Why PhD is Difficult to Complete and Why there are so many ABDs and PhD Dropouts

After debunking the myth of  what does it mean to be a PhD and PhD myths related to specialization and departmental scope of expertise, this post debunks two of the myths about the difficulty of PhD. These two myths are responsible for discouraging many to pursue a PhD:

  • Myth 1: PhD is hard because doing it is very technical and complex!”
  • Myth 2: A PhD degree requires a lot of intelligence and smartness. Holders of PhD are at the top of the intelligence pyramid.

Please note that the estimates of PhD dropouts varies from 60-70 percent. That is out of 100 students enrolling in PhD, only 30 to 40 reach the finish line. Dropouts from PhD programs belong to the category termed ABDs: “All But Dissertation”. Meaning PhD students who have completed all the formalities for the PhD including course work, comprehensive exam and proposal defense except the dissertation, which may still be a work in process or in the writing stage. In this post I describe why a PhD dissertation so difficult and so hard to complete!

Myth: PhD is Hard because doing it is very technical and complex. Why PhD is Hard?

PhD is not hard because it is very technical or too complex or requires too much intelligence. It is hard because it requires commitment of several years of your life while the world around you seems to be moving forward; your colleagues would be climbing up on the career ladder with increasing income and improving lifestyle, while you will be subsisting on a stipend or you may even have to remain contented with a salary that is static or even less than what you were getting before you started your PhD. Also, typically you are at a stage in life when the probability of being caught in personal and family emergencies is high. Combination of these stresses create psychological barriers to the continuation of your PhD research as described here.

Perception of Others Moving Ahead of You

We were two colleagues who completed their masters at the same time from UT Austin. My friend joined a big electronic company that is famous for manufacturing microprocessors, and I decided to go for the PhD. As I was searching for an old functional car that I could afford on my scholarship stipend, my friend had bought an impressive SUV with his market based salary. To highlight the SUV’s 4-wheel drive features, he took our gang cross country over the hills around Lake Travis in Austin. The drive gives you the contrast I am trying to emphasize. As I was contemplating student housing, he had rented an attractive apartment. Then he bought the new sofa-set, dinning tables, beds etc worth thousands of dollars. On the other hand, I bought a sofa-set for some tens of dollars from a graduating student, who was leaving. Then he got married and was soon driving with his wife in his SUV. Around the same time, I also got married and started to live in the married student housing of UT Austin. Then, he proudly took me to show the twin condos that he had bought on a long term mortgage. Those were the days when property values had collapsed due to Savings and Loans crisis, and foreclosed condos and homes were available for grab at very attractive terms and it was easy for anyone to become the owner of a condo for a monthly payment slightly more than the rent one was paying for the apartment. A year or so later he had bought/constructed a brand new house where he moved. As I saw my friends climbing up from student housing, to apartments to the condos to brand new fabulous houses, Irfan Hyder was just a PhD student on a subsistence stipend from the university and struggling with his PhD not having any knowledge of how much further he had to go! It is this perceived peer pressure for “keeping up with the appearances” that makes the PhD student continuously evaluate his opportunity costs.

Perception of Not Knowing How Much Progress I have Made

The real pressure during PhD is this feeling of being stuck in a no-man’s land while others are moving ahead. To the student it typically feels like being stuck, with no end in sight. You see, a PhD becomes a PhD because there are no markers, no milestones, no idea of how close you are to the end point. By definition, Phd is about hoisting your flag in an uncharted territory, also referred to as making an “original” contribution. Had the territory been charted, it would have meant someone has already been there. That would have meant that the topic does not have the “originality” and that would be enough to doom your PhD, however, much effort you may have put in by that time.

Bachelors and Masters is easy. You start your bachelors knowing that you have to do these 40 courses. After each semester you know how many you have done, and how many more remain to be done. After one semester 35 remain to be done, after two semester the target has gone down to 30, then 25, then 20 and eventually you are ready to graduate. Even if there are setbacks, you still know where you stand. You can do the maths. However, in PhD you feel like being in desert with shifting sand dunes and no land markers. You may be travelling for days, but only in circles, not making any real headway. This unpredictability is what makes a PhD hard. Especially when others seem to be making so concrete headway. Interestingly enough, the end often comes to you as a surprise.

This typically happens on one fine day, when unexpectedly you find your supervisor announcing that he wants every thing to be wrapped up in a few months. It is over! This happened to me in early 1994, when my supervisor one day said, Mr Hyder I want you to be out of here by the end of this year. Now just wrap up whatever you have done. And, this came pretty much as a shock, as I had become accustomed to that student life during the preceding four years to an extent that I have forgotten there can be any other lifestyle. It is in this sense that I look at my PhD convocation ceremony as one of the biggest anti-climax time of my life: Getting only a piece of paper even though in an elegant ceremony. After so much effort and toil, after so many years, and after overcoming so many of the stresses, the end result is just a piece of paper! This was not a fitting finale accompanied by the huge crescendo of a full size orchestra that I was expecting.

Probability of Personal Emergencies

A very important factor in the high rate of PhD dropouts is that the probability of personal emergencies increases with the increasing age and responsibilities of a PhD student. Typically a student starts on the route to PhD around the age of 30. By that time students are often married with one or two children, or the first child is just around the corner, and your parents are often in the upper age bracket. Young children and older parents often get sick and this increases the stress over what has been described above. Moreover, with so much stress at home and with studies, probability of some slippage at work is very much probable, which may lead to job related problems creating additional financial pressures.

Then, there is this balancing act for the time that you allocate to your wife and children and your research. This especially becomes acute when you have finally managed to create a momentum after a long time and effort and you are making a steady progress that has motivated you to work for long hours. You are working late in your research lab or your research group. Then, one day you come home from a long day of hard research work, you are feeling a fulfillment of having made concrete progress that you can not describe, and at home you find your wife and kids waiting for the entire day for that long expected outing that somehow has slipped from your mind. You are looking forward to a couple of hours of relaxation, in which you simply want to do nothing. But, your wife and children can not understand your state and you are unable to make them understand and you become irritated because it is your fault that you forgot the date. Situation like these if not managed properly often leads to altercations, giving rise to yet another level of stress.

These factors combine together to make the probability of emergencies of a personal kind increase continuously as the PhD work progresses.

Psychological Barriers

Psychological factors and barriers often cause so much stress during the PhD that it is common for a PhD student to have at least one mild episode of a psychological nature. Of course, there are some who go through some severe kind of episodes also. It is here that the counseling and mentorship of the supervisor, help from your research group members and various support groups and support from family and loved ones is greatly helpful in overcoming this stress. Interesting part of this state is the understanding of the seasoned supervisors to this phenomenon who acknowledge this by correspondingly reducing the research pressure and give enough time for the student to recover from this phase.

My advice to students is not to prolong the PhD. Try to exploit fully the space you have right now and flatly go out, and complete the dissertation as soon as possible. In case, one or more such emergencies happen. Just scale down the amount of time you work for your PhD. But under no condition you should terminate it. If it gets too tough, allocate as few as just fifteen minutes of writing time every day. But, at all costs, persevere. Never let a day pass without writing. The effort in restarting your PhD after a break is not linearly, but exponentially related to the length of the break of your PhD work as shown in the figure. Therefore, writing and keeping momentum although at a low key level is must.

Loss in Momentum is exponentially related to 
break in your PhD Work 

The figure here shows that a break of (say) three week can cause may be a loss of 2 units of momentum, break of five weeks may cause a loss of momentum of 9 units of momentum, but a break of 7 weeks may cause a loss of over 50 units of momentum. This depicts that the severity of the loss of momentum becomes more and more for every additional week of not working. A time then comes when it starts appearing impossible for the PhD student to resume work.

Myth: A PhD Holder is at the Top of the Intelligence Pyramid i.e. PhD requires a lot of intelligence

A PhD is more a function of perseverance than intelligence, and more a function of commitment than smartness. Although a foundational proficiency is required, but my experience of interacting with PhD candidates indicates that it is always the tortoise that wins the PhD race; hares often lose out because they are so smart, they have so many other things to do, and they get bored easily. The hare with its intellectual sprints and intellectual jumps is too smart to trudge along for the long haul; a capacity that is an essential requirement for completing the PhD marathon. I have seen many intelligent people simply ejecting out because for them spending years in a confined narrow space is not such an exciting proposition. Smart people often consider a narrow focus of the PhD specialization over such a long period of time as too boring and too devoid of excitement. They do not often have the patience to wait till the fun of research begins to start. In many cases they have more exciting possibilities open to them than to continue belaboring with a single minded commitment on their selected area of specialization.

So, you must understand that you do NOT need to be at the top of the intelligence pyramid to get a PhD. You just need to be a good student (with at least a B grade) and with a huge amount of commitment and perseverance to complete a PhD.

See My Other Posts on PhD:

What is PhD?

Why PhD is Difficult: 

Starting with your PhD

Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD

See Also:


25 responses to “Why PhD is Difficult to Complete and Why there are so many ABDs and PhD Dropouts”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    I have a strong intention of becoming a PhD. InshaaaAllah, and your articles are helping me visualize the real thing!

    Bless you!

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Although Currently I'm pursuing PhD, but indeed your blog advocated me up towards a more clear and true vision of PhD!

  3. I am trying to write down some of the things that I often share with my research students. There are many more experiences that I really want all research students to be aware of.

  4. As mentioned in my above reply, I would like to share with you many more such insights that I learned the hard way. Please do scan the websites that often contain many such tips. These are life savers.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    I would be more than happy, If I'll have opportunities to incorporate Scholar's/Professionals experiences and valuable tips to prosecute my PhD program in right direction. In fact such sort of blogs/posts truly assist me out to realize a clear cut picture of PhD plate form!

  6. I am writing these posts to assist my students in the pursuit of their PhDs, to help them understand the real issues and challenges that they would face during the completion of their PhD.

  7. There are several reasons behind this; one of which is timely and well documented communication from the university to the students. According to HEC, after the synopsis submission, a Ph.D. candidate along with the supervisor should submit a quarterly report to the BASR on their thesis progression. This practice is only proposed in the documents but can not be seen in practice in many HEIs. This way if students are facing any challenges pertinent to data collection, supervision, writing issues, theoretical issues, they keep it all to themselves without being guided with any strategic substitutions. Solution to this could be calling in for progress report from students each semester and exploring their progress accordingly and if the students require some support and facilitation it can be addressed by the relevant personnel.

    Another problem is of resources in specialized topics of dissertation. I am doing my research in ECD and there are no journals subscribed. The solution to this could be asking each students to propose 40 – 50 articles which they would like to refer and bringing those articles in university repository for the use of students and for future reference repository of research articles.

    Moreover, students enrolled in Ph.D, a few of them are working simultaneously writing their thesis also. Many students are supporting their families and cant afford to leave jobs full time. There should be some contractual agreements made and proposed by the institution which allows Ph.D. students to take a certain time off for their studies or may be less pressure of work from the institution on the same salary. This will ease the financial stress of the students and they could focus on their dissertation more constructively.

  8. The objective of this post was to highlight the areas that makes a PhD difficult. Your comment deals with the "unstructured" nature of the PhD research in an "uncharted" territory where the only marker is the supervisor. Quarterly or half yearly progress reports is only one of the several mechanisms to put "some" structure or marker on a problem which is essential unstructured and uncharted. Contractual management of financial issue and availability to access to journals are also important mechanisms. The important thing for a student is to anticipate and be mentally prepared for such

  9. Received from Mr Aftab Chaudhry in my email inbox:

    Dear Dr Saheb,

    I have been trying to post my comments on your blog, 'Why PhDs is Difficult …' without any success, please incorporate if possible and oblige.

    "We might never distract a laureate from telling true and rightful stories of achievements for greater fulfillments …a turning point for the aspiring to be PhDs. A methodically rationalized for high achievers.

    Inciting, alluring, insightful, adventurous, and above all conclusive! "


    Aftab Chaudary

  10. yes, you are absolutely right. these are my barriers in phd

  11. Typically these barriers as I have described in the post are the ones that most irritate smart and ambitious people. The trick is to put this smartness on the back burner for a few years, to enrich your mind with single minded, directed, focused attention on a problem for a long stretch of time.

  12. Romana Khokhar Avatar
    Romana Khokhar

    I feel another barrier to the pursuit of a PhD are the social barriers in terms of the whys's and how's of achieving the Phd. Often i am asked the question why i need to pursue this degree, what would it achieve in life that could not be achieved otherwise. It is difficult to explain (and perhaps not required to be explained if you are confident about your goals) that it is about the learning process more than anything. We live in such commercial times that in the quest for more of out-wordly success we forget that success lies in the lessons learnt and striving to be better tomorrow than you are today!

  13. I think PhD is hard just because we are afraid of "READING and EXPLORING" .. Doing a PhD means becoming a philosopher. Neither everyone can become a Philosopher nor everyone doing PhD is accepted in his friend and family circle.

    A common myth which might be missed is the concept of "PHIRA HUA DIMAGH". Most of the people recognizes PhDs as Psycho people. They consider them either out of the world or absent minded people.

    We are all Philosophers in our daily life matters. When it comes to decision making or giving suggestions we are the greatest philosophers and when it comes to become a professional degree holder, many of us escape away due to the Psychological and Social Barriers.

    Becoming a PhD is very difficult for person who believes in status quo and it is very easy for a person who thinks that he can bring a very little contribution to this world.

  14. I have gone through this blog and I found it quite interesting and helpful for the people those who are in the field of research and for those who are planning to start it. This will motivate them that you can also become a PhD, it’s not only the matter of smartness and intelligence but it is all about perseverance and commitment. If you are committed, steady and if you can balance the family time and research time you can win the race easily because it is all about time management. If I add something in this blog is that do not get distracted from the others pace of life and success, you know it that you cannot see the endpoint but you should have faith that you will reach that end point one day because it is there but you cant see it .The only thing is the determination and commitment that can lead you to that hidden point. The other attractive outcome of this blog is that it can indirectly helps the researcher to complete his research by just sharing it with his spouse, parents and the in laws which helps them to realize that you may either be a demotivating factor or a helpful source because some one else advise or words can give a multiplier effect than what ever researcher try to explain them, because without their support it is almost impossible to complete the research work. It is not necessary that if you are married, having children or parents at old age, you cannot complete your PhD, it is just about making them realize that you can contribute a lot in the completion of my degree and that will be beneficial for the whole family.
    Missing factor of this blog, which may cause the barrier in completion of your research, is the social circle, which is increasing the pressure on you that you have to meet them, attends functions, which will take a lot of your precious time. You have to miss many main events of your life in order to pass through the narrow and bored veins of the research body.

  15. I like the phrase regarding spouse and parents. Yes at this level your parents and spouse are the biggest motivating source.

    Indeed I came to know that there are PhDs who completed their degree in the age of 60 and he shared his views that his family was continuously motivating him and pushing him to complete his degree.

  16. From what I have learned from my teachers and guides written about PhDs the greatest myth associated with a PhD is that it is supposed to be something revolutionary and groundbreaking, something that is Noble Prize worthy. This lofty goal is obviously nearly unachievable and ends up making the PhD student extremely frustrated and disappointed leading to them eventually dropping out or losing interest further exacerbating the problem. Aspirants who have not yet begun the dissertation phase become even more disillusioned seeing their seniors in this defeated state. This self feeding vicious cycle keeps on discouraging several others.

  17. Generally saying if there will be no domestic, financial or administrative bearer then everybody will be a PHD and worth of PHD will be like to other degrees. It is good as it is tuff because tuff conditions teaches proper lesson

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. I have gone through the blog and find this very interesting and presenting true picture regarding journey from student to Ph. D (Dr.). I am enrolled in Ph. D program from last two years and my feelings and conditions are almost same as shared in the blog. The most important point is continuity of work, once it loses the permanence, it is hard to reconnect the chain and it is very difficult to catch the pace of work. I am agreeing with the suggestion, as Ph. D student you will not detach from you work for a single day, it will bring very costly results. Psychological pressures and race with the peers is very heart touching points, but once you get the degree of Ph. D you feel proud being member of prestigious intelligentsia club of society.
    I strongly believe that Ph. D is not for other, it purely related to your inclination and motivation, may be you will not get high financial benefits in return, but after Ph D you feel yourself as complete. If you are crazy about it, you love to do it.

  20. Your post is awesome. You have shared very valuable information to us on dissertation . Thank you so much for sharing this.

  21. I think this is happening just because of insufficient resources and methods. People are not awared about understanding the different tools that can help them in this program. So on this site you will be know about proper utilization of resources.

  22. PhD is the top level higher education degree for students and also this dream for every students. PhD course is difficult and you have to hard study to complete your PhD course. Also you can visit our homepage to get waiver letter writing services. Here in this article i have got awesome information about PhD. This information should helpful for students to complete PhD. Thanks

  23. This is a perception that PhD is something that is impossible to achieve but your deep concern and hardwork can make it possible. Mostly students look here and there to find best thesis and help so it is not an impossible task .

  24. Glad to know this information.

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