Why academic ability doesn't guarantee PhD success

November 29, 2012

Academic ability is clearly important for PhD students. You need to be fairly smart to get onto a PhD program. Or at the very least, you need to be able to convince people you are smart which is an important skill in itself.

But academic ability can only get you so far. To successfully complete a PhD, you need more..

Academic ability doesn't guarantee success

Academic ability, intelligence, IQ, test scores and so on help to get you in, but don't guarantee success in a PhD program.

This is because by the time you get to PhD level, everybody has a high academic ability, high IQ etc. It is no longer the deciding factor between those who succeed and those who fail.

It's like being tall and playing basketball. It helps, but doesn't guarantee success because once you get to professional level everyone is else is tall too.

Practical competence

Because you are largely left to organise your own research, practical competence is probably just as important as academic ability.

If your research involves interviewing people, then it doesn't matter how good you are academically if you can't find and persuade people to take part in the study.

Or if you are running complex simulations but can't persuade the IT manager to give you time on the supercomputer, then you're in trouble.

Every project has practical barriers.

  • Obtaining equipment
  • Contacting the manufacturer when it breaks down
  • Contacting them again if they don't get back to you
  • Figuring out how to fix it yourself
  • Dealing with administration
  • Getting safety or ethical clearance
  • Finding someone with expertise you need
  • Managing your data or samples
  • Finding funding...

It is often these kinds of problems that take the most time and cause the most frustration and stress, but they have nothing to do with academic ability!

The burden of expectation

Dealing with the practical side of research can be tough, and there are always problems you didn't anticipate. Because most PhD students are accustomed to succeeding, these problems and delays can cause you to doubt your own ability.

So don't put yourself under too much pressure to get results straight away. If there are practical obstacles to overcome, focus on those first!

Some tips

Get to know people in your department. Get to know secretaries, technicians; the people who can make things happen. Say hello to them if you pass them in the corridor. Then they'll be much more inclined to give you help when you need it.

Phone calls beat email. If you are contacting a supplier (or anyone), a phone call is much more powerful than email. If you sent an email and never got a reply, don't give up, pick up the phone!

Do small trial runs. Because some problems don't appear until you actually try something, it's often a good idea to try a small scale practice run. That way, you can adapt your approach before committing to the real thing.

Be patient but persistent. Don't expect everything to work out perfectly immediately, but don't sit and wait either. Keep pushing and keep adapting!

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