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

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

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

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

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

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