PhD Fraud #07: That Sinking Feeling


My attitude to this whole PhD business has calmed down a lot lately, despite the rapidly-ticking clock that’s now deafening me as it counts down to the final deadline I can submit a thesis. I’m yet to come to a conclusion as to whether this is a Good Thing or not.

I think I’ve just reached the point with my research that it’s just over, now, and that there’s not much more I can do with it (or time to do it in) except to just “finish it off” and hope that it’s good enough. I certainly don’t have time to go re-doing a lot of my work if it isn’t good enough, so in that respect, I’ve reached some sort of ‘epiphany’ that it doesn’t really matter anymore; the decision has essentially already been made as to whether I get this damned PhD or not, I just need to ride the train and see where it ends up. All I can do now is just continue with the work I’m still finishing off, continue with the thesis-writing I’m still in the process of, and make sure I keep turning up each day and picking away at it all. It’s too late to do anything major [not least because I’m also working part-time as a Senior Research Assistant on two EU space debris projects: ACCORD (Alignment of Capability and Capacity for Objective of Reducing Debris) and ReVuS (Reducing the Vulnerability of Space Systems)] so even if my work is all wrong, or just not ‘novel’ enough, then there’s not much I can do about it anymore.

I’ve also relaxed my position towards what my four years of research will get me in the end – in the beginning, it felt like  attaining a PhD was the be-all and end-all, and that if I didn’t achieve that, then I’d be some sort of ‘failure’; from both the point of view of my department/supervisor, but on a personal level as well. At around the 18-month stage, I successfully transferred from the original MPhil/PhD course everyone is registered on to begin with, and was stuck on the final PhD course: so, I’d like to think that, if my work isn’t quite enough to get me a doctorate, I will at least be awarded an MPhil for it. Depending on who you talk to in academia, getting an MPhil is either a legitimate qualification, or just a massive, neon sign saying “Hey, so I wasn’t good enough to get a PhD!” Previously, I was considerably worried that I’d end up with just an MPhil (or worse, nothing) and that I’d be considered a ‘failure’, particularly since so many of my RockSoc friends have successfully survived the PhD process and come out the other side. Such a result would be an acceptance that I’m not “clever enough,” or somehow less good than everyone else who tried and succeeded.

In the final years of my undergraduate degree, I’d kind of ended up feeling a little bit disappointed by my efforts on my individual and group projects (3rd and 4th years, respectively), and had built up a mental reputation of being someone who tries very hard at their research, but ultimately ends up with very little. Of course, when starting a PhD, everyone dreams that their research will change the world, or at least lead to some new way of thinking or solution to a problem; naturally, this rarely ever happens and it’s all about making an incremental step forward in your field, even if it’s just a minute step forward in a very specialised area. Have I managed that with my PhD work so far? Well, I kind of have ( I tried some new stuff, and some old stuff in a new way) and kind of haven’t (the stuff I did didn’t really work, and there are a bunch of problems with the theoretical basis of it all), so it’s very ambiguous. My thesis won’t be my greatest achievement ever, but I’ve kind of reached a plateau where (I think) I can finish it up in its current state without undertaking a major amount of new work. I think.

So, everything’s been kind of going okay recently until, today, I received a reviewer’s (uh, review) of my submitted journal paper and it was… not so good. This was a paper I submitted to an open-access journal around 5/6 months ago, and after receiving one critical but largely positive comment early on, there has no other review discussion since. The most recent comment, from an anonymous reviewer is, however, fairly critical and calls into question most of the results I’ve presented in the paper. I know that, technically, no criticism is bad criticism as it will strengthen the final product, but it’s still not easy to take negativity when it’s thrown quite liberally at your own endeavours. I’m yet to fully process the review (I only skim-read it, and need to sleep on it before I can start to think properly about what it means), but it’s not exactly what I want to hear. It’s amazing how quickly confidence can get knocked; particularly in academia, where your importance to your institution, or scientific field, is based almost purely on your ability to string together publications and gives rise to the “publish or perish” mantra.

So, what does this mean for me? Well, by and large, I think I’ve worked out that I don’t want to stay in academia after my current time is up; not in a direct-research role, anyway. I’ve got thoughts about what I want to do when I finish, and a lot of them revolve around teaching, or expanding on the outreach/public engagement activities I currently participate in. I’ve no idea whether this is a sustainable career, or indeed whether the ‘ideal’ job exists, but it’s worth a shot. With that in mind, then, perhaps I’ve reached the conclusion that it doesn’t matter whether I have a PhD or an MPhil; whether I’ve got journal publications under my belt or not. These things largely only matter in academia; so, who cares? Certainly,  the trauma of ‘doing’ a PhD is worth more than the letters after your name or the ‘published’ status anyway, so if I’ve already reached that conclusion, then I’ve got nothing to lose.

‘Dr.’ or no ‘Dr.’, by October I will have gone through the PhD process and be all the stronger for it: most people in my situation would have given up long ago, so if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s Carrying On In The Face Of Vastly Superior Adversity. In fact, maybe that should be the tagline for my CV:

Simon George.
Good at facial hair, making a mean cup of tea and bloody well not giving up.

And if that doesn’t make me a shoo-in for any job placement ever, then there’s something very wrong with this World. Something very wrong, indeed.


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