Thursday, August 27, 2015

10 Steps to PhD Success

Recently the Times Higher Education website published an article entitled '10 Steps to PhD Failure' which was aimed at helping students to avoid 'pitfalls' dictated by the authors, but rather seems to have, at worst, instilled anxiety in current PhDs and, at best, resulted in derision.

You can read the full text of the article here. However, with the ethos of positivity which forms the backbone of this blog, I have decided to address each of their points in turn.

Here are the 10 pitfalls to avoid:

1. Stay at the same university 
THE claims that it is detrimental to complete your undergraduate, masters and PhD at the same university. I certainly was told this advice multiple times. However, I think this fails to account for a number of issues. Firstly, family commitments may mean that you cannot uproot your life 2-3 times for study. Secondly, completing your undergraduate/masters at the same institution helps you to cement relationships with academics so that when you apply for the PhD you already have a support network and may be more likely to gain funding. 

My advice: Do what feels right for you and the circumstances you find yourself in!

2. Do an unfunded PhD 
This one really makes me angry. Should PhDs only be reserved for those lucky enough to land funding?! When the level of funding in the humanities is steadily decreasing, it seems shocking to advise somebody NOT to do a PhD because they didn't get funding. I know so many people who successfully completed their PhD without full funding and have never been judged by senior academics for it. In fact, in my experience, judgement for lack of funding frequently comes from other students!! I wholeheartedly disagree with the advice not to do something you love because of a lack of funding. Obviously, it becomes more difficult and sacrifices must be made, but at the end of the day, a PhD is about the work, not the money!

My advice: If you are going to do an unfunded PhD you will need support, but part-time jobs, family, loans, and dedication can get you through. The most important thing you need is the passion for your subject to get you through the tough times.

3. Choose the coolest supervisor 
THE argues that your choice of supervisor should be a considered one, and not one based on the charisma or prominent profile of your supervisor. This is true, of course, and you should be careful as it is a relationship that you will have for 3-4 years (or more in the US). 

My advice: Research your supervisor well, but remember that for a large proportion of the PhD you will be working on your own (as least, if you are doing a humanities degree) so developing independence is key. Also, conferencing and networking will allow you to have a safety net of other academics you can ask for help should your supervisor relationship break down or have a wobble.

4. Expect people to hold your hand 
This relates to the previous point about independence. A PhD is not the same as a taught masters and you will need to develop an independent way of working. However, this advice is not black and white. I have known supervisors to meet their students every 2 weeks, while for others it is 1-2 times per term. In addition, support can come from other places, such as graduate skills workshops which can guide the student in the kind of detail which supervisors may not have the time for.

My advice: Use all the resources at your disposal - your supervisor, networking, fellow students, other academics, and training sessions can all help.

5. Concentrate only on your thesis 
Diversify!! That is what we are told all the time. It is no longer enough to produce an excellent thesis, but PhDs must conference, teach, network, publish, etc. However, it is way too easy for PhDs to stretch themselves too thin and it is likely this increased pressure which leads to prolonged PhDs or burnouts. 

My advice: Identify what you want after the PhD. If that is teaching, then focus on developing those skills. If you want to research, focus on conferences and publications. Don't feel the pressure to be all things to all people, and don't feel you have to say yes to every opportunity.

6. Expect friends and family to understand 
I don't have much to add to this. We all know that it can be difficult to convey what we do to those outside of academia. We have all encountered the difficult questions and the dreaded things all PhDs hate hearing. I have a list here.

My advice: Cultivate friendships with other PhDs who you can talk to about the intricacies of the problems you are facing. But don't assume that just because friends and family may not understand that they don't want to hear about it and help! Make sure not to alienate those closest to you.

7. Cover everything 
I cannot really dispute this point, which argues that we should reflect on the scale of our thesis and whether is is overly ambitious or realistically feasible.

My advice: Be realistic about what you can achieve in your 3-4 years and word limit. I would also add that perfection is never finished, and at some point you will have to let go of the thesis and submit it!

8. Abuse your audience 
I will quote the advice here as I don't have much more to add: "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".

My advice: If you are struggling with your writing style, ask your supervisor how you can improve it, or attend writing workshops. Personally, I sent my thesis to a non-academic to read through for clarity and to ensure that there wasn't too much academic jargon in it.

9. Have a thin skin 
Which basically means, have a thick skin! This is true because of the competitive nature of academia. You have to accept your rejections and setbacks as part and parcel of the academic process. However, while we PhDs need thick skins in the face of examiners, peer-reviewers, conference attendees, etc., why is there never an onus on these people to be more compassionate in the way they communicate criticisms/advice to junior academics?!? Constructive criticism is what's needed, not arbitrary and hurtful criticism which can cripple the confidence of PhDs.

My advice: Remember that you are never alone in received harsh criticisms or comments. However, while we may not be able to change the current cut-throat climate, if you succeed to a position of power remember how you were treated as a PhD and vow never to do that to someone else.

10. Get romantically involved with faculty 
Having zero experience of that issue, I will choose not to comment. 

When it comes to these types of lists, I find that they completely ignore the range of circumstances people come from when completing a PhD. There is no simple list to follow which will guarantee success. And some of the advice given (especially 1 and 2) shows a shocking lack of understanding and empathy with a wide range of students from a wide range of disciplines. What may hold true for science, may not be applicable to a humanities students, and vice-versa.

Let's not paint all PhD students with the same brush, and acknowledge that no matter how or where a person completed their PhD, it is a monumental achievement which deserves respect. It does not deserve this careless list from the THE which alienates and offends a large proportion of PhD students.


  1. I'm not sure why you get so angry about the suggestion that PhDs should only be pursued if a person has funding. That's excellent advice.

    Love is simply not enough to make doing a PhD feasible. The average salary for an assistant professor (assuming that you get that; most humanities PhDs won't be professors) is around $68,000 a year. That's a good middle-class salary. However, borrowing enough money to pay for tuition and fees every year, not to mention living expenses, will take a person far over the threshold at which they can afford to repay that. For example, my PhD university's tuition was $40,000 a year. After the coursework phase, one paid $9,000 during exams and $3,500 during the dissertation phase. I took coursework for 2.5 years, spent three semesters doing exams, and one year in the dissertation phase.

    Borrowing all of that for tuition would've put me in debt $117,000 - and that's *only* tuition. There's no way that I could've found a part-time job that would've covered all of my living expenses in my expensive graduate city and still left me with enough time to attend class, read, write, think, network, and present at conferences, so I would've ended up borrowing more than that. And I was only in my program for 6 years - many humanists and social scientist are in for far longer than that, and must take on more debt to finish. And academics can not expect to make enough money to repay six-figure debt. Not everyone has family that can support them - or will support them - as they get a PhD, so advice to rely on family only concerns a very small subset.

    I'm not sure why it should make you angry, but the point is academia is not divorced from financial reality. One must make intelligent decisions when it comes to taking on debt, and I'm quite baffled by the idea that people shouldn't not do something they love because they can afford it. That's kind of a reality of life, and graduate school is not outside that.

  2. If you're going to question Fiona's anger over the advice that you should abandon all hope of doing a PhD if you don't get funding, then it would be fair to question why you think this is excellent advice. Obviously the time spent doing a PhD differs drastically depending on where you choose to study, but in the UK, a full-time PhD should take a maximum of 4 years. It shouldn't be a case of 'If it's too expensive, don't do it'. It should be a case of 'If you can't find the money from somewhere, or your family aren't in a position to help, then consider whether you can defer and work for a year to save up enough money, or perhaps entertain the thought of going part-time which would take a maximum of 6 years and would allow you to work at the same time'. You should NEVER advise someone to give up because funding is hard to come by. I agree with Fiona that this is ridiculous advice. I was told not to bother looking for funding because it was far too competitive, so I assessed my options and went for it anyway. I found a way to do it that suits my situation, and I think that with some research, most other people can find a situation which suits their needs as well. Fiona isn't saying 'To hell with debt, get in there and do it anyway even if it means you'll be paying back loans forever!' What I think she's saying (with which I agree 100%) is that you shouldn't give up on the dream of doing a PhD just because you aren't/won't be funded. If it's going to be too much for you and you don't want to undertake that kind of financial burden, then that's fine, but there's a difference between highlighting the potential difficulties associated with a self-funded PhD and telling people not to do it.

    I agree with Fiona.

  3. I was a humanities PhD student in the UK who did receive funding. I would say that THE's advice on that point should be taken quite seriously. I love my discipline, but even with comparatively modest tuition fees here, I would not have undertaken the PhD without funding because I was made broadly aware of the general postdoc employment situation (although it is in fact far worse and more stressful than I could have imagined). I am now even more convinced that self-funded humanities PhDs are unwise, because from what I have seen, demonstrating an ability to attract funding is crucial for success on the job market. When I look among the former PhD students in my old department, there is quite a noticeable divide between the 'fundeds' and the 'self-fundeds' in terms of who was able to gain postdoctoral teaching and research positions and who was not. I do think it disadvantages you immediately: unless you prove to be a publishing powerhouse (which is probably less likely if you're working to support yourself), you're already a step behind everyone who has shown at an early stage that they can bring in the research money universities crave. I'm not saying it's impossible by any stretch, but I've seen a number of friends go through some torrid times, both during and after their studies...

    I'd approach the ability to secure funding as a first academic job interview, and - if you intend to remain in academia - a possible bellwether of how things are going to go after the PhD.

  4. Mainly the success approaches to those ideas.


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