I landed my dream PhD – and it turned into a nightmare

The Guardian | 6 January 2017 | Academics Anonymous
Friday 13 January 2017
by  antonin

Cutting-edge research, international collaboration and full funding: the project sounded too good to be true. It was.

I signed up for a PhD that should have marked the start of an amazing career – it was a fully-funded position as part of an exciting project that I was enthusiastic to work on. In fact, this decision has done anything but help my career.

I had been in the UK higher education system for five years at that point, having undertaken both my undergraduate and master’s degrees at UK universities. I was lured in by the prospects this PhD offered: international work experience within an exciting research team and the opportunity to develop valuable skills in my field, using cutting-edge techniques. To top it all off, I would get a monthly salary, tuition fees waived, and expenses for conferences, laboratory work and travel would all be covered.

Foolishly, I did very little research on my supervisors, thinking that nothing could go wrong with a project funded by a well-known organisation in one of UK’s leading universities. I was very wrong.

On my arrival, I discovered that my supervisor did not have much knowledge in my area – having not worked directly on it before – and I was the first PhD student they had ever had.

None of the equipment I was supposedly going to learn to use (as mentioned in the original advertisement) was in place. I was left to work with outdated methods that weren’t beneficial to the project or my development. When I raised these issues, I was told that these methods were more financially sustainable and that the university could not invest in the equipment at the moment.

To make matters worse, international collaboration was never made possible. In fact, it was actively discouraged on several occasions.

I tried numerous times to address these issues with my supervisors, since I was getting worried about the prospects for my PhD. They didn’t seem interested. After more than a year of this situation, I told them that I was extremely unhappy with the project and that things needed to change.

They denied my concerns. The equipment was not necessary for my research, they said, and the statements and opportunities mentioned in the original proposal were not written in stone. I was referred to the departmental tutor for “advice”, but was instead told to decide whether I wanted to stay or quit. I was offered no support in trying to resolve any of the issues that I had raised.

I contacted my funding body about the situation. I hoped that this would spark some interest in trying to find a solution so I would be able to continue; it said there was not much it could do. It seemed that the organisation had given its money to a project that couldn’t have worked in the way it was intended.

I had no choice but to quit. My issues were not recognised as valid by the department, my supervisors or the university – I later found out that my withdrawal had been put down to “personal and health issues”, which made me feel even worse.

This experience has taught me a lot about how universities operate – I have learned these lessons the hard way. The best advice I can offer to anyone considering a PhD is to do a lot of research before starting. Get to know your supervisor’s area of expertise, the university and the department. Visit the university to get an idea of the facilities that are available. Ask as many questions as you can before you start. Know your rights. Don’t trust that you will be given what you are promised. Be wary about signing up to something that seems too good to be true.

The damage this has inflicted on my career and my ambition is immense. It made me lose my motivation and passion for a subject that I loved. I just hope that sharing my experience means more will be done in the future to check projects before they are funded so that cases like mine cannot happen again.

Read on The Guardian

Picture credit: ‘The damage this has inflicted on my career and my ambition is immense. It made me lose my motivation and passion for a subject that I loved.’ Photograph: Alamy

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