I came across a twitter dialog I had saved from a while back:
Friend's lab ran out of money so they've been forced into a unpaid leave of absence to finish their PhD.
— Justin Kiggins (@neuromusic) October 15, 2015
I don't get it. If you know a grad program only supports you for 4-5 years, why aren't you planning to finish in 4-5 years? — Drug Monkey (@drugmonkeyblog) October 15, 2015
It made me think about shared responsibilities:
Firstly, advisor responsibilities. Did not the advisor see this coming at least a year in advance and start talking to trainees about it? Did advisor have head in sand and terminal avoidance of bad things disease?
Secondly, student responsibilities. It is entirely possible that advisor (see para above) did not discuss this with student. Did student think to try and talk to advisor about time table? costs of doing experiements? and finishing times?
Thirdly, program responsibilities: there ought (and ought is loaded word here) be a number of programmatic safeguards, fail-safes, hurdles, and regular meetings to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. Even back in the day, when “mentor” was only a greek half-horse/half-man mythical creature teaching soon to be heroes, my program had a mandatory yearly meeting with someone who didn’t really care but asked the questions about where you were and when you were going to finish.
All of these things fall into the "wouldn't it be nice" basket. But in the end, it is the flip side of "what do you own?" If you own your thesis and your degree, you own them. Period. We can all work towards a better world where every person gets the support they need, but in the end, if you want a degree, you have to make sure it happens and you cannot depend on someone else.
When I was in my PhD program, one day my advisor called us all in (he had about 7 grad students at the time) and said, almost this baldly: I have cancer, its bad, and the median life expectancy is about 5-7 months. Whatever else was true, it was a very effective way of getting students to finish, and finish quickly. There are many things that would have been nice in this situation. Few of them happened. But what was abundantly clear, what was made abundantly clear, was it was our responsibility to get finished.
This is a meta-criterion: take responsibility. From it flows many other paths of action, pieces of advice and guidance on decision making. One may argue about unfair, and being owed, and "shouldn't they..". But in the end, it comes down to "do you want to finish and get this degree". Understand, this is not about what ought to be. Or how things would be best, and what would produce the optimal outcomes and enhance diversity and make unicorns fart rainbows. This is about how things are, and how to work with them. There are ugly choices, and no one (who matters) will think less of you for having made the choice that is right for you. But, in the end one must chose (and chose over and over again).