All happy PhDs are alike. Every unhappy PhD is unhappy in its own way.
There was a story in the Guardian not long ago about a young scientist who had supposedly found a dream PhD position, only to then find the lab ill-equipped, the supervisor under-prepared and the institution unsupportive.
Now, my own PhD was a happy experience (not just saying that because my supervisor is probably reading this. Hi Nicolas! But it really was.) But I have seen so many unhappy PhDs, and so many different ways in which a PhD can fail.
Let me be clear about what I mean by “failing”. Maybe you think about someone who hands in their thesis after years of work, turns up for their defence, viva, or final exam (whatever the modality may be) and then fails that. This is very rare. Most often, failure in the PhD takes a different form: Leaving a few years in, but long before graduation. Taking a job just as you start to write up and never actually handing in your thesis. Finishing, but only after a long long time and without much to show for in terms of output and/or marketable skills. Finishing in time and successfully, but with your health (or relationships or dreams) in shatters.
There are plenty of reasons for why these things happen, but what really stands out to me is that they are often completely unrelated to the PhD candidate’s commitment, work ethic, intelligence, enthusiasm or skill. So many things can go wrong. Here are a few I have seen: Ill health (both physical and mental), labs or institutions moving or closing down half way through, equipment not working (and not being replaced), running out of funding, family problems, supervisors being under-supportive or overwhelmed (or sometimes just not that good at what they do), institute politics, bullying, financial strains, visa issues, projects that turn out to be dead ends, being scooped, being denied credit for one’s work, having a “collaborator” who turns out to be a fraud, pointing out misconduct and being victimised or isolated for it, not getting along with people in the lab, disagreeing on science with your supervisor, lack of an outside support network, discrimination on the basis of race, gender, health and whatever else you can imagine … and I am sure there are at least a dozen other things that I am forgetting. The point is, a lot of those things are not the student’s fault. Some of them are not even anybody’s fault. (Though I think that as supervisors and as institutions, we need to be better at acknowledging responsibility for a student’s experience.) But all of them can potentially lead to unhappy PhDs and, in some sense at least, to failure. (Though of course this is only failure in relation to the initial objective of completing a successful PhD. Seen as a general life decision, this might turn out to be the best thing a person ever does).
I am not particularly surrounded by unhappy PhDs (or unhappy academics), although it might sometimes seem that way. I have just seen my normal share of ways in which an academic can be unhappy and, really, unlucky. Most other academics would agree with this assessment.
Yet, this is the strange thing: at the same time, many of us still pretend that, overall, this entire system is a freaking meritocracy, and that those of us who have managed to get PhDs and stick around long enough to get faculty positions are somehow not just luckier than everybody else, but in some ways more deserving (smarter perhaps or at least more hard-working, or at least “wanting it more” or something like that). And this sickens me, because all along the way, people exactly as smart, as hard-working, as committed as us have been sidelined by things outside their control.
Over the next year as a supervisor, as part of an institution, as a collaborator and as a friend, I will at least try to eliminate some possible ways in which a PhD can potentially turn out unhappy. But more importantly, I will never, ever forget how just insanely lucky have been. For those of you in my position – I suggest you do the same (and please do remind me occasionally.)
And for those stuck in an unhappy PhD: I know it’s hard to go through with this, and it’s even harder to quit. But think about your life as a whole, and do what is best for you. Like we used to say in grad school: It’s never too late to give up.