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

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

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

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

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

10 reasons Ph. Excel and PowerPoint without MS Office matt. 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.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd/ Page 7 of 7 .D.might.net is powered by linode | legal information http://matt.

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