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

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

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

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

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

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