To give you a dose of reality, the attrition rate at any PhD school is very high. Anywhere from a third to half of those that enroll at a PhD university will not end up graduating and finishing their dissertation. In fact, the figure of 40%-50% of failing PhD students has been fairly stable over the past three decades. In 1990, Baird reported that PhD completion rates in most disciplines hover around 50% and are even lower in the arts and humanities. In 2003, Elgar conducted a detailed study of North American PhD students and found that “only about half of all students who enter PhD programs…actually complete” (p. iii). The Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) for England also reported similar numbers in 2007.
Based on my two decades experience in PhD dissertation consulting, this 50% failure rate is a real number; and the attrition rate for PhD and dissertation students has always been extremely high especially when compared to undergrad and master’s programs. The reason has to do with many factors but, in this article, I’d like to focus on the negative factors that will prevent you from PhD graduation. Towards this end, I’ve inserted what I think are the six most relevant factors correlated to failing PhD students.
1st Law of PhD Failure – Choosing the wrong dissertation adviser
Choosing your dissertation adviser is one of the most important decisions of your academic career and one recipe for disaster is to choose a dissertation adviser because you ‘like’ him or her or because you find this person ‘cool’ meaning charismatic, well-published, and has similar research interests as yourself. While these characteristics are admirable, in the end, they won’t help you in completing a quality dissertation and acquiring your PhD.
Lunenberg and Irby (2008) completed a masterly work about successful dissertation writing and, in chapter two of this work, they mention the key factors in choosing a dissertation adviser. The most important two factors they mention are:
- Feedback turnaround times
Too many doctoral students fail to take these factors into account when choosing their dissertation adviser even though these two things are the most common source of complaints regarding dissertation advisers.
You must make sure your potential dissertation adviser satisfies these two criteria and that you are clear about whether your potential candidate will satisfy your expectations in these areas. You should also ask colleagues about the dependability of the candidate in the aforementioned areas to make sure you are choosing a suitable candidate that will give a realistic amount of his or her time to hear you out and attend to your dissertation needs (to the extent appropriate for a doctoral student).
2nd Law of PhD Failure – Expecting Dissertation Hand-holding from your Peers
Too many new doctoral students hold mistaken expectations of what they will find in postgraduate school and among these mistaken assumptions is expecting lots of help and hand-holding. As a doctoral student, you should clearly understand that you must take charge of your own doctoral program.
Although you should get help from your dissertation supervisor, chair, and committee members at certain times, you are the person that will make it happen. For example, there will be no one to remind you of certain courses you should enroll in, or particular forms you need to complete by a certain deadline. Only you are responsible for engraving your intellectual path. And under no circumstances should you ever expect your dissertation supervisor, or anyone else for that matter, in holding your hand and telling you which literature to read, which journals to subscribe to, which peer groups and seminars to attend, or which grants and funding to apply for.
While you should seek help and guidance, you should not expect this help to come, and you must develop an independent and persevering mindset in doctoral school, or else you risk a huge disappointment.
3rd Law of PhD Failure – Choosing too Broad a Dissertation Topic
Doctoral students should understand that when it comes to doctoral school and acquiring that PhD, the dissertation is everything. Because most doctoral students understand this, they unfortunately bring with them the mistaken impression that their dissertation should include everything, cover everything, and attack the topic from every conceivable angle using a variety of different research methodologies.
This mindset and mistaken assumption is absolutely wrong. You must narrow down your research topic and zone in on a particular area. Too many doctoral students end up having a broad research topic and realize too late that they have bit off way more than they could chew and taken on much more than they have anticipated.
Here, make sure you work closely with your dissertation adviser and chairperson and keep working on narrowing down your topic appropriately. You may have always dreamt of your dissertation being all-inclusive and having an immediate impact on your field but you must realize that this is near impossible with the normal resources a typical doctoral student has at his or her disposal. Therefore, make your mark by working with the resources you have and beware of defining a research topic that is too broad.
4th Law of PhD Failure – Procrastination
I am not talking about lazy students since this law doesn’t apply to them (laziness is not usually a personality trait for those enrolling in doctoral school). In fact, this particular law applies to the typical doctoral student who is usually a perfectionist that sets very high standards.
“Understand: obsessive perfectionists, aka doctoral students, tend to be procrastinators!”
In general, PhD and doctoral students got to where they are by being obsessive perfectionists (to a certain extent), setting the standard extremely high and working to get near-perfect grades and submissions. This is fine in high doses up to the point of getting into doctoral school, where your dissertation (not your gpa) defines your success. And a doctoral dissertation reflects more the realities of life where you will stumble several times and find yourself doubting your abilities at many points, no matter how smart you think you are. Therefore, many doctoral students are not used to facing massive obstacles and perplexing problems in their academic life. And when finally facing them, most doctoral students tend to turn inward and face away, rather than confronting, these problems. They simply tend to procrastinate as a method of coping with something they are not used to.
To eliminate this idea, understand that life, real life, is not like school. It is filled with perplexing problems, challenges, and many obstacles. To succeed in anything you do, you must face down these problems and simply start by not running away or putting things off because you subconsciously find it easier on your ego to do so.
5th Law of PhD Failure – Ignoring your Dissertation Committee
Yes, you did not read this wrong. Many PhD students nowadays seem to forget that their committee must sign off and approve of their dissertation in order to graduate. Many doctoral students tend to forget the importance of the dissertation committee and forget to maintain contact with committee members, especially in the latter stages of a dissertation. It’s also very easy for doctoral students to forget particular pieces of advice that a committee member has given since the presence of a committee member is not as dominating as that of a dissertation adviser. On the flip side of this, committee members rarely forget the dissertation advice they give to students.
Hopefully it doesn’t happen to you, but many dissertation committee members give advice during the proposal stage of a student’s dissertation only to have this advice ignored or forgotten by the students. Once it comes time for the thesis defense, the committee members will bring up the unfollowed advice and, many times, it becomes a problem for doctoral students who have to postpone their PhD graduation by a semester (if one is lucky) or more. Don’t let this happen to you and make sure you are in periodic contact with your dissertation committee members and also make sure you record, and follow, any advice given by them.
6th Law of PhD Failure – Getting Romantically Involved with Faculty Members
Although this issue is rarely discussed in online dissertation consulting and writing forums, doctoral students and academic faculty members may become romantically involved. Keep in mind I am not talking about sexual harassment or assault, but rather about completely consensual relationships. Although one may be tempted to think a relationship between two fully-grown adults is not anyone’s business, the reality is that the power dynamics involved in such a relationship are not usually conducive in the long run since the faculty member usually has much more formal and informal power over the doctoral student. Thus, even in seemingly consensual relationships, moral questions of how much the student’s free will was actually involved do arise (e.g. how free was the student to actually decline the relationship). The problem is even more serious if it involves a dissertation adviser or committee member sleeping with a student. Although there are cases of successful long-term faculty-member and student relationships, in my experience these are few and far between. Moreover, what may look like a serious caring relationship could actually be a pattern on the part of the faculty member in ‘cycling’ through impressionable or vulnerable students.
Regardless of the situation, you should simply keep in mind to be careful and keep your guard up. Finally, understand that if things go wrong in the relationship, it could become a serious impediment to success. Moreover, even with successful relationships, your academic success may be hindered by reports of gossip and peers linking any progress of your work to the relationship itself rather than to your own hard work. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Baird, L.L. (1990). Disciplines and doctorates: The relationship between program characteristics and the duration of doctoral study. Research in Higher Education, 31, 369-385.
Elgar, F. J. (2003). Phd completion in Canadian universities: Final report. Retrieved from Graduate Student’s Association of Canada website: http://careerchem.com/CAREER-INFO-ACADEMIC/Frank-Elgar.pdf
HEFCE. (2007). Phd research degrees: Update. Retrieved from Higher Education Funding Council for England website: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100202100434/http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2007/07_28/07_28.pdf
Lunenburg, F. C., & Irby, B. J. (2008). Writing a successful thesis or
dissertation: Tips and strategies for students in the social and behavioral sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.