Studying Abroad & Academic Challenges – Nina’s Story

Nina was a PhD student from Turkey. She started her PhD about the same time I did. She entered the doctoral program with lots of energy and passion for the subject. She was a brilliant young woman who really wanted to succeed.

However, Nina faced certain academic issues that were evident from the very beginning. Let’s call a spade a spade. Her English language skills were not good enough for PhD program.

I am not sure if she took IELTS or TOEFL and how well she scored, but it must have been above the 7.5 band since that was the language proficiency threshold set by our university department. Her actual English was probably closer to 6. She was not a confident speaker and struggled with listening comprehension. She was not a competent reader either. She said she had not read anything academic before. The reading problems manifested themselves in writing, which was not on the PhD level. Things did not look good for Nina at the very start of her PhD journey.

She started her PhD by reading (slowly) random staff loosely related to her research topic. There were always a few huge piles of books on her desk. It looked like she was reading them all at the same time. Nina could not accept uncertainty. When reading she wanted to understand everything.  She indeed read several books simultaneously, looked up all novel word meanings; she checked all the new concepts. It would not be a bad strategy if she had plenty of time and no deadlines. Unfortunately, it was not the case.

Her first deadline was approaching quickly. Eight months after starting her PhD program, she was to pass a differentiation exam which was an initial PhD review during which professors were to decide if her doctoral project was worth continuing (and paying for) and Nina has a realistic chance of finishing it.

Instead of making progress,  Nina was going down the rabbit hole with her project. She was following elusive words, concepts, different theoretical pathways, new methodologies, new ideas, new directions. She enrolled in several courses on statistics, experimental studies, SPSS, study skills, academic writing, managing projects, academic critical reading to name only a few of them.

Nina was like a child trying to catch a butterfly. Running after a kaleidoscope of butterflies and catching none. She paid too much attention to details and followed too many things at the same time.  She did not see the bigger picture of her research project. She could not see the forest for the trees.

Nina was a brilliant, ambitious, and quick learner, but she was only a human, not a cyborg. The academic workload was heavy. There was too much information to process. She quickly became overworked and stressed. She had no holidays or even for that matter a single day off in the first year of her PhD. What’s worse Nina did not have any feedback from her supervisors for three-four months.  I am not sure why. Some PhD supervisors give students breathing space at the beginning of the doctoral program. So the first two three months of PhD program might be a honeymoon period. Or maybe her supervisor was just too busy.  I couldn’t tell. No matter what the reason was, the supervisor left Nina without close supervision which was a glaring mistake. She needed guidance from the very beginning.

Despite all the problems I mentioned, whenever Nina spoke about her project, I was having doubts about my own research ideas. She planned to have a massive sample size, wanted to investigate several variables, she had a long list of research questions.

I did not know at that stage that what she was planning was unrealistic (too little time), unreasonable (there was no need for such a big sample), and methodologically flawed (her research design could not answer her research questions).  Her research subject differed from mine and I had no time to evaluate the soundness of her project. Anyway, her project seemed so ambitious that my research plans looked very unremarkable in comparison.

Nina found out that her ideas were not so great during the differentiation exam which she failed. She got an extra three months to improve her project, then she was to resit the exam. It was her last chance, so she was understandably in panic.

You know the proverb ‘it never rains, but it pours’. Out of a sudden, her first supervisor (due to health issues) left the university. The university promptly assigned her a new one-a dedicated and very smart woman. The problem was that she had never supervised a doctoral student before. She also had no experience in quantitive methods and Nina’s research was all about hypothesis testing. On the positive side, the second supervisor provided Nina with constructive feedback and corrected mistakes in the project. Nina passed the differentiation. Frankly, the examiners still were not thrilled about her project but decided to give her a chance.

At that stage, Nina was almost in the second year of her PhD. Unusually for this stage, the rationale for her project, theoretical framework, methods section were all still underdeveloped and rather ambiguous. Despite reading lots of different stuff, she did not even start writing a literature review. She could not explain her research with clarity. I know that because I attended a student-led seminar where Nina gave a talk about her project.  After the presentation, students and lecturers in the audience asked a series of good questions and Nina had a very hard time answering them convincingly. I think it was the moment the supervisors should have advised Nina to take a step back, spend a year extra on improvements, literature review, and general English improvement. But they didn’t.

Nina went ahead with her project.  She started looking for participants for her research. As I mentioned, she wanted to have a strong sample. She planned to recruit 80 parent/child dyads (couples). Normally, in the best conditions finding people willing to take part in a research project is hard. Nina was in a foreign country trying to persuade local people to take part in a project she could not explain because of her language problems. Her oral English did not improve after a year of staying in the UK. She was buried in books and she did not have time to improve her spoken English. It was a hopeless situation.  Nina had to make several phone calls a day to find participants. She could not understand people on the phone, she was nervous when speaking. Few people agreed to participate in the project. Those who agreed often withdrew their participation or did not answer her calls. It was clear that her PhD project was to fail.

Fortunately, the first supervisor helped Nina find 20 parents (and children) willing to take part in the project. The sample was much smaller than initially planned and not big enough to conduct any inferential statistical tests. So Nina was forced to change research methods, research questions, etc. to rescue her sinking project. That was difficult since Nina spent 15 months learning experimental methods and now she was to switch to a more qualitative approach she knew nothing about. Nina never had a good rapport with supervisors but at that stage, supervisors simply started losing patience with her.  Nina became depressive, PhD dream changed into a nightmare. Her stress reached uncontrolled levels causing anxiety. She needed psychological help. She knew if she failed she would have to return the money the sponsor paid for her studies.

Doing PhD research is not only about research. It is also about analyzing data and writing up the 80,000-word thesis. Nina could not write very well academically. She started procrastinating, she spent too much time on producing ‘a perfect sentence’. She hired a proofreader who corrected her mistakes and slightly improved her writing. Nina had perfect sentences that made little sense in a thesis (proofreaders don’t help with logic, research ideas, cohesion, structure, etc.).

It was a downward spiral but Nina was a fighter. She wrote 80,000 words and submitted her thesis in her fourth year (a year later than she planned). Her supervisors told her she was not ready to do so, but she had no choice. She had to return to Turkey. Then came a judgment day – the Viva examination (an exam during which PhD students need to defend their thesis). It was Nina’s worst day of her life. The examiners destroyed her thesis. They brutally pointed problems with methodology, lack of criticality, descriptive and random literature review, wrong research questions, underdeveloped conceptual framework, untested research instruments, mistakes in analysis, problems with academic writing. Considering the comments she received, Nina was lucky. She had to do ‘only ‘a major revision of her project which took her extra two years. She finished her PhD after 6 years. I don’t know how she did it and to what extent her project had to be changed. I can’t even imagine how the whole experience affected her mental health, relationships, finances, confidence. Still, it is a success story. Getting a PhD is never easy. The question is whether it was worth the price Nina paid for her success? Not for me to judge. Only Nine can answer the question.

Academic problems Nina was struggling with had several underlying reasons:

  • inadequate level of English (despite a good score on IELTS/TOFEL)
  • the university should have never let Nina enter the PhD program – she was not ready
  • inadequate supervision – Nina needed a strong supervisor with expertise in her field
  • Nina’s lack of focus
  • poor academic reading skills
  • inadequate help at university (she should have received psychological support)
  • inability to develop expertise quickly (PhD is actually a crash course in developing expert knowledge)
  • time management, project management, knowledge management issues