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

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

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

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

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

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

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