Monday, March 11, 2013

How Not to Fail a PhD: Advice Better Late Than Never

I came across a blog by an Australian academic while searching for information about how to build a poster presentation using $\LaTeX$ and while browsing his blog, I got distracted by one of his more popular posts, "How to fail a PhD".  I certainly don't want to fail out of my program and being the semi-paranoid student I am, I read it.  The blogger, Dr. Rob J. Hyndman, created his list after reading a similar list by another blogger, Matt Might, and both are spot on.  Dr. Hyndman ranks "Wait for your supervisor to tell you what to do" as number one and based on my experience, I couldn't agree more.  I took some initiative in the early stages of my research but it wasn't enough.  It took a while before I realized my adviser wasn't going to hand me a tidy, ready-to-be-answered research question and when I finally did make the realization, I started making some progress.  Another point of failure Dr. Hyndman identifies is "Aim too high".  I already know I'm prone to perfectionism so it's a constant battle with myself to just plow forward irrespective of whether I consider something "perfect".  My adviser emphasized early on that the Ph.D. isn't the crowning masterpiece, especially if one remains in academia, so don't treat it as such.  The Ph.D. is suppose to demonstrate research ability.  

A few of the "don'ts" on Dr. Might's list also resonated with me.  The first, "Focus on grades or coursework", was problematic for me because I viewed the Ph.D. program linearly:  two years of coursework, comprehensive exam, dissertation proposal, dissertation analysis, write-up, then defense.  I'm in the write-up stage now but I think that if I'd adopted a more holistic view from the beginning, I may have identified a topic and research question earlier.  It also doesn't help matters that I switched from biostatistics to epidemiology two-and-half years into the program, setting me back a year.  Oh well.  Another one, "Treat Ph.D. school like school or work":  according to Dr. Might, the Ph.D. is all-consuming and for those who don't pony up the requisite devotion and obedience, they take 7+ years to finish or wind up ABD.  Based on how long I've been at this (six years), I wonder what Dr. Might would say about my devotion.  The last one, "Miss the real milestones", is a real risk in my program since we are given two options for the Ph.D.:  a "European" style version comprising of three-publication quality papers or the "traditional" version comprising the standard five chapters.  I opted for the "traditional" version so the requirement to publish --- even just one paper --- is absent and based on Dr. Might's criteria, I'd hardly be Ph.D worthy.  (I should note, however, that even though publication isn't a requirement for graduation with the five-chapter dissertation, we are strongly encouraged to write a manuscript from our dissertation and try to get in published.)  

I wish I'd come upon this advice a few years ago but, as the saying goes, better late than never.

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