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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