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PhD in 4 - 5, 6, 7

My name is Esther Plomp and I took seven years to finish my PhD (starting on the 1st of September 2013 and defending my thesis in the middle of the pandemic on the 3rd of September 2020). There are multiple reasons why my PhD took longer than the standard four years (although the majority of the PhD researchers in the Netherlands take longer!). With this blogpost, I would like to share my PhD horrors with you. These horrors do not include any data management incidents, fortunately, but there are plenty of other reasons besides failing backups that could impact you and the progress of your PhD research. 

Integration into the lab 

When I started my PhD I changed tracks from a master’s in Archaeology in Leiden to a PhD at an Earth Science laboratory at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. While I did already have some laboratory experience thanks to  an internship, the analysis of a couple of samples did not entirely prepare me for hard-core method development. Furthermore, there were very few archaeologists in the lab, which could make it difficult to discuss my research with others and sometimes left me feeling isolated. 

Where possible, you should try and find a lab with people that are conducting research that you’re interested in. When these options are limited you can also connect with others in your research field through networks or associations. 

Supervision 

Most of my delay has been the result of the lack of structural supervision. I had no regular meetings and daily supervisors (postdocs) changed over time without a real plan for my supervision. My supervision was never prioritised: there was always something else on my supervisor's agenda. I sometimes had to wait for months before receiving feedback on my work. One of the supervisors listed on my dissertation was involved in the research but was only added as a supervisor after the full text of my PhD was already ready to be submitted to the thesis committee.

After the evaluation meeting in the first year, I only had one progress meeting in which I was blamed for all the delays. I disagreed with the outcomes in writing through official forms which should have been reviewed by the department chair. I’m not sure if the chair ever read this, as I was never contacted about this. I didn’t have any formal progress meetings after this, which I was happy about as that meant that I wouldn’t get a lot of negative feedback in one go. In hindsight this was probably making matters worse in terms of progression. After my contract ended, meetings were haphazardly planned on availability, making it even more difficult to get feedback on my drafts.

Rather than being an afterthought, supervision should be structured from the start. Where possible, you should evaluate whether your supervisor(s) are a good match for you (do they have the same projects, goals and priorities in mind?), agree upon regular meetings and set adequate deadlines for feedback (weeks rather than months). Institutions should have a confidential advisor that can help resolve issues that cannot be resolved, alleviating some of the problems that are inherent in these hierarchical relationships.  

Project management

My project was risky as there were high chances that I would not get any results if the method development would fail. Part of the project could indeed not continue because it was clear after a couple of months that it was neither feasible nor did we have the expertise in the lab. Project planning was always more of an afterthought and very reactionary rather than planned with the help of achievable goals. 

When I started the project I did not realise fully what the impact was of doing methods development. You will learn a lot from the process, but there’s a high chance that you will not be able to produce the same results and outcomes when using already established methods. Whereas other people could just start their analysis right from the start I had to first develop the analysis procedure before I could analyse samples (which took three years to get it fully up and running). Rather than accommodating for different PhD experiences, I was held to the same, or higher, standards which practically meant that I had to spend more time to obtain similar results.

When planning your PhD research, discuss the required time frames and set realistic expectations. Have a plan B in mind, especially if your project is likely to not produce what you expect. For example, you could work together with others on different projects to distribute the workload and have some other projects to work on when your main project is not working out. 

Lab culture

Another major reason for my delays was the need to have four articles in the thesis, despite this not being a formal requirement to defend. While I tried to reason my way out of this, it was of no use as I was dependent on the supervisor's approval of the dissertation. Not only did I have four papers, the standards of these articles were quite high and I could argue that two of these would have been enough to be able to defend the thesis. I did not realise at the time, but it should have been clear from the start that with these unrealistic expectations I would never be able to finish the PhD in four years. 

The lab that I was a part of suffered from these unrealistic expectations. Projects always had to be bigger and better and this resulted in overbooking of labs and lab equipment. This resulted in a competitive atmosphere and a lot of work in the evenings and during the weekends. At one point I was almost forced to go in on a Sunday to do the work that my office colleague should be doing. The relationship between myself and this colleague was not great and resulted in a lot of microaggressions (such as the failure to pronounce my name properly after four years) and gaslighting (I was generally blamed for situations). My personality did not match with the lab culture: I try to be mindful of everyone's requirements which resulted in a lot of delays on my side. I could have progressed faster if I were more demanding of other people’s time and were more protective about my requirements for lab spaces/equipment. 

I did all of the writing of the articles and the thesis in my spare time. I did not get an extension to finish the writing of my thesis and I barely finished the analyses in time. As a result, I still feel like writing is something which I should be doing in my free time, while writing and reading up articles is just as much part of research as anything else. 

Whenever you join a lab, ask lab members what the lab culture is like (especially ask the people that have left!). Ask your supervisor what is expected of you and whether this matches the timeline that you have been given to avoid delays and frustrations. Make sure that writing and reading is part of the work and planned for accordingly. It helps if your institution has clear requirements about what you should do to be able to defend your PhD research: While there was no formal rule about the amount of articles that were needed, there is also no firm statement to be found that this is not how the dissertation should be evaluated.

External circumstances

There will likely be circumstances that have an effect on the progress of your PhD that are mostly out of your hands. I had several of those over the course of my PhD research: 

  • As I worked with human teeth, I was dependent on sample availability. The first two years of my PhD consisted primarily of obtaining the teeth which I needed for my projects. 
  • To broaden my scope I joined the VU’s People’s council for a year and a half (2016-2017). This meant that one day in the week I was a representative of the PhD candidates of the VU in the council, extending my PhD by 3-4 months.
  • After my contract ended, in the beginning of 2018, my father was diagnosed with skin cancer. As a result I was unable to work on my project for several months (3-4). Furthermore, this has been especially stressful during the last months of writing as it seemed that I was the only one that wanted the thesis finished as soon as possible. No adjustments were made to the dissertation requirements (I still had to have that fourth paper of course!), and only once I was asked how the situation was by my promotor. 
  • Next to writing up my thesis I had to apply for jobs and I landed a full time position from the 1st of November 2018 onwards. Having to finish your PhD next to a full time job really slows down your progress.
  • Planning a wedding (October 2019) is also a terrible idea in terms of PhD progression. It does prepare you well for organising your PhD defense. 
  • My stress levels were heightened when the pandemic hit the Netherlands in March 2020. It was quite quickly announced that PhD defenses were postponed. Again, no one seemed worried about when I would get to defend my thesis.

There’s not really a one size fits all solution for all these circumstances that could happen to you, but it helps to have a supporting environment and stability in other parts of your life. I found it crucial to have friends and family outside of academia to have a reality check at times.