Doctoral Devotion – To Complete or Not Complete?

Why do some students complete a PhD and others drop out? It’s the kind of question that worries researchers like me. Evelyn Tsitas, who is completing her PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University has some thoughts. Evelyn has the most interesting PhD topic I know – but she’ll tell you about that in a future post. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did 🙂

It’s a long distance journey doing one’s doctorate. Just ask actor James Franco, who has split from his actress girlfriend Ahna O’Reilly and blames his studies for the end of the 5 year relationship. It seems that doing a PhD in English at Yale University was the last straw – Ahna has already lived through one post graduate haul with Franco (UCLA, where he majored in English); “then I signed up for more school at Yale,” says Franco, 33.

Many of us doggedly slogging it out to the completion date can feel for Franco; even months after the split.  The eligible bachelor reveals he is still on the market, saying he just doesn’t have time for a relationship. Doctorate students everywhere know what he means. Maybe it isn’t romantic relationship failure that concerns us – it could be guilt at how little time we are spending with our children; or neglected housework, weight gain, lack of exercise or languished friendships.

Indeed, the problem of Australian students completing their PhDs – and doing it on time – is well reported. While there are no national retention rates available, universities are generally happy if half of their Arts students finish within four years.

Putting the PhD front and centre and avoiding temptation along the way is one thing, but actually staying the distance is another. Yes, completion. Completion can be disrupted not just by the stress of juggling “real life”(mundane things like having to make a living). More spectacular diversions can derail many, such as interesting career opportunities that tempt us to stray from the path.

A perverse pastime of mine is to Google the well known and creatively successful who have made it to a PhD – and dropped out, only to find fame elsewhere. Californication’s David Duchovny (the title of his uncompleted doctoral thesis – Magic and Technology in Contemporary Poetry and Prose); The Offspring’s Bryan “Dexter” Holland (Molecular Biology); Brian May from The Queen, who dropped out in middle of his doctorate studying how light reflects off of dust floating in space and the movement of that dust within the solar system. (He went back and completed in 2007); David Filo, billionaire co-founder of Yahoo, who dropped out of the Stanford University PhD program to create Yahoo.

Then there are the stayers – those who got their PhDs, and went on to have high profile careers outside academia. Punk rocker Greg Graffin, from Bad Religion, who received his PhD from Cornell University in Zoology (thesis – “Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology.”). In a case of life imitating art, Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) has a PhD in neuroscience. Peter Weller (RoboCop, Dexter) is completing his Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance history at UCLA. Robert Vaughn, (“Hustle”), has a PhD in communications. Rhodes Scholar and US TV host and political commentator Rachel Maddow, who can boast a PhD from Oxford.

I am interested in why people like James Franco, Greg Graffin and Mayim Bialik – who don’t actually need a PhD for their careers in the arts – would choose to be so focused on completing their doctorates. Franco has been spotted reading The Iliad on film set breaks, and quoted as saying “I go to school because I love being around people who are interested in what I’m interested in and I’m having a great experience… I’m studying things that I love so it’s not like it’s a chore.” So I am guessing it’s the intellectual buzz of being in an ideas environment that pushes Franco in his doctoral journey.

Perhaps the difference between actors James Franco and David Duchovny – both of whom don’t require a PhD to get a film role – might come down to “true grit”. Motivational psychologist Heidi Grant, PhD, says that studies show that gritty people obtain more education in their lifetime.

In her post Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, Grant says that successful people reach their goals not simply because of who they are, but more often because of what they do. She writes: “Grit is a willingness to commit to long-term goals, and to persist in the face of difficulty.”

While this may be true, what I find interesting that many actors and musicians have committed to the long-term goals of post graduate study when they do not intend to carve out careers as academics. Actors and musicians who have achieved both fame and a Masters Degree include: Sigourney Weaver, Fine Art; Dolph Lundgren, Chemical Engineering; Rowan Atkinson, Electrical Engineering; Leonard Nimoy, Education; Dexter Holland, Molecular Biology; Forest Whitaker, Comparative Literature.

It’s probably fair to say that the man behind Mr Bean doesn’t reference his electrical engineering study on a daily basis. Likewise, Brian May didn’t actually need a PhD for his working life after Queen’s spectacular success. So why do these people stay the distance, and complete? The reason could be financial. These people achieved financial success and fame and then went back to finish their studies. I would suggest they could also leverage their careers in film or music – along with a doctorate – towards a later career in academia. After all, glamour careers love young faces, and everyone grows old if they live long enough.

For those without decent industry experience to boost the resume, it can be disheartening to read about lack of positions within academia. In “Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time”, The Economist (16 Dec, 2010) reports, “As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.”

I don’t have the answers, I only know this much for sure – come hell, high water or total exhaustion, or in spite of all of those, I will complete. Unlike frustrated doctoral students who have come through the university system without much outside work experience, I have had an extensive career in the “glamour” media industry. I can see what a doctorate can help me achieve, rather than fearing it is holding me back. Plus, I have two young children who have lived through this doctorate so far, and they need closure. If I quit, then what’s to stop them giving up on anything when it got bad, tedious, boring or too hard?

That’s why I have a large poster of James Franco up next to my computer; to remind me that no matter what enticing career paths may arise in the short term, its vital to keep on the path and complete the PhD.

No, seriously, that’s really why I have a poster of Franco next to my computer….

What do you think will provide you with the ‘grit’ necessary to finish? Will it come from inside you or from around you – or both? If you enjoyed Evelyn’s post you can read more of her writing at  RMIT Blog Central

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25 thoughts on “Doctoral Devotion – To Complete or Not Complete?

  1. Anonymous says:

    “In a case of life imitating art, Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) has a PhD in neuroscience.” I’m not totally sure, but I believe one of the reasons Mayim was cast was because she had her PhD (they wanted someone who could talk with authority when needed). So maybe it should be “art being influenced by life”.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “In a case of life imitating art, Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) has a PhD in neuroscience.” She already had her PhD when she was hired, and she may have been hired because she had her PhD. Perhaps, “art influenced by life”….

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree – it’s life imitating life all right! Thanks for the clarification. I saw Margin Call recently and in another example, the fictional whizz kid who realises that financial death is upon the company (and the world…) has a PhD in Planetary Science. “So, you’re a rocket scientist?” someone says. I have a brother who is a rocket scientist and tell him jokingly that the best thing he ever did was complete his doctorate so I can tell people “my brother is a rocket scientist”. I am hoping people will soon say to him “your sister has a PhD in WHAT???!!!” (tip – I write speculative horror…)

  3. curlysquirrel says:

    “Grit is a willingness to commit to long-term goals, and to persist in the face of difficulty”…Well I love that. I also like Jeanette Winterson’s concept of a “salmon-like determination”. We’re salmons with grit.

    I think that encapsulates it all, doesn’t it? A completed PhD doesn’t mean you’re better, smarter, worthier – it just means that you persevered enough to see it through and doggedly kept at it.
    I think that’s the whole difference between completing and not completing….

  4. M. says:

    Interesting piece thanks Evelyn. I hadn’t considered the question of why people like Franco et al persist when they clearly have solid (and more glamorous) careers outside academia.

    ‘Treat it like a full time job’- that’s the best piece of advice I’ve had and it is working for me so far (I am in my third year and determined to finish this year). I work on my thesis 8am til 5pm Monday to Friday (and occasionally, when away on field work, longer). Having worked full time for a few years between undergraduate and post-graduate degrees (like you by the sound of things) made this a whole lot easier for me. Working 40-50 hours a week felt natural when I started my PhD.

    Secondly, I think it is important to impose a strict deadline on yourself from the outset (even if the uni doesn’t) to submit in 3 to 3.5 years at the most. It is not a Nobel Prize contending piece of research- it is a PhD. And hence should represent a finite, focused amount of research conducted during what amounts to one’s apprenticeship in academia.

    Finally, read plenty of other (completed) PhD theses. Some are great – occasionally intimidating but also inspiring – but I’ve found a lot to range from mediocre to average, which is a great boost to confidence and a reminder that to get the degree you don’t necessarily need to produce the epic you imagine.

    • Julie says:

      I’m in the same situation, and treating it like 9-5 job is making this seem do-able. Plus my former job was doing PhD-like work so this is like my old job. Not finishing is not an option…just get it done. Nobody will ask what your GPA was, nobody will make sure your dissertation was written perfectly and had perfect methodology. Just get it done, you have a lifetime to achieve perfection if that’s what you strive for. I just want to finish and enjoy the ride. I like learning and working, and I’m doing both in a topic I really enjoy!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting post, thank you! Peter Weller, aka Robo Cop, is an example of someone who is able to persevere partly (or perhaps mainly?) because he has money that will keep him afloat and take off the pressure of ending up on the job market (and not because he is particularly brilliant as an art historian). Many of my colleagues and I encounter this in the art history world (both academic and museums), which often seems to me more elitist than other disciplines (at least, here in the USA- I can’t speak to other parts of the world). Many of those who have completed in my program are stellar people who have been fortunate with grant applications, or those who married well and/or came from money, alas. Most of those who never completed dropped out for financial reasons- whether from experiencing an immediate financial crisis, or from understanding the grim job market in academia here and the prospect of an uncertain future, after years of not earning any salary during the PhD (keep in mind our PhD programs average 7-10 years). Of course, even if one has money, one still needs the “grit” to actually get it DONE, but I think the fundamental attitude toward the dissertation is very different when one’s career (or livelihood) is not dependent upon the outcome.

    • Katrina says:

      I really agree with this, I did finish but I took ages and it was partly because I had to split my focus between work and money and wait ages for money to travel to do my primary research, and because I would fall into a sort of depression about the pointlessness of doing a PhD when I was never going to get a job (that still happens).

      I think I finished partly because I devoted so much of my life to it and I hate quitting/failing things – don’t know if that = grit. I am really glad I finished and feel proud of myself, but I know a few people who have quite PhDs and think that in some ways that is a pretty brave choice as well, plus most of them have proper ongoing well paid jobs, which I don’t have.

  6. VMJ Hall (@diggrrl) says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I am very close to completing a Master’s thesis, and only 2 of us (out of 12 who started) are completing on time. Reading this post just now, when I’m soooooo tired and sick of my topic, was terrific motivation to continue — especially because I also have two young children who deserve closure. That paragraph actually made me cry. Thanks for the extra kick in the pants just when I needed it most. 🙂

  7. 80s sitcom watcher says:

    I really enjoyed this post! I didn’t know that Blossom got a PhD in Neuroscience – as Joey Russo would say, “Woah!” (Did “Blossom” make it to Australia? Mayim Bialik is an interesting case because she was a successful child actor, went to college, got her PhD and then returned to acting. ) Personally, I love that Bill Cosby has a PhD in Education – according to Wikipedia he wrote his dissertation on his own TV program for kids, “Fat Albert.”
    I just read John Lithgow’s autobiography (needed a break from research!), and he speaks a bit about his marriage to his wife, a professor at UCLA – he says that a marriage between an actor and a professor should never work out, because of the extreme differences between those two careers and temperaments, but that he and his wife balance each other out perfectly. Maybe James Franco is seeking internal balance? I’d love to know how he’s funding his Yale education – most fellowships demand at least some time as a TA, which he is not. Maybe the school wanted the publicity? It would be very unusual for a PhD student to be paying their own way at Yale, especially in the Humanities.

  8. Mickey says:

    Oh, thank you SO much for this post! It is perfect, PERFECT timing. (I am not finishing on time, partly because I have had to go back to work . . . and today my boss explained to me that if I ceased my MA thesis work, work would be easier.)

    There is so much in my world telling me to just stop. The obstacles to getting this degree have been so numerous and unbelievable, that I have had to adopt the “take-it-in-stride-and-laugh-at-it-all” posture, while continuing doggedly on. Some of my “obstacles” are attributable to me, and that’s the very, very tough part.

    I have used all kinds of tactics to keep myself committed when everything in my world says, “Just lay it aside. Valiant, VALIANT effort, my dear, but you would not be out of your mind to just lay it on down.” The two tactics/thoughts that are currently working for me are: (1) This is about me: My DA and profs already have THEIR credentials and careers. When I sit down to write, I will not apologize for being a blossoming-fledgling researcher (the name of my blog); (2) Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER quit unless you no longer want it.

    I still want my MA. Thus, I can’t quit! 😉
    Plus . . . I see a clear pathway to getting finished. It may not be on time. It may be driving folks crazy that I’m struggling running a learning center, having a family, and trying to do this thesis. It may hurt my heart some days that I miss deadlines that should be able to be made. I just have to be a big girl about this and process those emotions and ever “fail forward” (John Maxwell’s book on this topic will convince you that failing is an inherent part of the process of doing something worthwhile, and that the “succeeders” are indeed the “perseverers.”

    Again, thank you for the post. Timing could not have been better.

    I’ll see you at the finished line!


  9. madjamison says:

    I have occasional bouts of thesis envy, but not enough to make me pursue it. There’s a lot to be said for working at something you love AND getting paid for it. I enjoy your posts!

  10. Anonymous says:

    perfect timing… when i started my phd and found out people drop off , i often wondered how can they do that? especially after all the hard doing the data collection. I am now in my third year – even though most days i feel like i can’t wait to submit my thesis, sometimes i feel so sick of looking at it and wish I can just walkaway from it……

  11. Tim. says:

    Well everyone seems to have a happy Ph.D story. Not I. I am now about to head into my 6th year. I am supposed to submit in about 6 months. However, according to the supervisor I have to do major re-writes. This would have been okay if my chapters were read 12-18 months ago, but he only read them a few weeks ago. What kind of supervisor only begins to read your chapters at the 5 and a half year point?

    This is only half the story. The information on what to do has been very inconsistent. What I am supposed to write and how I am supposed to approach the literature changes every few weeks and months with the frequency of the meetings. One meeting I am supposed to research and approach the topic ‘this way’, then in the next meeting I am to research and approach the topic ‘that way’. And so on it has been for 5 years.

    But that’s not all. Now it seems there is already a predetermined way the supervisor and markers have interpreted the literature. My own approach (which I have had for a few years, which could (and should) have been picked up well before the 6th year) is not an interpretation of the literature that it held in high regard. So, now I have to re-write it from another ‘acceptable’ angle.
    But who knows, this interpretation might change again like it has many times previous!

    I have now decided that I will submit next year regardless. I am even prepared to accept a downgrade to a Masters. I cannot go on much longer. I am mentally exhausted and am getting angrier and more frustrated as the days, weeks, and years go by.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I wish I could say this is the only time I’ve heard such a story Tim. I hope your submission goes ok – you may be surprised. A fresh set of eyes may be all that is needed to break the deadlock.

    • Ellie says:

      Tim, I think I can feel a little of your pain. I took “far too long” to get mine finished, all up 10 years, with a break in the middle for my children and the last decent chunk being 4.5 years solid (including work and kids!). I submitted last month – halle-bloody-lujah. I chose a methodology that hardly anyone seems to use (or publish about) and because neither of the supervisors were methodological experts, I found our seemingly endless critique and discussions about the choices I was making fruitless – what was the point when none of us knew what we were doing?! As it transpired, my increasing confidence in making choices and sticking with those choices by presenting a watertight rationale proved invaluable at examination – one examiner called my interpretation of the methodology the best he’s ever read. I also had one supervisor who diligently read/reviewed my work, and one supervisor who did not read anything until I presented the long document about six months ago! Then she decided I was on the wrong track…too bloody late! This last six months I’ve called ‘circling the drain’…so close and yet so far, a seemingly endless cycle of read/review/rewrite…but it was so worth it. I knew when it was finished. I guess I’m trying to say, it sounds like you have it tougher than most, but hang in there Tim. Use the university processes you have to get help with improving the quality of your supervision experience, stick to your guns, and get it done. 🙂

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