Sep. 14th, 2010

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
How To Fail Out Of Grad School Without Really Trying

by Tim, Aged 29 3/4 (10th-year grad student if you count the time since I started my first Ph.D, which I don't)

There's a saying that you should never take advice from the survivors, and I felt that way reading this list of reasons Ph.D students fail. If I interpret this article as advice, it's good advice. But if I interpret it as a compendium of reasons why students fail, it doesn't really capture my experience or that of other people I know who left grad school. One reason why is that the author attributes failure only to individual students, ignoring the important role that unsupportive faculty members and indifferent institutions can play in encouraging failure. As Barbara Lovitts shows in her book _Leaving the Ivory Tower_, there are disciplinary and institutional patterns to grad student attrition, suggesting structural reasons for why Ph.D students fail that cannot be reduced to random individual variations in character.

I thought it might be interesting for a person who has failed a Ph.D -- namely, moi -- to compile a list of reasons why people in general might do the same. If you're also excellent at failure, feel free to contribute your own reasons too.

Most of the reasons on this list are probably specific to grad school in science, math, or engineering, just so you know.

  1. Be a member of a minority group that's underrepresented among faculty in your department.

    For maximal effectiveness, be a woman in a math or hard science field. In fact, you don't actually have to be a woman -- you just have to be perceived as one. When failure is your goal, being a woman has many advantages. Male grad students will either spend all their time hitting on you if you're single -- thus sapping the energy you need to save for reading papers and waiting in line at the bursar's office -- or ignore you totally if you're in a relationship, thus denying you the social support you need to survive emotionally and gain tacit knowledge about your program. Male professors will pay less attention to you and decline to take an active role in making sure you're getting what you need in order to progress -- and good luck finding any female professors. The little signs you're not really welcome are what clinches it, like faculty members who won't close their office doors to block out the corridor noise because they see you as a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen rather than as a person.

    I've heard that being a person of color -- in some fields, specifically being a person of color who was born and raised within the country you're attending school in -- also helps, but I have less experience with that; I also can't speak to the experiences of my fellow grad students who were domestic-born people of color, because there weren't any.

    This is a particularly useful item because graduate programs need to boost their admissions numbers for people in underrepresented minorities, but don't always need to boost their retention rates similarly. So they have a strong incentive to admit members of minority groups and then just not bother to support them. Everybody wins! At failure, that is.

  2. Attend the wrong undergraduate institution

    Who knew that you could potentially determine your own success in grad school at age 17 when you decide which undergrad institutions to apply to? Everyone loves to talk about well-roundedness, but if you don't attend an undergrad school that made sure you did 85% of your coursework in your major subject (and the rest in math), expect to spend all of your energy just catching up with the other kids. Nothing says that failure is on its way like being a grad student having to take an undergrad class where you get warned about how simply being absent for the final exam will not ensure that you will receive an F in the class. So don't go to a liberal arts college unless you want to get a Ph.D in half-caf venti soy lattes.

  3. Attend the wrong graduate institution.

    For best results, pick your graduate program based on: location; weather; proximity to a school that your significant other(s) is/are attending; proximity to family; progressive political environment; likelihood that you will be beaten in exchange for walking down the street; overall institutional prestige; overall departmental prestige; or simply "it was the best school that I got into." Best results if you want to fail, that is. A school that has faculty who will commit to your success if you're admitted, and who share research interests with you, is far less likely to set you up for failure than is an on-paper prestigious school where the prevailing attitude is that students are so lucky to be admitted that they would be wrong to ask for any support after that point (sort of like the theory of human life that says it ends at birth). But who tells that to undergrads?

  4. Have social anxiety

    It doesn't really matter whether your social anxiety is clinically diagnosed; all that matters is whether you have deep-seated issues that stop you from attending faculty office hours, choosing to do class projects as a group with other students rather than individually, and talking to your advisor other than when it's time to fill out the once-a-term paperwork. It's easy to be fooled into thinking that just because you can graduate from a very good undergraduate institution with a good academic record, and be accepted to numerous graduate programs, without learning how to seek out help when you need it, that you can get through a Ph.D program that way as well. It's so easy that you just might fail based on that quality alone! A related characteristic is love for working on your own, which is generally just another shape that fear of working with others takes. You might be able to pull this off if you're a genius, but let's face it, if you were one, you probably wouldn't go to grad school.

  5. Pick the wrong advisor

    Choosing an advisor is sort of like proposing to a potential spouse, or at least that's what my first grad school advisor told me back when I was a newly married first-year grad student. Eight years later, I'm divorced and attending a different grad school. What was pertinent about the advice is that in both personal and professional relationships, the opposite of love is indifference. Picking an advisor who says they'll let you do whatever you want but they won't think about it in their spare time, and will serve merely to sign your paperwork, may seem like a great idea at the time, and it is -- if you want to fail. Of course, in this case, it takes two to fail. Advisors are supposed to advise; to learn how to be a researcher, you need to be able to observe people who already know how to do it. These people don't have to be your advisor, but if you're the sort of person who picks an advisor you don't have to talk to and doesn't talk to anyone you aren't being forced to talk to, you're in the high-occupancy-vehicle lane on the freeway to failure.

  6. Attend a school that doesn't evaluate Ph.D students on research ability

    Ph.D programs are meant to prepare you to do research, so some schools evaluate your research when deciding whether to let you make progress towards the degree. Other schools do things like distributing a list of 50 papers in your subdiscipline and doing a closed-door oral exam on any papers that are either on or not on the list. It's an excellent way to fail if your aptitude for original research exceeds your ability to stay poised and understand spoken information without succumbing to anxiety, or if somebody just doesn't want you around. Being a member of a minority group can also help, since it's likely to mean that you haven't learned the aggressive communication style that benefits takers of such exams. For extra failure points, attend a school where if you fail the aforementioned exams, faculty will tell you that you shouldn't even bother applying to other schools, because if you were smart enough to get a Ph.D, you wouldn't have failed. A lucky grad student who aspires to fail will find themself a student in a program that prioritizes ability to pass specific kinds of tests over motivation to succeed at research -- tests that they happen to be bad at, of course.

  7. Lack both confidence in yourself, and the confidence needed to seek out support from others

    This one is pretty self-explanatory, but if you never really believed you were smart enough to finish grad school in the first place, and you're in the categories mentioned above that make it unlikely that anybody will bother to tell you otherwise, failure is more or less a given. You don't *have* to be a member of an underrepresented minority for this one to apply to you, but it sure does help. This ties in with most of the other items on the list too, since if you pick the right school, you'll be studiously ignored as long as you don't arrive already in possession of all the preparation and confidence you need. If your lack of confidence extends far enough to stop you from admitting to other people -- even other students -- that you don't know everything, that's even better, because tacit knowledge of the sort that can only be learned from other grad students in your program is essential to learning the unofficial rules you have to follow in order to make progress, and if you're afraid to talk to them, that's all for the better!

  8. Have a personal life

    If you don't know how to have a personal life, then congratulations, you will probably succeed in grad school. But if you need ideas, consider being married or otherwise being in one or more committed relationships -- spouses are likely to finish sooner than later than you are, interfering with the absolute mobility that's necessary to finish your degree on schedule and cope with institution-hopping advisors, as well as providing a tempting alternative to departmental socializing. Another effective tactic is developing a chronic illness. Sleeping through lectures not only prevents you from absorbing the material therein -- it's demoralizing and makes you question your own ability to ever learn anything. For bonus points, develop an illness that everyone else will believe is fake, suggesting you're just a lazy malingerer -- anything that's generally categorized as a "mental illness" is a good bet. The great thing about getting sick is that even though many chronic illnesses can be treated with medication that allows you to function like a normal person (or at least one who can stay awake long enough to read a paper abstract), there's no cure for being blacklisted due to your consolation master's degree.

  9. Have an external fellowship

    You'd think that free money for doing nothing -- excuse me, I meant doing whatever you feel is necessary to further your own education -- would be a good thing. It is, if you want to fail. Being employed as a research assistant for a specific professor or research group integrates you socially and binds you to a commitment to deliver a particular kind of results -- a commitment that motivates you to finish your task by any means necessary, including collaborating with others. Having a fellowship empowers you to fuck around for almost three years and never get called on your shit. This is great if you came into grad school knowing exactly what your research agenda is and what you need to do to carry it out, but let's face it, if you were that smart, you would probably start a company or something instead.

    (Note: This is actually true; Lovitts's book presents evidence.)

  10. Be too accustomed to success

    Sounds paradoxical, right? The only way to avoid failure is to have failed before. If your academic life until grad school has been a series of unqualified successes, if you graduated cum laude without much effort and wrote most of your papers in a single Earl-Grey-tea-fueled night, you're a great candidate to fail out of a Ph.D program. If on the other hand you've tried to learn material that didn't come easily for you and eventually succeeded, if you've been in situations where you could not succeed without learning how to ask other people for what you need, and you've occasionally gotten less than a C on an exam, you might just end up with the patience to keep trying even when your experiment or code or proof doesn't work the first time. And then, you might just not fail.

    But wouldn't that be boring?


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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