Best lesson learned: I failed my PhD

People call me crazy when they learn about my plan of going back to school and do a PhD. Some would call me as an ambitious person, some would simply asked: “What is it that you’re looking for?”. My response was simply smiling. I had to wait for 15 year to finally get the scholarship from an Australian institution to do my PhD.

Everything went so smooth since the beginning. My proposal was accepted straight away, supervisory team was appointed for me (not always the case though, in most cases, students need to approach potential supervisors) and scholarship was granted by the end of 2018. My family and I left Indonesia by early July 2019. What I meant with my family included two young children under 5.

My trip to hell: First year as a PhD student

My first year was a trip to hell. Beside family adjustment and financial problem as an HDR student, I had to deal with toxic and abusive principal supervisor. She had her own way to view the world and how to conduct research, and she wanted me to adjust myself wholly to meet her standard. I did as much as I could and simply failed. That was not me, I was not the person that she wanted me to be. I seek help from International students services on my campus, spoke to HDR senior liaison officer and HDR coordinator. The result? Nothing.

Until my two associate supervisors stepped in. They were kept in the dark for 4 months, as my principal supervisor tended to work by herself. These two supervisors helped me get back to the track: finishing up 3 chapters for my confirmation document, provided proper feedback for my writing and confirmation presentation. In other words, my two associate supervisors were the ones who deliver supervisory work.

After working tirelessly for 7 months, I finally presented my confirmation. The end result, panels decided that I need to resubmit my confirmation document. At the same time, faculty finally agreed to replace the appointed principal supervisor with one of my two associate supervisors! (FINALLY). My presentation was great, but my document did not reflect that. Upon resubmission, on February 2021, panels suggested me to transfer to a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) program. It was one of the worst moments in my life. As I sat there, HDR coordinator and GRC (Graduate Research Centre) officer had to brief me on panels’ decision and what should I do within one week period. My mind went blank. I held back my tears. Until my (new) principal supervisor made her way back to the room, and I cried it out loud.

I thought my life was over. I have to continue my study by doing another Master, instead of a Doctoral program. And if I want to do another PhD, who would want to accept me? All those thoughts ran through my head. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and belittled. How could I tell my family and my parents? What would my friends say? How would people think of me? They thought I was crazy to do a PhD at the end of my 30s, and they were right!

At that time, my principal supervisor told me that that was not the end of my life. I only ‘failed’ in my study, not my whole life. She also assured me that if I want to continue to another PhD program, I will be able to do so.

As I had to deliver my decision whether I want to take the offer to an MPhil program, I decided to have a discussion with two senior academics in my university. Prof Helen Klaebe and A/Prof Connie Susilowati were always on my side since I decided to continue my study. I owe them big time! They assured me that my future would not be affected, as long as I keep my commitment and hard work attitude going forward.

Compliment from my panel, Prof Susan Danby on my MPhil thesis

So, within the six-month period given to me by university, I managed to apply for Ethics clearance, collect and analyse data, and wrote my thesis. All under the support of my two amazing supervisors, A/Prof Kate Williams and A/Prof Jenna Gillett-Swan, and my academic mentor, Dr Sally Savage. I also owe my gratitude to Mrs Natasha Kitano from Language Support who helped me with my academic writing.

My current state

Within less than a month, I will submit the final version of my thesis to QUT. I am very content with everything that had happened. I failed my PhD, but I did not fail in life.

Last year, as I searched for another PhD program and scholarship, I stumbled upon A/Prof Kyra Hamilton (School of Psychology, Griffith University) and her HaPI Lab blog. I braved myself to contact her and to my surprise, she emailed me back shortly and initiated a meeting. Since then, I was always invited to her weekly lab meeting, Christmas gathering, and also individual supervision for my PhD proposal. I submitted my application and guess what, I was accepted to their PhD program! This acceptance email restored my confidence and my self-esteem, that I could actually do it. That I am NOT a failure, even though I failed my first PhD program.

Email from Griffith University (13/05/2022)

However, I was not eligible for another scholarship as I already received a similar scholarship from QUT. I decided to turn the offer down and excuse myself properly from Kyra and her team. We had this respectful relationship that I will hold closely to my heart. I will continue my journey by working in my chosen field, children and psychology (what else!). And I already started this journey, not long ago.

Christmas gathering with HaPiLab at South Bank (Dec 2021)

Closing

I finally decided to write this because I no longer feel ashamed with everything that had happened. Even though I was defeated by my chosen journey, I believe that the other door is opened for me. What is this door? A door to a better future for me and my family.

Mark Manson once wrote. “The more you embrace being uncertain and not knowing, the more comfortable you will feel in knowing what you don’t know”. I am embracing my unknown journey to the future, and I will learn as I go along.

Cheers!

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