Here I reflect on some of the barriers to PhD completion that I’ve seen. I have structured these as six steps to failure. Please do not follow them!
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.
5. Aim too low
My rule-of-thumb for a PhD is about three to six pieces of publishable work. Not all of these need to be actually published, but the examiners like to see at least three publications plus enough material to make up another few papers that would be acceptable in a reputable 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. Leave all the thesis 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 some fields, but it certainly not the best way to proceed in ours. 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 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 plan of a couple of chapters and their 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.