Why a Postgraduate Degree is the Best and Worst Choice You Can Make—Final Part

Why a Postgraduate Degree is the Best and Worst Choice You Can Make—Final Part

This is the final part in my series on PG studies. I haven’t covered everything but, hopefully, enough to help lift some of the angst PG students feel. I admit this series is more formulaic than I envisaged. PG studies are a wonderful experience and academic research is an artistic and creative endeavour, despite my overly mechanical representation. While I am disappointed with the tone, I think the lessons valuable nevertheless: to address the storm of dissatisfaction that engulfs PG programmes, we must be transparent about what it entails and equip students with the skills to see it through. PG studies might not make you sing, but they shouldn’t make you sob either. 

In this final essay, I conclude my reflections on PG studies with some ideas about what constitutes good practice in academic research. I’ve alluded to these throughout the series, but I feel that readers might benefit from a little unpacking, especially around coping with failure, the focus of this essay. Talk of failure is not uplifting, I admit. Ultimately, all study guides aim to boost your belief in yourself, to help you not succumb to your worst fears; in other words, they help you survive the hiccoughs. Happy PG students are healthy PG students, and healthier PG students benefits the entire tertiary sector.

I had also intended on writing about the seven deadly sins of academia. Academia is both heaven and hell, feast and famine, peaches and cream one day and a bag of sick the next. I feel privileged to be an academic, however, I worry about what the tea leaves foretell. This is not cause to jump ship; to the contrary, there is much work to be done, and I regard the sins I’m thinking through as stimuli when reflecting on the contribution academia can / might / must make to the struggles our societies are grappling with. For PG students, this means that contending with our sinful ways is part of the challenge you face. 

Alas, this discussion is for another day. My posts are getting longer by the week and, as I counsel students, stay focused, frame your topic, and trim the fat. Best if I practise what I preach and save the sins for another day. 

1- Learning to Cope with Failure 

Postgraduate students fail. Often. A former PhD of mine expressed it well:

“My degree is literally failing over and over. I wish you told me this at the beginning.”

PhD Candidate (2019)

Consider yourself told. But what did she mean by failure? Success is a moveable feast making failure equally versatile. To know where you stand on failure, figure out what you mean by success. What do you hope to achieve from your degree? For high achievers, anything less than completion with distinction is failure. For most others, completion is sufficient but also fundamental. It’s not surprising since only eccentrics would sign up to PG studies without intending to finish.

Yet, the number of non-completions is rising. As I mentioned in the first essay, nearly one quarter of masters students and one half of doctoral students do not complete their degrees. Those figures should give pause for thought. Each student who exited the university without a degree shared the same aim as you, yet failed. What do these statistics tell us? First, that willpower alone will not see you through the tribulations. Second, being strategic and learning to manage failure is vital. I suggest re-conceptualising the experience to avoid the dejection failure causes, for it is the feeling failure elicits—rather than the actual failure—that impedes your progress. 

There’s no need to beat around the bush: completion is paramount. No one should say otherwise even if it advisable to acknowledge the ancillary aims that motivate you; additional goals do not conflict with your core objective. However, if you feel ambivalent about completing the degree, do something else. PG programmes are gruelling, lonely, and bland. Few students graduate with fond memories of the experience. Don’t misunderstand me: PG studies are fulfilling, albeit in a masochistic way. It’s like people who train for marathons. Suffering is inevitable, but they pull on their trainers anyway. Pain and pleasure are not always diametric. Still, just as some competitors stop before reaching the finish line, others don’t even make it through the training regime. They need not feel ashamed. Sometimes, quitting is the best course of action. Yet, a desire to finish is a minimum mindset or you’ll stumble when treating your first blister. Runners learn how to overcome blisters, injuries, and boredom. The desire to complete a marathon—rather than not—often sees them through. The same must be true for you, or you won’t learn to weather the bumps.

However, it should be obvious from my opening quote—my degree is literally failing over and over—that failure means more than non-completion. Examples abound:

  • Missing out on your preferred programme
  • Not being nominated for a scholarship
  • Turned down by a desirable supervisor
  • Not getting along with a desirable supervisor
  • Drafting a poor research proposal
  • Repeating your upgrade exam
  • Seeing an article bounced back

Seasoned academics smile at the ‘naïveté’ of PG students. To presume that you will succeed from your first attempt at any of these activities is to underestimate the rigour of scholarly work. They also lament PG fragility. Without belittling anyone’s feelings, we notice that students exaggerate the implications of the slip-ups. Yet, just as children fall when learning to walk or ride a bike, the same happens to PG students when undertaking unfamiliar tasks. Learning takes time. Children feel they fail when they fall; parents know better. Slips are inevitable and academic research has a steep learning curve. Your failures are only bruises from learning something new. To cope with the inevitable, reflect on the following three suggestions. 

First, while it may seem trite, I encourage you to study the tasks expected of you. PG studies are no trifling matter. They may be less exclusive than they once were, but degrees remain the purview of a minority. In the UK, one-third of the working age population possesses a degree-level qualification, one-tenth hold a postgraduate degree, and only 1% have a doctorate. Their challenging character is one reason for the scarcity of awards. When a bar is high, even able pole vaulters crash to the canvass. While there is no shame in reaching for the skies, neglecting to prepare for the leap is.

My second suggestion brings us back to completion. It is important to place the earlier statistics in perspective. While it is alarming that scores of students do not graduate, universities also award thousands of degrees every year. Success does not come easy, but a fair few succeed. Familiarise yourself with the standards from the quality assurance agencies in your jurisdiction (I speak to these in the first and second essays). With knowledge of the standards the examiners apply, you enhance your ability to strive for and attain them. 

Third, recognise that mediocrity is an acceptable standard to settle for. I understand that this recommendation is counter-intuitive, even idiosyncratic and will likely irk many students and colleagues. It is curious for an academic to encourage students to accept mediocrity. Shouldn’t we always strive for the stars? We should! But stroking your ambition is not the purpose of this essay. I’m sharing practices to help you cope better with failure. To reiterate, most PG students regard non-completion as the worst failure of all. If you feel overwhelmed and are contemplating withdrawing from your programme, remind yourself that a mediocre dissertation is still a dissertation. Since defending my doctorate, I have never re-read my dissertation. I doubt anyone other than my supervisor and examiners have. Why? For the same reason that few people pay to attend a secondary school football match. PG students are amateur researchers learning the craft. The vast majority of PG work is of dubious quality. We encounter the occasional Messi and Biles, dancing across the pitch or vaulting off the parallel bars with silk and charm. But these geniuses prove the rule. Your work will resemble that of your peers, and it will be amateurish (that doesn’t mean it won’t be good). If you reach your breaking point, remind yourself that mediocre students graduate. It is those who withdraw, who do not. 

2- When Withdrawal is Success

Desire and effort notwithstanding, some postgraduate students will not complete. That’s just the way it is. I reiterate a firm belief: there is no shame in this. Those who risk nothing, gain nothing. You took a chance and concluded that it’s not an endeavour you wish to see through. You demonstrate both wisdom and courage in recognising your priorities, perhaps even your limitations. Yet students agonise over this decision before, during, and after. As I make clear in the preceding section, withdrawal is not a decision to take lightly. However, it is an appropriate decision in certain circumstances. If you find yourself in one of the following situations, withdrawal is almost always your best course of action. Your pride will suffer but your health will thank you for it. 

First, you should rethink your plan if you find yourself loathing the experience. While some discomfort is expected, even necessary, loathing your daily life is not. Motivations for pursuing a PG degree differ but, in all instances, you accept that the road is long and bumpy; there is much to learn and gain. However, in instances where your feelings toward what you are doing—or the people you are doing it with—deteriorate, there is less to gain and more to lose. The psychological damage wrought by academia is damning. Before you know it, feelings of hatred for the craft morph into disdain for the self. I have witnessed far too many PG students transform from the curious, eager, and sparkling individuals they were when they began their programmes into shadows of their former selves. Supervisors and institutions are aware of this and now offer a plethora of wellbeing activities to placate the pain our programmes cause. I commend the initiatives and encourage you to avail yourself of them. Still, if you find yourself crumbling, withdrawal might be preferable to staying the course. Better to have loved and walked away than to be scarred by an abusive relationship.

Second, withdrawal is appropriate in instances where your abilities prove inadequate for the tasks at hand. Research is a practice. Knowhow is fundamental, hence the importance of supervisory involvement. Ability, however, is also fundamental. Some students struggle with the demands of the programme because they are not cut out for it. To their credit, they stay the course but disappointment abounds. Depending on the time already committed, withdrawal might be the best option. I realise that neither students nor supervisors enjoy hearing this. In fact, they fight against it as it impugns their abilities: one can’t do it and the other can’t help them do it. Boxers and their corners grapple with this as well. Neither wants to throw in the towel, even when the fighter is outmatched and losing the fight. They hope the tide will turn or the boxer will get lucky and land a hail mary. Sadly, this almost never happens. Worse, many boxers suffer injury, including brain damage or mental trauma, because of the beating they suffer when the fight is already lost. Their pride might remain but, in the best case scenario, their ring career is over. In the worst case, their spirit will change forever. The metaphor may sound hyperbolic but it captures the essence of the decision you face. If your abilities are insufficient to succeed in your programme, you must be brave enough to acknowledge this and call it a day. Rather than squander time, money, and, above all, mental health chasing a goal you are ill equipped to achieve, move on. It’s not easy, but it’s essential lest you end up delaying a decision that is eventually foisted upon you. 

Both of these situations demand escape from the programme as they undermine mental health, sometimes in irreparable ways. My list is not exhaustive. There are other instances where withdrawal might also be sensible: illness, penury, or a more attractive opportunity. However, if injured or presented with a magnificent offer, the decision is much easier to make. It is agonising when the departure is initiated by you; we are riddled with feelings of guilt and, you guessed it, failure. Yet, in these instances non-completion is success. You’ve learned much about the academic sector, research as craft, and yourself. By eliminating an unsuitable undertaking, you get nearer to those activities that will provide you with fulfilment. It may sound hackneyed, but time and health are your most precious assets. Best to dedicate yourself to activities that do not stampede all over yours. 

3- Non-Completion is Success, Too

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Most of us have heard this adage. It’s uttered to reassure and rebut feelings of failure. It’s sensible counsel and has purchase in a PG programme as well. However, this advice—if we can call it advice—may set you on a troubling trajectory. That a child should try again after falling off a bicycle is obvious. Unless they suffer from a condition that precludes them from balancing or pedalling, success is inevitable. They do not appreciate this when laying on the pavement clasping a bloody knee. We wipe their tears, hug them, and promise they’ll get it soon, which they do. PG programmes are not bicycles and, to beat a dead horse, the statistics verify that success is anything but inevitable. It is vital for students and supervisors to identify barometers of success beyond completion. I see three and all pertain to the pursuit of knowledge that a university nurtures. 

First, students gain knowledge, tout court. Each of us operates within a specific field of study. Your programme compels you to take substantive and method courses; you’ll read articles and books; you’ll attend lectures; and you’ll enrol in workshops and conferences. By participating in these activities, you will deepen your understanding of your field. Whether you complete the degree or not, you’ve enriched your worldview in countless ways. 

Second, during your degree, you gain knowledge of a professional sector. You learn about institutional politics, the testy relationship between HASS and STEM, bureaucracy, and of course research methods and methodologies. Without belabouring the point about transferable skills, you gain much by by immersing yourself in an experience. It’s for this reason that I reject viewpoints voiced about universities that begin with “in the real world…”. Academia is a microcosm of the societies we inhabit, as well as a laboratory for the societies we hope to create. Deeper consciousness is inescapable, even if a neoliberal truncheon seeks to suffocate it out of us. Your education will grow exponentially if you open your eyes to your surroundings.

Third, a PG programme teaches you about yourself. To some pedagogues, this is the very purpose of education. It is especially so at the tertiary level because of another adage: education is wasted on youth. I smile when I think of this, for I recall that my own UG degree was a decidedly distracted affair. What else could it be? I was young, free, and curious. A lecture theatre or an exam hall was the last place I wanted to be (and the gap year I took did wonders for my personal growth). By the time I reached my masters, I was devoted to learning. By then, I had been working as a lawyer for a few years and grown weary of the grind. Academia was less an escape than an unshackling of my mind. The lecture theatre was now the exact place I wanted to be. I relished the learning, and sought out a research assistantship. My dissertation was still a slog, but I thought it good enough to publish and submitted it to plenty of journals (it wasn’t). As my year came to an end, I returned to my firm with a heavy heart. I had the freedom of the campus and would now be pinned to the confines of my office. Still, it’s what lawyers do and I accepted this, albeit begrudgingly. A few years later, I knew that academia was more attuned to my aspirations than a magic circle firm and I made the move with a PhD and eventually a tenure-track post. My LLM taught me far more than I anticipated, and led me to where I am today.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that all PGs are as transcendental. Again, many of my peers had a horrid time in their masters and either toughed it out or withdrew. The same is true of my PhD. Looking back, roughly half completed their doctorates and, of that group, only a fraction of us remain in academia today. It is a shining light to some and the pits of hell to others, bolstering my point about non-completion being success, too. Of those who did not complete, one is a partner at a magic circle firm, another is a high court judge, and a third is an entrepreneur with a thriving consultancy firm (and some his biggest clients are, you guessed it, universities). I should mention one more PhD who, after three years struggling with her PhD, withdrew altogether and went to work for a large NGO. I learned recently that she returned a few years later to submit and defend her dissertation. She had it on ice for what felt like an eternity but, as it turned out, was developing the ideas while in practice. 

In contrast to what many fear, non-completion is not the end; it often presages a beginning. Focus on completion for the reasons I detail in the opening section. Still, students and supervisors should acknowledge that there’s plenty to be gained even by those who do not complete. 

4- Enjoy the Ride

I conclude this four-part series with the metaphor I opened with: the rollercoaster. As your PG programme unfolds, you will become more acquainted with the peaks and troughs I allude to. However, if my intervention was effective, you’ll approach these with less trepidation, perhaps even with more gusto. Dropouts, disaffection, and depression are all too common in PG programmes precisely because applicants and candidates are either unaware or misinformed about the realities of the experience and of the sector.

While this series is sometimes biting, it should help you make a more informed decision about whether you wish to board the beast and, if you do, about how to navigate the cavalcade of emotions it will occasion. Each PG programme is a unique experience. By (re)reading this series, you empower yourself to make decisions that will ensure that you stomach and maybe even enjoy the ride (at least a little).

With the postgraduate application season upon us, I will offer a virtual masterclass on drafting research proposals in late October. I’ll draw on the framework outlined in this series, while going deeper into the expectations of admissions committees and granting agencies (for those applying for scholarships). After the initial presentation, I will take questions about proposals and PG studies, with a focus on law and social sciences. It is an open event, brought to you courtesy of Opinio Juris. I’ll rope a couple of my PhDs into sharing some reflections about their experience (and not their supervisor). Details to follow in the weeks ahead. 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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