The 10 commandments for PhD failure

This is quite an old post now, and I don't write in this style any more (it's a bit sarcastic). For a better summary of the key principles, written with a more positive outlook, check out this blog post

1. Isolate yourself

You are surrounded by other very smart people with different experience and ways of viewing problems.

But if you want to fail, don’t ask them for their opinions. Never ask for advice if you find something difficult, and never admit that you’re making less progress than you think you should.

Don’t discuss your research. Instead, wait till you write your thesis before you attempt to explain your work for the first time.

2. Don’t take time to think

You have to work hard if you’re doing a PhD.

Professors work 26 hours per day, so you must too. Clearly, that’s the best way to do your best work. If you stop to think, people might think you are being lazy, and it’s vital to maintain the appearance of being busy even if you’re too exhausted to tie your own shoelaces.

If you stop to think, you might be able to find a better way of doing things that saves you time… or a new idea that’s a breakthrough in your research. Then what are you going to do for the rest of the day?

3. Don’t ask for what you need

Your supervisor might say no, after all. Instead, carry on doing things the way you are whether it’s working or not.

You can avoid asking for things by following commandment 2. If you don’t think about what you need, you can’t ask for it.

4. Make lots of excuses

Things will happen that will slow you down.

It’s not your fault… you didn’t have the support, you didn’t have the resources, this didn’t arrive on time, there are too many distractions…

Excuses are a great way to cover up your own responsibility for your own research. Strip them away and the onus is on you to think about what you need to do to overcome the circumstances and make progress.

4. Spend all your time reacting to new things

Your inbox is your master. If you want to stay a PhD student forever then spend all your time reacting to new (but non-urgent) tasks coming in, rather than on your long-term goals or finishing what you’ve already started.

Wait till Monday before you decide what you’ll do next week, and then just do what you feel like doing at that moment.

5. Do everything important at the last minute

You work best with tight deadlines.

Doing everything at the last minute means that you won’t have time to think about what you are doing, and gives plenty of opportunity for excuses to crop up.

6. Ignore your own mistakes

Successful people acknowledge and think about their mistakes, then act accordingly.

But you learned from undergrad studies that a mistake is the worst thing you can make in an exam or in an essay. Back then there was little chance or need to learn from mistakes, as you only had to retake the exam if you failed.

Failing a PhD is all about working harder without gaining a deeper insight into your research. So don’t stop to think about what you’ve done wrong and what you can do differently, and never, ever admit your mistakes to others.

7. Avoid making decisions

You can avoid making mistakes in the first place by doing nothing.

Spend all your time worrying about whether this or that option is best, because you don’t and can’t ever know with certainty until you try (that¡s why it’s called research).

You could decide to try something new, but that means having to stop to think about the options. And you risk making mistakes which you’d then have to think about some more and try to learn from, or admit to.

8. Try to be an expert in everything

No good at statistics or data analysis? Never written a computer program before? No idea where to start with a new sub-topic?

Try to do it all yourself and don’t ask for help. Spend most of your time doing things you are bad at, and less time doing the things you’re good at.

It might take a colleague 30 seconds to do something it will take you a week to figure out, but then you can’t make excuses and look busy by struggling on alone.

9. Be totally passive with your supervisor

Just do as you are told. Don’t bring your own ideas to meetings, don’t ask for clarification, don’t stand up for yourself or what you think is best.

If you want to be treated with respect, act with dignity and act proactively.

But speaking your mind, voicing your concerns, coming up with your own solutions to problems means that they might start to see you as a human being and a capable researcher, but there’s also a risk of them disagreeing with you.

You supervisor is not your employer. They aren’t your owner, either. Your time is yours, and you are investing it in the PhD.

But just stay quiet and stay chained to your desk for 3 more years.

10. Forget why you’re here

You are here to succeed. You are here to finish your PhD and move on to the next challenge in your life.

It involves taking some risks, making difficult decisions, thinking creatively, overcoming obstacles. It involves thinking about what you are going to do right now, and acting decisively to achieve what you want to achieve.

But it’s easier in the short term to see the whole thing as an impossible burden, to hide behind excuses, be passive, avoid making decisions and focus on all the problems you face instead.

12 things you need to know when starting a PhD

1: Beat your first deadline

Whatever your supervisor gives you to do first, beat the deadline by at least 24 hours.

2: Get to know people who can make things happen

You might not need them yet, but saying hello to secretaries, technicians, porters etc is a very good idea before you need a last minute favour later. Then…

3: Thank people who do things for you

Especially your PhD supervisor. It’s easy to complain if they aren’t there for you, but recognise that they are almost certainly busier than you are, and show that you value their time.

4: Get to know other people’s research

This will give you a broader knowledge base, and stop you getting too narrowly focused on your own research. You’ll learn far more (and faster) by talking to people than you will by reading.

And your colleagues are more likely to be interested in your work if you show an interest in theirs.

5: Get really, really good at one thing

Nobody knows everything. You’re not expected to. But try to get seriously good at at least one thing.

Even better if it’s something useful to other people.

6: What you write now, you won’t like in 3 years time

3 years from now, you’ll know far more than you do now. That’s the whole point of the PhD.

The value of doing a lit review now though his to learn the basics. Focus on basic concepts, and don’t let writing get in the way of starting research.

7: Downloading papers doesn’t count as reviewing the literature

I mentioned this in 17 random tips for PhD success, but it’s worth saying again. Check out this post on an easier way to review literature.

8: Publish

Everything you do should be working towards getting published. If your work isn’t going to be publishable, it’s not going to be worth a PhD.

9: Make contacts outside your department

Contacts are the lifeblood of your career. Get to know people at conferences, get their business card, add them on LinkedIn, and that CV you send 3 years from now won’t be coming from a stranger.

10: Write everything down

Write notes as if they are for someone else working coming in to take over your work after your shift ends. Your future self will forget!

11: Time goes faster than you think

Sometimes the days will drag, but the years will fly by. Set yourself a target for what you’re going to achieve in the first 6 months.

12: Make mistakes

If you make no mistakes, you’re not taking risks and you’re not pushing yourself.

Just make sure you learn from them, take responsibility for them, and try not to make the same mistake twice.