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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. Page 1 of 7

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

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

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

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

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

might.D.10 reasons Ph. 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. Excel and PowerPoint without MS Office is powered by linode | legal information Page 7 of 7 .