International Campus

When my industrial partner pulled out, my PhD went down the drain

PhDs come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes there’s funding available, sometimes there isn’t. Others have strings attached by industrial partners who are stakeholders in the project. In my case, it was a requirement to build a prototype for a large company in the UK, in exchange for additional funding and a work placement. A great opportunity, I thought. But I wish I’d considered the potential risks associated with this arrangement.

I accepted my PhD on the basis that, as a student, I would be seconded to my industrial partner’s facilities for 12 months. But after starting work, that period fell to three months, then finally no months at all. The funding had dried up as the company was struggling financially. Great, I thought, there goes my experience! But I continued, focusing on my research.

Then, after the first 10 months, my initial supervisor was offered a very big carrot elsewhere in the form of a promotion, and he left. I thought nothing of it; we live in a free labour market after all, and he was offered a better package. It was still frustrating though, as I had to change the direction of my research, since it had been moulded to suit his specialism. What was worse, however, was his replacement: my second supervisor was barely around, and mismanaged my funds so I didn’t have as much available support as I should have done.

Two years passed, I dabbled with my prototype and had several meetings with my industrial partner. But when I approached them for a real world setting in which to test my prototype, the response was radio silence. I was starting to feel as though I had fallen through the cracks in the university system.

Without a committed supervisor, it took two years for the university to organise my first panel review, something that should normally happen within the first 10 months. By the time I had my second panel review the following year, I only had six months before my funding was set to run out. A member of the review panel said to me, “We do see a PhD here, but you only have six months of funding left, and we’re predicting that you need another year and a half.”

They recommended instead that I transfer from PhD to MPhil status. This wasn’t good news; it carries with it the baggage of a failed PhD, and isn’t the right qualification to launch the career in academia that I had aspired to.

After finishing my MPhil, I found that opportunities to work are limited when you are based in a university town. I retrained as a technician, and worked at the university as a postgraduate teaching assistant, earning a very low salary and struggling to get by.

Looking back, I feel like my situation could have been avoided had the university had a plan B to mitigate the damage in the event of an industrial partnership changing. Equally, there should have been more accountability for my PhD supervisors, including better monitoring of how they were managing the funding. Since they usually have oversight of several PhD projects, it also wouldn’t be surprising if supervisors sometimes find themselves focusing their attention on the ones that are making best progress. We need to ensure they’re equally engaged.

I never received an induction at the start of my PhD, so I never knew who to turn to about my concerns. When I finally got round to making an official complaint, it was brushed under the carpet. The university said that I had waited too long to do it – but how was I to feel comfortable complaining about my disinterested supervisor when I knew they could make my life difficult while I was still doing my research? I still can’t shake the feeling that a disservice was done. My next PhD will be one with no strings from industry attached.