10 reasons Ph.D.

students fail

2013/12/16 10:18 PM

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10 easy ways to fail a Ph.D.
[article index] [email me] [@mattmight] [+mattmight] [rss] The attrition rate in Ph.D. school is high. Anywhere from a third to half will fail. In fact, there's a disturbing consistency to grad school failure. I'm supervising a lot of new grad students this semester, so for their sake, I'm cataloging the common reasons for failure. Read on for the top ten reasons students fail out of Ph.D. school.

Focus on grades or coursework
No one cares about grades in grad school. There's a simple formula for the optimal GPA in grad school: Optimal GPA = Minimum Required GPA + ! Anything higher implies time that could have been spent on research was wasted on classes. Advisors might even raise an eyebrow at a 4.0 During the first two years, students need to find an advisor, pick a research area, read a lot of papers and try small, exploratory research projects.
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might.D. reading so much about their intended area of research that they never start that research. In the interest of personal disclosure.D. I took lots of classes in areas that had nothing to do with my research. Advisors will lose patience with "eternal" students that aren't focused on the goal--making a small but significant contribution to human knowledge. Taking (or sitting in on) non-required classes outside one's focus is almost always a waste of time.10 reasons Ph. school because they want to learn. will never stop polishing. student needs to have read about 50 to 150 papers to defend the novelty of a proposed thesis. Learn too much Some students go to Ph. Students that can't begin to write until they have the perfect structure of the paper mapped out will never get started. students fail 2013/12/16 10:18 PM area. expecting to hit perfection.D. Expect perfection Perfectionism is a tragic affliction in academia. and it's always unnecessary. math and even philosophy.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd/ Page 2 of 7 . a typical Ph. linguistics. Perfection cannot be attained. since it tends to hit the brightest the hardest. I only got away with this detour because while I was doing all that. But. school involves a lot of learning. some students go too far with the related work search. I suffered from the "want to learn everything" bug when I got to Ph. Let there be no mistake: Ph. Of course. I took classes all over campus for my first two years: Arabic. physics. In computer science.D. Spending too much time on coursework distracts from these objectives. read a lot of papers and try small. By the end of the third year. http://matt. It is approached in the limit. school. I was a TA. economics. it requires focused learning directed toward an eventual thesis.D. which meant I wasn't wasting my advisor's grant funding.D. exploratory research projects. Students that polish a research paper well past the point of diminishing returns. The price of all this "enlightenment" was an extra year on my Ph.

D.D.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd/ Page 3 of 7 . my advice is that writing a paper should be an iterative process: start with an outline and some rough notes. doling out specific topics and helping to craft early papers. it's at diminishing returns. it is also a sieve that weeds out the unproductive.might. Going rogue before the student knows how to choose good topics and write well will end in wasted paper submissions and a grumpy advisor. Go rogue too soon/too late The advisor-advisee dynamic needs to shift over the course of a degree." Procrastinate Chronic perfectionists also tend to be procrastinators. Ph. The trick is getting the timing right. Advisors expect near-terminal Ph. school seems to be a magnet for every kind of procrastinator.D. When the paper changes little with each pass.D. students to be proto-professors with intimate knowledge of the challenges in their field. She needs to do so even if her advisor is insisting she do something else. "Good enough" is better than "perfect. Procrastinators should check out my tips for boosting productivity. school like school or work http://matt. repeat. take a pass over the paper and improve it a little.10 reasons Ph. Once the inversion happens. Toward the end. students fail 2013/12/16 10:18 PM For students with problems starting on a paper or dissertation. continuing to act only when ordered to act past a certain point will strain an advisor that expects to start seeing a "return" on an investment of time and hard-won grant money. Unfortunately. she needs to "go rogue" and start choosing the topics to investigate and initiating the paper write-ups. On the other hand. They should be capable of selecting and attacking research problems of appropriate size and scope. So do eternal students with a drive to learn instead of research. the student should know more than the advisor about her topic. One or two more passes over the paper are all it needs at that point. rinse. Early on. the advisor should be hands on. Treat Ph.

He was lucky: it added only one more semester to his Ph. Ph.might. based on the draft of his dissertation. a jealous hobby.D.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd/ Page 4 of 7 . The end brings an ecclesiastical robe and a clerical hood.D. however. but I've seen a shouting match between a committee member and a defender where they disagreed over the metrics used for evaluation of an experiment. students forget that a committee has to sign off on their Ph.D.D.D. Another student I knew in grad school was told not to defend. Students that treat Ph.D. This attitude guarantees that no professorship will be waiting for them. and failed his defense. Ignore the committee Some Ph. school is a monastic experience. students fail 2013/12/16 10:18 PM Ph. It took him over ten years to finish his Ph. http://matt. Ph. in their department and aim for that. It's important for students to maintain contact with committee members in the latter years of a Ph.D.D.D. Solving problems and writing up papers well enough to pass peer review demands contemplative labor on days. It doesn't usually happen. school is neither school nor work. They need to know what a student is doing. Committee members.D. Reading through all of the related work takes biblical levels of devotion.D. It's also easy to forget advice from a committee member since they're not an everyday presence like an advisor. school even comes with built-in vows of poverty and obedience.10 reasons Ph. or end up ABD. This committee member warned the student at his proposal about his choice of metrics. Aim too low Some students look at the weakest student to get a Ph. He overruled his committee's advice. He was told to scrap his entire dissertaton and start over. rarely forget the advice they give. school like a 9-5 endeavor are the ones that take 7+ years to finish. nights and weekends. And. He ignored that warning.

it is not the final undertaking. dissertation was a principled calculation meant to estimate Avogadro's number.D.D.D. Once you know how to shoot. He got it wrong.D.. Aiming low leaves no room for uncertainty. The weakest Ph. A Ph. He still got a Ph.might. Plus. is about as likely as hitting a bullseye the very first time you've fired a gun. By a factor of 3. with a Ph. It does not matter at all what you get your Ph. Some advisors can give you a list of potential research topics. and had to settle for a contingency plan. It's the training that counts--not the topic. research is always uncertain. Aim too high A Ph. does not have to cure cancer or enable cold fusion. seems like a major undertaking from the perspective of the student.D. It is.10 reasons Ph. it all but promises failure. Einstein's Ph. was in.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd/ Page 5 of 7 . in. students fail 2013/12/16 10:18 PM And. Making a big impact with a Ph.D.D. you can keep shooting until you hit it. is a small but significant contribution to human knowledge. At best a handful of chemists remember what Einstein's Ph. And.D. It's the start of a scientific career.D. Miss the real milestones http://matt. If they can. All that matters is that you get one. to escape was probably repeatedly unlucky with research topics. Impact is something students should aim for over a lifetime of research. you get a lifetime supply of ammo.D. But. pick the topic that's easiest to do but which still retains your interest.D. A Ph.

she has a dissertation.D. she has a thesis proposal. and if she staples her publications together. students fail 2013/12/16 10:18 PM Most schools require coursework. The illustrated guide to a Ph. [article index] [email me] [@mattmight] [+mattmight] [rss] http://matt. thesis defense and dissertation. she has defended.10 reasons Ph. qualifiers. with reasonable confidence. If she draws a unifying theme. if she convinces her committee that she can extrapolate a third. students: Perseverance. Successful Ph. that she can repeatedly conduct research of sufficient quality to meet the standards of peer review. tenacity and cogency. These are the requirements on paper. The CRAPL: An open source license for academics. A student that has published by the time she takes her qualifiers is not a mistake. Of course. In practice. she has a thesis. thesis proposal. I fantasize about buying an industrial-grade stapler capable of punching through three journal papers and calling it The Dissertator.might. Advice for thesis proposals. Academic job hunt advice. it's about enough to get a Ph. But. Productivity tips for academics. Coursework and qualifiers are meant to undo admissions mistakes.D. Once a student has two good publications.D. Once a student has three publications. the real milestones are three good publications connected by a (perhaps loosely) unified theme. three publications is nowhere near enough to get a professorship-even at a crappy school. Related posts Recommended reading for grad students.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd/ Page 6 of 7 .D. How to get into grad school.

students fail 2013/12/16 10:18 PM Latest: A short introduction to make Next: Self-inlining anonymous closures in C++ Prev: HOWTO: Native iPhone/iPad apps in JavaScript Rand: HOWTO: Word.might.10 reasons Ph.D.might.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd/ Page 7 of 7 .net is powered by linode | legal information http://matt. Excel and PowerPoint without MS Office matt.