I came across a post entitled "10 easy ways to fail a PhD" by Matt Might, an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah, some weeks ago so I thought I'd use today's post to comment on the 10 behaviors mentioned in that post.
Way #1: "Focus on grades or coursework." I somewhat disagree with the idea that "no one cares about grades in grad school." I care about the grades of prospective students who want to work with me; I want to see if they're able to understand new concepts quickly and perform at the level required for success in a PhD program. I think students should work very hard to do as well as they can in the courses of potential advisers and dissertation committee members - those are the people who will write recommendation letters down the road.
All doctoral students in my department have to pass a first-year review, which considers both (a) results at the qualifying exam and (b) performance in class. I expect doctoral students to get mostly As and A-s in core doctoral courses related to optimization (my research area). Of course, there are mitigating circumstances: students need time to adapt to the kind of work required in PhD programs, and our first-year students serve as Teaching Assistants in addition to taking three courses, which makes the first two semesters in Bethlehem particularly challenging. But overall it's much harder for me to get enthusiastic about a student if he gets a lot of Bs (or - gasp - less than Bs). I've got to explain, though, that grades in graduate school are mostly As and Bs, with B- being in many professors' mind what C- is to undergraduate classes. I'm not aware of any doctoral student succeeding in our program while having received a C+ or lower in a core course.
So in a way, it's true that GPA doesn't matter: there is much less volatility in grad-school GPAs, and the GPAs (of students who don't drop out) tend to be higher; hence, grades can't differentiate that much between applicants. The thing that sets students apart is of course their doctoral dissertation; ideally, they will find a job very closely related to the expertise they have developed while they were writing their thesis. But they will also have to grow in their job and learn new skills, and performance in courses can serve as an indicator of how well they learn new topics. In the end, grades matter more than students think.
Way #2: "Learn too much." Might explains: "Taking (or sitting in on) non-required classes outside one's focus is almost always a waste of time, and it's always unnecessary." I agree. I suspect international students fall prey to that temptation more often, as US engineering students have often had to take humanities and social sciences courses to fulfill "breadth requirements" as they studied for their Bachelor degree. The higher-education system in other countries, such as France where I got my "diplome d'ingenieur", is much narrower and specialized. Once I entered engineering school in Paris, I took classes in thermodynamics, materials, control theory, and also accounting and business, but nothing was offered in history or French literature. Those topics simply are not aligned with the purpose of an engineering school. In addition, there was not nearly as much choice for the technical electives.
I was amazed by the breadth of the offerings when I first entered MIT, in engineering but also in public policy and political science. An international student can easily feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store and decide to take a broad array of classes because he is more keenly aware of the lack of choices he had as an undergraduate. As Might underlines, the risk of selecting courses unrelated to one's dissertation is greatest when the student is not on a Research Assistantship; if he is, the faculty member providing financial support will usually keep a much closer eye on the student's academic plans to make sure grant money is not "wasted" on courses that will not help the project.
Way #3: "Expect Perfection." Might explains: "Students that polish a research paper well past the point of diminishing returns, expecting to hit perfection, will never stop polishing." I haven't met such students yet, so I can't really discuss that point. I think it's more tempting for the advisor to ask for one more extension before sending the paper out for review, because it is much harder to convince a negative reviewer to change his mind in a subsequent round of review than impressing him favorably the first time around. I can't imagine a professor saying "let's submit this" and the student replying "no! no! let me make it even better". But maybe it does happen.
Way #4: "Procrastinate." That's probably an advising failure as much as it is a bad behavior on the student's side. Advisors sometimes struggle to find the time to meet with their students, especially when they have multiple courses to teach (and grant proposals to write and committee meetings to attend), and some students can't bring themselves to work hard if there is no prospect of looming advisor-advisee meeting. Then they wonder why they're not getting funded the following semester. Self-motivation is critical to succeed in PhD programs.
Way #5: "Go rogue too soon/too late." "In Might's words, "[t]he advisor-advisee dynamic needs to shift over the course of a degree." That's very true. There comes a time where the advisor shouldn't have to guide the student step by step any more. He can give the student pointers and the student should be able to fill in the blanks, addressing any issue that comes up in the meantime. Students eager to graduate might think "I'll just do exactly what he wants and he'll have to sign off on my dissertation", but they are expected to display significant independent-thinking skills before the PhD process ends. A student who is not capable of doing that is not ready to graduate.
Way #6: "Treat PhD school like school or work." Might writes: "Ph.D. school is neither school nor work. Ph.D. school is a monastic experience. And, a jealous hobby." I wouldn't call it a monastic experience - I spent wonderful years as a PhD student in the Harvard Square area of Cambridge, which was a lot of things but definitely not monastic. It's true, though, that you have to be ready to work a lot, at all sorts of hours. Graduate school is not a nine-to-five job. While it's good to take some rest, you don't get the whole weekends off. If you're not ready to sacrifice parts of your Saturdays or Sundays, then you probably shouldn't do it.
Overall, my main piece of advice is that, in my opinion, having your advisor lose patience with you is the main way for a student to fail a PhD. He can lose patience because you're busy studying for courses you don't need to take, because you're procrastinating, because you're aiming for perfection, because you've got nothing new to show on Monday mornings, because you're not developing your independent-thinking skills, or other reasons. But once your advisor has decided his time was better spent on other students, it is extremely hard to turn the situation around. Managing the advisor-advisee relationship correctly is the single most important thing students can do to ensure their advisor will remain supportive throughout the PhD process.
As for the next 4 ways described in Might's blog post, I'll write about them in my next post.