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.

17 thoughts on “The 10 commandments for PhD failure”

  1. What can you do if you have made basically all these mistakes and now after almost 3 dreadful years it’s time to finish up? Any suggestions on how to turn crappy results into something that will get me a PhD?

    • Huh Been there done that mate. I guess we just have to give it a go. Start from the basics, try writing 500 words a day, edit it, then try 1000 the next. I am in my 4th year and I know how you feel. Dont give up.

      • I think this also depends on the particular culture of the group and the working style of PI. If the environment is like, they do not like to share, or they do not have the relevant background knowledge, it does not help if I open discuss about my problems. I don’t feel like to describe what the group is, but basically, everyone wants to get out of it ASAP because of hatred. In the first day I joined the group, I was extremely wanting to contribute, but no one seems to care to talk to me or bring me into any research projects, then I developed the style of setting projects and solving problems by myself. I was the only girl in the group of 14 boys at that time. It was awful, I had been thinking that there must be something wrong in me so that no one wants to recruit me in research. But there is nothing WRONG in me. I’m not a jerk, lazy or stupid, on the contrary, I’m hardworking, creative and intelligent. Through the past 3 years, I’m sure about that.

        My PI does not listen to my research problems, because he does not have the expertise, and he cares only about good results. I feel numb, desperate and every day is like a torture. I will try my best to stay sane, not doing experiments past 12am in mid-night as I used to.

  2. Great post. I have only been a PhD student for two months and already feel that I moving in the wrong direction. It has been a new start in which suddenly I feel that I need to be smarter, more productive, and successful in every idea I try.

  3. I love your blog. I just… really wish I could go back in time, and not do a PhD. Academia life is not my dream, and everyday I feel anguish to have to do this completely boring thing of “finding out” (in reality, making up) where nucleons are inside the nucleus. I hate it 100%…. but I have to finish. Please, go on with your blog, so I can go on 😉

  4. Pingback: Do you have a healthy academic environment? | Top of Academia
  5. This is brilliant and so true, unfortunately I have fallen into trap no.1 isolation and no.9 passive with supervisor so now lack confidence and suffered a consequent loss of face in my faculty. I am reading all of your blog and its giving me renewed hope… Thanks so much!

    • YES, I FINISHED MY PHD. I submitted in the summer of 2007, defended successfully in November that year.

      I passed with zero corrections to the thesis, and the examiner said that my introduction to the field was among the best he had ever read, including those in the published literature.

      It would be a very strange thing to set up a site like this if I hadn’t finished my own PhD.

  6. almost all of this was true for me, for all the 3 years of my PhD. And now I’m trying to write it down… I regret ever starting this, but I didn’t realize so many things when I started. One good thing is that I really learned a lot, now I could also write advice like this. Too bad that it’s too late now to change anything in my shitty results…

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