10 steps to PhD failure

Kevin Haggerty and Aaron Doyle offer tips on making postgraduate study even tougher (which students could also use to avoid pitfalls if they prefer)

August 27, 2015
Foot about to step on banana peel

Given the stakes involved, one peculiar aspect of graduate school is the number of students who seem indifferent to its pitfalls. Year after year many run headlong, like lemmings, off the same cliffs as their predecessors. Yet a good share of these people ignore or are even hostile towards the advice that might help them avoid screwing up.

Having repeatedly witnessed this process, we have concluded that a small group of students actually want to screw up. We do not know why. Maybe they are masochists or fear success. Whatever the reason, our heart goes out to them. Indeed, we hope to help them – by setting down a course of action that will ensure that they blunder through graduate school in a spectacularly disastrous fashion.

1. Stay at the same university

It can be tempting to obtain all three of your degrees (undergraduate, master’s and PhD) at the same university: you have already established personal and professional friendships there, you know the routines of the university, you have a solid working relationship with the academics, and you even have lined up a potential PhD supervisor who will incorporate you into an existing research project. However, if you actually want to succeed, doing so is probably a mistake.

Friends and colleagues often tell students to obtain their degrees at different universities, but seldom explain why. One reason is that departments have different strengths. Going to a different university or country exposes you to different perspectives. If you complete both your undergraduate and your master’s at one location, some say that you have probably got everything you can from the kind of scholarship and research practised in that department. (Whether this is true is a different matter.)

Going somewhere else for your PhD shows that you have expanded your intellectual horizons. In contrast, others will view the fact that you did all your degrees at the same place as an indication that you lack scholarly breadth and independence, and that you were not wise or committed enough to follow this standard advice about studying elsewhere.

2. Do an unfunded PhD

If you receive an offer for admission to a PhD programme that does not include funding, you should walk away. If the funding arrangement is vague, you should clarify it as much as possible to make sure that it has substance. While many master’s students are unfunded, the normal practice is for PhD students to be supported through scholarships, teaching, a supervisor’s individual research grants, or a combination of those things. An offer of admission without a financial package can be interpreted in several different ways, but none is encouraging.

Most obviously, it signals that the department is not committed to you. It can also be a sign of problems or even crisis in your department, university or discipline. Beyond what the lack of funding might say about how the admissions committee views you, an unfunded PhD will require you to support yourself through your course, research and writing your thesis. This precarious financial situation is demanding and can severely delay your completion.

3. Choose the coolest supervisor

Several years ago, I pulled aside a graduate student and advised her to find a different PhD supervisor. I delicately, but clearly, pointed out that her current supervisor had a record of relating poorly to others and was seen as a source of extreme irritation by many departmental colleagues.

The student was torn – for her supervisor was also charismatic, had published in prominent outlets, and had research interests that were reasonably close to her own. So she rolled the dice and maintained the relationship.

Three years later, the student sat in my office completely distraught. Her supervisor would not respond to emails and phone calls and was taking forever to comment on drafts of her thesis chapters. In essence, her supervisor failed her as a mentor, her degree was in crisis, and she needed to find a new supervisor quickly.

Screwing up your choice of supervisor is one of the biggest missteps you can make in graduate school. It is also easy to do. If you choose a supervisor because of a single overriding factor – such as a desire for someone who is personable, or is not intimidating, or has a big name – you risk choosing poorly.

So choose carefully, and do not let any one factor sway your decision too much. Enquire about whether others recognise your potential supervisor as a solid choice. Do her students finish their degrees, and in a reasonable time? Does she publish work of high quality in prominent outlets? Does she have a record of getting her students published? Does she equitably co-author articles with her students? Is the supervisor too overwhelmed with other commitments to give you the attention you need? Has she secured research grants? What kinds of jobs did her previous students obtain? Is the supervisor immersed in her academic community?

Also consider the personality of a potential supervisor. Do colleagues find her easy to work with? You should consult widely.

The availability of an appropriate supervisor should definitely affect your decision about which PhD programme to attend. But if the person you have your sights set on is known as a good supervisor, there are likely to be other students seeking to work with her. If you are going to a university mainly to work with that person, make sure that she will actually work with you.

Man being rescued from car, Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, 2014

4. Expect people to hold your hand

As a postgraduate, you need to take charge of your own programme. While you should seek guidance from your supervisor and from the graduate chair or her assistant, you are the person who ultimately organises your degree. Nobody – and certainly not your supervisor – will pull you aside to remind you, for example, that you must take a certain course or complete a form by a specific date.

You are also personally responsible for developing your own intellectual path. Do not expect your supervisor, or anyone else, to hold your hand and tell you which books to read, journals to subscribe to, future research projects to pursue, research collaborations to explore, conferences to attend or grants to apply for.

Seek guidance about your degree programme and your scholarly development, but do not wait around expecting others to tell you what to do next.

5. Concentrate only on your thesis

It is easy to assume that at graduate school you will spend most of your time and energy on a thesis. This focus on completing your thesis (in reasonable time) can foster the mistaken belief that nothing else in graduate school matters. Such an attitude, paradoxically, can be a way to screw up.

While doing PhD study, you learn to become a researcher and an academic. Those roles involve considerably more than simply carrying out a large research project. Professors also teach, edit journals, attend conferences, review manuscripts, mentor students, organise workshops and administer different aspects of their department and university, among many other things. Graduate school slowly exposes you to the nuances of these tasks.

While your overriding priorities are to publish, to make progress on your thesis and otherwise to build up your CV, you typically still have enough hours in your day to get involved in other projects. Not doing so means that you are missing opportunities to become a well-rounded academic. And greater exposure to different activities helps you to distinguish yourself in the job market.

6. Expect friends and family to understand

I was over the moon when I won my doctoral scholarship. Eager to share the good news, I phoned my parents. My mum listened closely to the details and said: “That’s not enough money to live off of. Can you get two?” Deflated, I had to tell her no, that was not possible.

Her reaction was not atypical: most people outside your academic colleagues will have a hard time relating to your experiences.

To an outsider, a PhD student’s schedule looks tantalisingly open. It can contain huge slots where you appear to be doing nothing. Those people might encourage you to socialise more or to take on more household tasks to fill the time. Maintaining self-discipline is hard enough at the best of times without outside encouragement to postpone or forgo your scholarly labours. You will likely have to tell friends and family that although you might not have a formal workday, you are “on the clock” and have to use your time to complete a long list of tasks.

But be sure to cultivate a group of sympathetic academic friends and colleagues with whom you can share and discuss your exploits.

7. Cover everything

Students eager to screw up should remember that their thesis is their defining personal and professional achievement. The thesis is everything. Therefore, it should contain everything. Approach your topic from every conceivable angle. Use a diverse set of methodologies. Explore the topic from every theoretical framework conceivable. Aim to produce an analysis that spans the full sweep of human history. This will ensure that in 30 years you will be asking whether you are eligible for pension benefits as a graduate student.

While working on my master’s degree, I bumped into one of my professors and summarised my thesis topic for him. I was doing research on the sex trade, so I detailed how I expected to conduct a feminist analysis of prostitution in Toronto. It would address economic issues and incorporate recent theoretical work on ethnicity and identity. My methodology involved an ambitious plan for a lengthy period of first-hand observation in the field, combined with dozens of interviews with female street prostitutes, police officers, politicians and local activists. When I stopped talking, he smiled wryly and said, “Well, you certainly have your work cut out for you.”

As we parted, I thought to myself: “He’s right. This is insane. I will never be able to do all of this.” The project was massive, unfocused, and had to be radically reduced in scope and ambition or I would never finish. I slept horribly that night, but my fear motivated me to transform my thesis into something more feasible. Master’s and PhD students tend to set overly ambitious parameters for their research, mistakenly thinking that their thesis has to be a monumental contribution to knowledge.

The jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie famously said that it took his whole life to learn what not to play. The same is true for designing and writing academic works. You need to identify what not to cover in your research, and you must remove tangents peripheral to your analysis or argument. You might have to cut major sections or even chapters. This will hurt. I cut many pages of material in the final stages of writing my master’s thesis, including a number of chunks that I loved but which did not quite fit with my final structure and arguments. A thesis, like any written work, is always stronger when you omit unnecessary sections. Simply place those parts in a separate file and work them up later for a submission to a journal.

Man falling while water skiing

8. Abuse your audience

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”
– Flannery O’Connor

You are a budding academic, so you need to write like an academic. This means that you need to produce long, convoluted sentences written in the passive voice, riddled with discipline-specific jargon and exotic words. Writing like that will certainly demonstrate your academic pedigree, yes? Actually, it will not. It will alienate your audience, turn off editors and annoy your supervisor. When postgraduate students aim to “write like an academic”, it too often translates into producing turgid, tortured prose.

One secret of graduate school is that strong writers can do extremely well even if they are not the brightest people in the room. If you cannot write clearly and persuasively, everything about PhD study becomes harder.

So vow that you will not write like a traditional academic: eliminate jargon, strive for clear and concise assertions, compose in the active voice, and be kind to your readers. Above all, continually strive to improve your writing. Writing is like playing guitar; it can improve only through consistent, concerted effort.

9. Have a thin skin

My student Tom was in a funk. After I asked him several times what was wrong, he confided that he was upset by the reviews that he had received of an article that he had submitted to a journal for publication consideration. The reviews were harsh, the paper was rejected, and Tom doubted whether he was cut out to be an academic.

He then handed me a copy of the response that he had written to the journal’s editor. Thank goodness he had not yet sent it off. Tom’s reply came across as both hurt and angry. He essentially accused the reviewers of being know-nothings who were not up on the recent literature and had missed the point of his paper. He then questioned the editor’s competence for choosing such inept reviewers. After reading his letter, I explained to Tom why he needed to develop a thick skin about his professional work. Then I shredded his response to the editor.

You are likely a high achiever who has accumulated a lifetime’s worth of academic success. You are accustomed to being among the best students and to being praised. The feedback you have received from high school and university teachers may have tended to emphasise the positive, sometimes to the point of sugar-coating. Things are different in the more elevated levels of academia. Standards are higher, and failure is common.

You will be competing with other high-calibre students for scholarships and fellowships, the majority of which you will not win. You will also need to publish. A great deal of work will go into developing articles only to have many of them rejected. Once you enter the job market, you will put together lengthy job applications to apply for positions for which there may be dozens of applicants.

A key part of being an academic involves learning to persevere in the face of uncertainty, failure and rejection. Everyone is in the same boat.

10. Get romantically involved with faculty

Although it is rarely discussed frankly, postgraduates and academics sometimes become romantically involved. Here I am not talking about harassment or sexual assault, but rather about consensual couplings. As these are adults, one might be tempted to see this situation as something the participants should work out for themselves. Be that as it may, these consenting adults should be attuned to the dangers of faculty-graduate student relationships.

The most fundamental problem inherent in all such relationships is that academics have more formal and informal power than students. Even in seemingly consensual situations, questions arise about how free the student was to decline the relationship. This differential power is acute if it involves a supervisor sleeping with a student.

What might look like a caring relationship could, in fact, be part of a pattern in which a faculty member cycles through impressionable students.

If a romantic relationship continues, the student’s relationships with all sorts of department members may change. Her accomplishments might become tainted or be dismissed. People may suggest that she published an important article or secured a lucrative grant because her relationship gave her an unfair advantage. If the relationship ends badly, she can become a target of gossip and informal recriminations, sometimes for years to come.

Without condoning such situations, I should point out that I know of several instances where a fling between a student and an academic ended amicably, and in some cases evolved into a long-term relationship. But more often, students end up feeling betrayed, exploited and abandoned. These are risky situations, and unfortunately the graduate student bears almost all the risk. So find your emotional connections outside the faculty ranks.

Graduate school can be an enjoyable experience that sets you on the path for a rewarding career. These 10 tips will be invaluable if you are determined to screw up that prospect. Hopefully, our advice will also help those students eager to avoid missteps.

The authors have chosen to write in the first person singular to protect the privacy of the individuals whose experiences are discussed.

Kevin D. Haggerty is a Killam research laureate and professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Alberta. Aaron Doyle is associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University.

This article is based on extracts from 57 Ways to Screw up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students (University of Chicago Press), a book that sets out further ways to screw up, moving from the earliest stages of planning to go to graduate school all the way through to the finish line. 57 Ways is published this week in the US and on 14 September 2015 in the UK.

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Reader's comments (9)

Most of the advice here should be taken with a pinch of salt to say the least. Perhaps more importantly, the authors seem to think every PhD candidate has a choice on all of the matters mentioned above, ignoring that certain students, universities and disciplines are more privileged than others. For example: Point 1) I'm as committed as most people in academia to the idea of moving around and changing institutions- but have the authors considered that some students may have families or other caring commitments? Point 2) Although I would advice anyone to think very carefully and consider all the risks before embarking on a self-funded PhD, with PhD funding for the Arts and Humanities falling to pitiful levels, it is ridiculous to say that failure to get funding equals lack of commitment from your department. Last year, the AHRC gave funding to 1 PhD student only in my discipline in Scotland; believe me that, in thus hyper-competitive climate, there are several excellent projects that failed to get funding. Point 3) Again, I would advise every prospective PhD student to do their research and find out as much as possible about their supervisor, but how is a recent UG or Masters graduate to 'make sure that [your supervisor] will actually work with you'? Finding out that sort of information, specially for a supervisor who is problematic, requires the sort of networks and social capital that prospective students don't normally have. Do you suggest students approach current and former PhD students of said potential supervisor and expect to get all the truth from them? Doesn't seem realistic.
Very useful advice, in my opinion, though not each of the items listed here can be applicable to all situations. I see that PhD is used interchangably with the word "doctorate" since it is the most common and well-established type of doctoral degree, however what I miss is a wider approach to the doctoral level study, covering professional doctorates as well for example, which in some ways may differ significantly in how the research is handled. Regards,
Reverse logic is catchy and most advice is worth heeding. Writing well is crucial. It is a pity that the coupling bit focuses on women as PhD students, not men. It is still almost always men in the faculty advisor role. I probably would have put it closer to "choose your advisor" as "watch you partner" perhaps?
Unfortunately I did not complete my PhD at a top ranked British University due to the nefarious attitude of my Head of School at the Australian University where I was employed as a Lecturer. His problem was that I was far too pro-active in developing new courses and developing an International reputation in my field of Small Business and Entrepreneurship. He stated that I was flying too high as a Lecturer, and was really annoyed when my courses in Small Business and Entrepreneurship were accepted by the academic board - he had told me that if I wanted to teach these units then I should be working at a Tech College, as these were NOT university subjects. For the establishment of these courses I was awarded the Vice Chancellor's Award for Excellence, so others thought that I was performing in a manner befitting the academic brief. When I returned from the UK after the first nine months of research, my Head of School had given my teaching responsibility to another person, and told to that I had to teach Management units only. Again I further upset him when his superior overruled him on this matter. He further commented that I was "Not a True Academic because I had extensive Business Experience" (CEO of four companies) and took a practical approach in my teaching despite my record of academic publications and conference presentations (80 plus in ten years). I was eventually sacked from my Lecturing position when I spoke out against the bribes and corruption inherent in the University between staff and students, whereby some students were being awarded excellent marks without submitting any work. Thus, having a good boss is the best way to complete a PhD. However, I have been told that I needed a PhD to work in an Australian University so that I could write articles for publication, but I have written many articles in peer reviewed academic journals, was on the International Advisory Board of an International journal in Entrepreneurship for approximately 15 years, and my papers were always accepted at International Academic Conferences in Small Business and Entrepreneurship due to my ability to combine the academic theory with the practical application.
A very odd article - where is the evidential support for the first claim? It would be useful if the article made it clear that these two are talking from a North American perspective and thus many of their suggestions take no account of how PhD are undertaken in the UK. Moreover like a lot of the columns here it takes no account of the fact there is no such thing as the academy and advice that is sensible to a HUM/SS student would be inapproriate to a student in the hard sciences in a lab and so on.
Pretty straightforward advice, with a twist on the initial framing (what to do in order to fail, i.e. what not to do). I would even go as far as calling it the conventional wisdom. I didn't like some of the advice. Some, like changing universities in the undergraduate-graduate career - because it stays cryptic even after they explain it. I myself changed universities when passed from the MA to the PhD and learned very little from the changed environment. I did learn that incompetency is everywhere. My greater reservation, though, is that the authors are saying the PhD students should just 'play the game'. Write a limited thesis, write in simple words, develop a thick skin, etc. This type of advice produce highly conformist PhDs. It also puts all the burden on PhDs themselves, and ignores the unfairness of a system that puts students in such a dependent and challenging position.
"Three years later, the student sat in my office completely distraught. Her supervisor would not respond to emails and phone calls and was taking forever to comment on drafts of her thesis chapters. In essence, her supervisor failed her as a mentor, her degree was in crisis, and she needed to find a new supervisor quickly." Did you speak to your colleague about what a s***head he is, or did you just let it slide and blame the graduate student for his appalling behaviour?
I have a friend experiencing this now in her first year. She is very bright and innovative. How common is this behaviour in academia? What would you recommend she do to resolve the communication breakdown? Or is it best just to move on to a new supervisor knowing it may negatively effect funding and collaborator relationships?
The graduate student was obviously not blamed, and we worked diligently to quickly find her another appropriate supervisor. After a series of other related problems arose with this faculty member he was ultimately forced to leave the university after a long drawn out process (there are many, many appeal mechanisms in the contemporary university).

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