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Tim Chevalier ([personal profile] tim) wrote2010-09-14 12:32 am

How To Fail Out Of Grad School Without Really Trying

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?

etb: (latin stun maths)

[personal profile] etb 2010-09-14 08:25 am (UTC)(link)
reading this list of reasons Ph.D students fail. If I interpret this article as advice, it's good advice.

I just read it and thought some of it was bad advice. Not too surprising, since it's advice about how not to fail from someone whose worst failure was, apparently, taking too many classes and thus taking an extra year! horrors! I also don't appreciate hyperbole about "vows of poverty" or "biblical levels of devotion". But let's leave that aside.

Maybe Lovitts's book already makes this point, but some of the reasons you list are only serious problems if the institution is broken. #5 is usually not a big problem at CMU. #9 is almost no problem at all, and having external funding makes switching advisors even easier.

I also wonder if #8 is less of a problem, or even an advantage, for men. Having teh wife 'n' kids seems to help male tenure-track faculty.
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[personal profile] autumnus 2010-09-14 04:00 pm (UTC)(link)
I was kind of miffed about that part. As if learning few extra topics and spending an extra semester as a result will kill you.

[identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com 2010-09-17 03:43 pm (UTC)(link)
I just read it and thought some of it was bad advice. Not too surprising, since it's advice about how not to fail from someone whose worst failure was, apparently, taking too many classes and thus taking an extra year! horrors!

Funny thing is that rather late in my graduate school career, what I noticed is that the people I admired and who were doing well (faculty and students) allowed and encouraged their curiosity. After the talk, they'd stay and discuss the result until they understood it, whether it was their area or not. They'd attend classes if (and only if) they wanted to learn stuff.
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[personal profile] ptc24 2010-09-14 09:43 am (UTC)(link)
10 was huge for me; fortunately more or else everything else was set up very nicely (also, fair chunks of the above didn't apply to me due to the difference between British and American PhDs), so in the end I got past the difficulties with this and ended up passing.

In particular, with 10, I'd gone into my PhD program with far too much of my sense of self-worth invested in academic success.
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[personal profile] talia_et_alia 2010-09-14 01:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Dear Tim,
I am considering applying to grad school this fall. I have a lot of doubts and complicated risk/benefit calculations going on, particularly after reading this! If I wrote up a capsule version of the discussion in my head, would you comment on it? Hilarious advice columnist format optional.
- Bachelor's in Boston
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[personal profile] talia_et_alia 2010-09-14 10:13 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh! I don't remember getting email from you (and I was just boasting this week about how I so rarely lose things in the spamfilter :/) and was actually just thinking whether I should email you, per your earlier entry about being in town soon. If we can make schedules match, let's make something happen.
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[personal profile] autumnus 2010-09-14 04:12 pm (UTC)(link)
In my case being a woman wasn't as bad as most (but then again I am used to being socially isolated), but having unusual interests partly due to being a woman was. 2 I think is not wrong thing to have, it is grad programs who fail to support these students in future. What you need to do is to identify these students and have a prep year. It is not that damned hard.

In my case 5,6,7,8 and 10 resulted in the happy ending.

the original article to me was more of a declaration of: what do we expect the grad students to do so that good students fail. His vision of what success is (you shall not learn stuff outside your field and be exposed to any life outside grad school to succeed) is pretty much the reason why academics rarely produce anything worthwhile. It is the reason why I decided not to continue my education in USA, if at all. If I wanted to have tunnel vision I would have gotten a job at a company. It pays better.

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[personal profile] miang 2010-09-14 05:09 pm (UTC)(link)
Coming from a broken program: ouch. You hit the nail on the head with a lot of these.

If I could add one that plagued our program, somewhere between underrepresented minority and wrong undergrad, it would be: come from a working-class background. It's pretty amazing -- and alarming -- to watch "not socialized to wealth" translate to "incompetent" in the minds of faculty. Anecdata suggest you risk success if you distance yourself as much as possible from your blue-collar past, family, interests, etc; but if you profess to continue to like or respect those people, or enjoy the same activities as them, it's Failure City.
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[personal profile] bx 2010-09-15 12:49 am (UTC)(link)
Sounds like I have a lot going for me in terms of failure. Although if I do fail out I wont be too upset since I'm in it more for the experience than the shiny piece of paper.
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[personal profile] novel_machinist 2010-09-16 12:43 am (UTC)(link)
Wow did this hit close to home for me. Bravo.
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[personal profile] pinesandmaples 2010-09-16 05:17 am (UTC)(link)
Gonna be honest: my wife is in a pretty specialized PhD program, and I'm moving to another city 900 miles away to get my masters from an equally specialized school.

I'm terrified that she's going to fail while I'm gone because her program is new so no one knows if it's broken or not...and I would never forgive myself for that. There are four schools in the US that do what she's doing, and I'm worried now. Maybe I shouldn't go. ARGH!

[identity profile] anemone.livejournal.com 2010-09-17 03:48 pm (UTC)(link)
As someone who almost failed but did succeed (if graduation equals success), the guy has absolutely no understanding of what it was like for me.

I mean, sure, I procrastinated, but that was mostly because I didn't know what the fuck I was doing.

Of your reasons, 4 & 7 were big ones for me, and probably #10. I think #1 (along with #7) is why I don't have a better job.
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[personal profile] lindseykuper 2010-09-25 09:52 pm (UTC)(link)
Several of these resonate with me. Underrepresented minority: check. Artsy-fartsy undergrad school: check. Decided where to apply partly based on bike-friendliness of location: check. Went to best school that would take me (only school that would take me): check. Mysterious qualifying process that doesn't actually evaluate research ability: check. External fellowship: check.

In my case, though, some of these things worked out for the best. My artsy-fartsy undergraduate education taught me how to write, which is pretty damn useful. And the external fellowship I had my first year really helped a lot, because the alternative would have been to teach immediately, and that would have been very difficult (it's unusual for a Ph.D. student to have a research assistantship right off the bat here (which is indicative of a larger problem, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this comment)); as it was, not having to teach gave me time to learn and absorb a lot in my classes, which was really necessary because see above re: artsy-fartsy undergraduate education.
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[personal profile] lindseykuper 2010-09-26 03:26 am (UTC)(link)
Yep! I show up tomorrow morning, in time for the 9 a.m. Conor McBride WGP talk if I'm lucky.

Right on

[identity profile] http://www.google.com/profiles/sean.leather 2010-10-09 09:02 am (UTC)(link)
Let's see... Which ones account for my past experience?

1. No, I guess not. However, you could say being a non-Dutch speaker (and the only native English speaker in my department) has contributed to some issues in my current situation.

2. No, that wasn't a problem for me.

3. That certainly contributed to my "success" in my first attempt at a PhD. Moving from a medium-sized private institution to a huge public one was a nice excuse for shell shock.

4. Yes, well... I don't know what to say here. Can we take this one offline?

5. This was a major contribution to the end of my first attempt.

6. No, don't think so.

7. Ah ha. I can't even answer this with confidence. I'm trying, though.

8. Well, this is a huge difference between the demands of my first and second attempts. I didn't know what a personal life was before.

9. Negative.

10. Failure, I know thee well, but possibly not well enough.

Great list! Thanks.

[personal profile] inflectionpoint 2012-01-15 04:38 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow. Good list.

I will add: realize that the project your advisor is working on is a steaming pile with no prospects. Discuss this with data and evidence and propose a new project with better prospects of actually working.

Get told you can't do that because it belongs to So and So. Realize that So and So owns an entire area of research according to your "advisor," realize that you need to change to a different advisor in order to not waste years of your life on something your advisor doesn't care about and hasn't really sussed out. Change advisors.

Reap shock and scandal and horror because... I guess I was supposed to stay there for six years and flush my career down the drain because that's what my "advisor" wanted for me?

I eventually did finish, but I would not advise anyone to enter a phd program if they have any other prospect available. Being categorized as second class (because my undergrad prep was in chemistry and not in molecular biology and because I came from a working class background) and assigned to a crap project with no future and then being blamed for its non success and told it would work if I "worked harder" was horrible. I don't want anyone else to have that experience.

I can do a lot of cool shit. But I cannot make the impossible happen no matter how hard I try. After leaving grad school, I have needed a decade to get over the fact that this is not my fault.
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[identity profile] ajodasso.livejournal.com 2012-04-26 04:32 pm (UTC)(link)
[...] I have needed a decade to get over the fact that this is not my fault.

Although my case is slightly different (i.e. I didn't leave - there were no problems up until my examiners entered the picture in the summer of 2010, at which point they put me through two grueling rounds of revisions, and then decided they didn't want to award the degree even after their final verdict was Pass With Minor Revisions, which is why my [UK] grad school institution is currently under investigation by the OIA to determine what happened and how the situation can be rectified...so I'm not high and dry quite yet, and I do hope I'll end up with the piece of paper saying I earned the damned degree in the end), this statement is resonating deeply. I'm six months into the appeals battle, and it could well drag out for another year or so, and I have spent so much time feeling guilty and helpless in spite of the fact that I know what's happening is completely out of my hands and not my fault in the least. If there had been any real danger of me failing, I would never have been permitted to pass my upgrade (the UK equivalent of orals, which I did pass, with flying colors). I just hope it won't take me a decade to get over it if something goes really wrong in the investigation/appeals process :-/
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[identity profile] ajodasso.livejournal.com 2012-04-28 09:06 pm (UTC)(link)
That's going to be my biggest hurdle, too, really: learning to trust [supposed] authority figures again.