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.

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