How to fail a PhD

I read an inter­est­ing post today by Matt Might on “10 rea­sons PhD stu­dents fail”, and I thought it might be help­ful to reflect on some of the bar­ri­ers to PhD com­ple­tion that I’ve seen. Matt’s ideas are not all rel­e­vant to Aus­tralian PhDs, so I have come up with my own list below.  Here are the seven steps to failure.

1. Wait for your supervisor to tell you what to do

A good super­vi­sor will not tell you what to do. PhD stu­dents are not meant to be research assis­tants, and a PhD is not an extended under­grad­u­ate assign­ment. So wait­ing to be told what to do next will usu­ally get you nowhere.

By the time you grad­u­ate with a PhD, you are sup­posed to be an inde­pen­dent researcher. That means hav­ing your own ideas, set­ting your own research direc­tions, and choos­ing what to do your­self. In prac­tice, your super­vi­sor will usu­ally need to tell you what to do for the first year, but even­tu­ally you need to set the research agenda your­self. By the third year you should cer­tainly know more about your topic than your super­vi­sor, and so are in a bet­ter posi­tion to know what to do next.

2. Wait for inspiration

Sit­ting around wait­ing for great ideas to pop into your ahead is unlikely to work. Most of my best ideas come after a lot of work try­ing dif­fer­ent things and becom­ing totally immersed in the problem.

A good way to start is often to try to repli­cate some­one else’s research, or apply someone’s method on a dif­fer­ent data set. In the process you might notice some­thing that doesn’t quite work, or you might think of a bet­ter way to do it. At the very least you will have a deeper under­stand­ing of what they have done than you will get by sim­ply read­ing their paper.

Research often involves dead-​​ends, wrong turns, and fail­ures. It’s a lit­tle like explor­ing a pre­vi­ously unmapped part of the world. You have no idea what you’ll find there, but unless you start wan­der­ing around you’ll never dis­cover anything.

3. Aim for perfection

Per­fec­tion takes for­ever, and so stu­dents who are aim­ing for per­fec­tion never fin­ish. Instead they spend years try­ing to make the the­sis that lit­tle bit bet­ter, pol­ish­ing every sen­tence until it gleams. Every researcher needs to accept that research involves mak­ing mis­takes, often pub­licly. That’s the nature of the activity.

Don’t wait until your paper or the­sis is per­fect. Work through a few drafts, and then stop, rec­og­niz­ing that there are prob­a­bly still some errors remaining.

4. Aim too high

Many stu­dents imag­ine they will write a the­sis that will rev­o­lu­tionise the field and lead to wide acclaim and a bril­liant aca­d­e­mic career. Occa­sion­ally that does hap­pen, but extremely rarely. A PhD is an appren­tice­ship in research, and like all appren­tice­ships, you are learn­ing the craft, mak­ing mis­takes, and you are unlikely to pro­duce your best work at such an early stage in your research career.

It really doesn’t mat­ter what your topic is pro­vided you find it inter­est­ing and that you find some­thing to say about it. Your PhD is a demon­stra­tion that you know how to do research, but your most impor­tant and high impact research will prob­a­bly come later.

My own PhD research was on sto­chas­tic non­lin­ear dif­fer­en­tial equa­tions and I haven’t touched them since. It showed I could do high level research, but I’d lost inter­est by the time I fin­ished and I’ve moved onto other things. Few peo­ple ever cite the research that came out of my PhD, but it served its purpose.

5. Aim too low

My rule-​​of-​​thumb for an Aus­tralian PhD is about three to four pieces of pub­lish­able work. They don’t have to actu­ally be pub­lished, but the exam­in­ers like to see enough mate­r­ial to make up three papers that would be accept­able in a rep­utable schol­arly jour­nal. Just writ­ing 200 pages is not enough if the mate­r­ial is not suf­fi­ciently orig­i­nal or inno­v­a­tive to be pub­lish­able in a jour­nal. Point­ing out errors in every­one else’s work is usu­ally not enough either, as most jour­nals will expect you to have some­thing to say your­self in addi­tion to what­ever cri­tiques you make of pre­vi­ous work.

6. Follow every side issue

Just because you use a max­i­mum like­li­hood method, doesn’t mean you have to read the entire like­li­hood lit­er­a­ture. Of course you will learn some­thing if you do, but that isn’t the point. The pur­pose of a PhD is not so that you can learn as much as you can about every­thing. A PhD is train­ing in research, and researchers need to be able to pub­lish their find­ings with­out hav­ing to be expert in every area that is some­how related to their cho­sen topic.

Of course, you do need to read as much of the rel­e­vant lit­er­a­ture as pos­si­ble. A key skill in research is learn­ing what is rel­e­vant and what is not. Ask your super­vi­sor if you are not sure.

7. Leave all the writing to the end

In some fields it seems to be stan­dard prac­tice to have a “writ­ing up” phase after doing the research. Per­haps that works in exper­i­men­tal sci­ences, but it doesn’t work in the math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ences. You haven’t a hope of remem­ber­ing all the good ideas you had in first and sec­ond year if you don’t attempt to write them down until near the end of your third year.

I encour­age all my stu­dents to start writ­ing from the first week. In the first year, write a series of notes sum­ma­riz­ing what you’ve learned and what research ideas you’ve had. It can be help­ful to use these notes to show your super­vi­sor what you’ve been up to each time you meet. In the sec­ond year, you should have fig­ured out your spe­cific topic and have a rough idea of the table of con­tents. So start writ­ing the parts you can. You should be able to turn some of your first-​​year notes into sec­tions of the rel­e­vant chap­ters. By the third year you are fill­ing in the gaps, adding sim­u­la­tion results, tidy­ing up proofs, etc.

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  • Chewyraver

    I have read Matt’s site as well and I found it to be very good. Thank you for shar­ing your insight. I’m hop­ing to start a PhD next year, some of your points I have no prob­lems with, oth­ers I can iden­tify it in myself.

    Thanks again.

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  • A New Apprentice

    Thank you Rob, this has been tremen­dously help­ful. I have a bit of stage fright over com­menc­ing what seems like a mam­moth task of a PhD this year. Your anal­ogy of appren­tice­ship in research has struck a chord with me. I feel reas­sured I don’t need to be per­fect or an expert from the start.

    Thank you.

  • Aylish38


  • Anto­nius Cahyaprihandoko

    Thanks Rob, the tips  are very useful

  • Abhi­nav

    nice sug­ge­tions

  • Lau­rent Ferrara

    Excel­lent! I fully agree and send imme­di­ately the link to my students.

  • Amirul Faiz Abd. Razak

    Your arti­cle moti­vates me to fur­ther my study to post-​​graduate level. Thank you.

  • ekii

    The tips are very use­ful. Thanks.

  • Nadra

    thank you…it really healful

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  • Walid

    very inter­est­ing!! Thanx for sharing .

  • A.B. Sanchez-​​Prieto

    As super­vi­sor I can say that this is one of the best set of advices I have ever seen. I will send the link to all my students.

  • Reni

    Your words have taken a load off my ago­nis­ing over whether to start my PhD or not. You have encour­aged me by help­ing me under­stand that this process is indeed a learn­ing curve and that I shouldn’t be afraid of approach­ing my PhD with curios­ity and excite­ment about what I will find in my research. Thanks again. I will post your tips up next to my desk to keep me grounded through this process.

  • GDoc86


    Excel­lent arti­cle! As a sec­ond year PhD stu­dent I have to admit that those dark issues had haunted me from time to time, but you need to be strong and keep mov­ing for­ward. I´m think­ing about print­ing this list and have it always at sight 😉

    Your blog now has a new reader from Argentina!

  • Tuevu

    Hi Rob,

    Many thanks for your shar­ing. At the begin­ning, I am only inter­ested in your blog sim­ply because I want to syn­chro­nize Winedt and Suma­tra. But this site now becomes a must-​​have tool for my PhD.

    I wish I could read this arti­cle before start­ing my PhD. It is late for me but at least “there is some­thing rather than nothing”.



  • Mahsa

    absolutely help­ful. I wish I had read it a year ago :) I’d be in much bet­ter shape!

  • Clin­ton Thompson

    Bril­liant. Wish I’d seen this ear­lier in the research phase of my Ph.D., espe­cially points 1 and 2. When I finally real­ized my adviser wasn’t going to hand me a tidy and ready-​​to-​​be-​​answered research ques­tion, I started get­ting some­where (albeit very slowly). Great post!

  • Sumit Agar­wal

    Thank You Very much Matt for shar­ing this.…They are really great points that U have mentioned…:)

  • About to finish

    Wish I have read that 2 years ago .. very useful

  • Hamza Ben­demra

    Great piece — con­cise and to the point. It’s crunch time for me as I’m half way through my PhD. I can most cer­tainly relate to #6 and #7.

  • Wood­stock

    Re: point #7, my father’s advice was invalu­able for me when I earned my Ph.D. When he was get­ting is Ph.D., his advisor’s advice was to never stop writing…he did not want his stu­dents to develop a “block,” so he would tell them to copy some­body else’s dis­ser­ta­tion or arti­cle, just to keep keep writing.

    A bit over the top, per­haps, but his point is clear!

  • Md. Abdul Halim

    I started my PhD in last Sep­tem­ber. These guide­lines are really invalu­able for me. Thanks.