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How (not) to fail in your Ph.D. studies

Graduate school is hard. It is a drastic change from your university studies, with no clear end point in sight and a sometimes frightening amount of freedom to decide how to fill your working hours. The standards are high and unforgiving. And while before you had an entire class of people you could discuss assignments with, now you are pretty much on your own to master the skills and get the work done.

The pitfalls are many, and being aware of them can be a good first step toward avoiding them. But some students seem to deliberately and inexorably head toward disaster, Kevin D. Haggerty and Aaron Doyle write in the Times Higher Education. In a tongue-in-cheek column, Haggerty, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada, and Doyle, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, offer advice for how to maximize your chances of failing grad school—or, better yet, to steer well clear of the dangers.

You are also personally responsible for developing your own intellectual path.

—Kevin D. Haggerty and Aaron Doyle

The authors offer 10 pieces of advice, which are broadly applicable for students in a variety of disciplines and institutions. For one, Haggerty and Doyle warn against choosing “the coolest supervisor,” telling the story of a Ph.D. student who, having made such a choice, ended up with an adviser who “failed her as a mentor.” “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,” they write. Instead, prospective graduate students should inquire broadly about their potential supervisor, asking questions such as, “Do her students finish their degrees, and in a reasonable time? … 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?”

That being said, another pitfall is asking too much of your supervisor. While you should seek guidance from your adviser, and others, “[y]ou 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.”

It would also be a mistake to believe that your only job in grad school is to get your thesis done, Haggerty and Doyle continue. “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,” such as teaching, mentoring, reviewing manuscripts, and organizing workshops. “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.”  

If you are to make it as an academic, you should also develop a thick skin. Haggerty and Doyle tell the story of a graduate student who got upset about a journal rejection and almost sent an angry response to the editor, but his adviser stopped him just in time. “[I]n the more elevated levels of academia … failure is common. You will be competing with other high-calibre students for scholarships and fellowships, the majority of which you will not win. … 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,” they write. “A key part of being an academic involves learning to persevere in the face of uncertainty, failure and rejection.”

Haggerty and Doyle offer more advice in their column, which you can find here. They have also just released a book titled 57 Ways to Screw up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students.