project inside your lab if it is an University award, just have to tell them. I wouldn't think it would be pulled off like that, only if you quit PhD or maybe change the lab.

If the project is not yielding much, this is probably not a problem from the award point of view, you got it in the beginning to work on the project, but you did not have to guarantee them great results from the project. In a word, if you continue working on the same stuff or at least in the same lab with something else, don't worry about your award.
What about your sup and the advisory committee, they are not helpful in trying to improve the project? But can you yourself include changes you think is necessary even without consulting with them?


Can I ask about this - I am struggling to see how a PhD can be undoable?

I haven't done a PhD, but I have done 'research' in industry - with a PhD, you set out with goals for something to investigate, you read papers/articles, you do some predictions, experiments, analysis, look for patterns etc.. etc.. If what you have at the end is some new insight, or conclusion, which adds something to the field, and which you can write about and present, isn't that the PhD? Almost regardless or whether it was what you thought you'd find at the begining?

Would like to understand better .. thinking (dreaming) of the day when I'll get to do that 'real' science



My PhD appeared undoable about half-way through and I altered the data collection to provide a plan B and safety net - it was pretty stressful. In the end, I didn't use all of my safety net as I found soemthing unexpected instead. If it really looks unworkable - you may have to take more control and perhaps put in some options that will give you alternative kinds of analysis and answers to related questions even if they are not as interesting as your original question (that was my solution). My major problem was the nature of the data itself and how much more difficult it was to collect than anyone had forseen.

There are unfortunely many ways for a project to be unviable - too little data, no results to speak of after many experimental attempts, apparently nonsensical outcomes from analysis that do not appear to tell you anything, interesting or not. I don't think anyone would be failed for proving the null hypothesis (which I thought might be my situation) - but it would raise questions regarding your judgement in asking that particular question, it wouldn't provide much in the way of papers, and you might not have much of a career afterwards.


As I'm not sure what your circumstances are, it's difficult to determine what you mean by un-do-able. Your project might have hoped to achieve something positive and the results don't work out that way. I get the impression you're science based?? as long as the science behind what you are doing is solid and the research question is reasonable then a negative result (ie not finding link you were hoping to prove or whatever) is just as valid as a positive one.


Hi there, I'm also not sure exactly what you mean by 'undoable' - do you mean that it is literally undoable - i.e. what you are supposed to do (e.g. experiments) just won't work? Or is that you think the goals of the PhD are too far-reaching?

In my case the latter was true - the things I proposed at the end of my first year (when I transferred) turned out to be sooo undoable!!! When I examined things in more detail I found that there were huge gaps that needed to be addressed before the things I proposed would be possible... but I took that to be a good thing! At least there is a gap there that needs to be addressed... so now I am pointing out what needs to be done and how my PhD is one step on the way there... I have plenty to write about for 'future research' haha :-)

I don't know if that helps at all, but I hope things work out for you!


Thanks for all the replies.

Being able to complete the PhD will depend on a number of factors and some are outside my control. A lot will depend on external cooperation, and it's not clear if they'll be able to help, and a lot of red tape which even if things go to plan will eat up a LOT of time. I decided early on to get my head down and work because I need to complete in three years or very shortly after and I doubt this is going to be possible. I'll just ride it out and see what happens.