10 Easy Ways to Fail a Ph.D. – Matt Might

AMSBlogComputer Science professor at the University of Utah Matt Might has written an article titled 10 Easy Ways to Fail a Ph.D. He claims that this list relates to PhD’s in any discipline. Dr. Might’s list is as follows:

  1. Focus on grades or coursework – He says that no one cares about grades in grad school. He also gives the pithy (perhaps only such to math folks) formula “Optimal GPA = Minimum Required GPA + varepsilon“. I agree with his argument that you need to balance your time between coursework and research; however, I think saying that the grades aren’t really important is misleading.
  2. Learn too much – This relates to the balancing your research. You need to learn a lot, but it needs to be focused learning. He says that

    Taking (or sitting in on) non-required classes outside one’s focus is almost always a waste of time, and it’s always unnecessary.

    I have to disagree on this point (in regards to math). Perhaps I’m missing his point, but I think it is important to have a broad understanding of mathematics in your PhD (to an extent). Of course you cannot specialize in all of the areas and you should focus on your specialty; however, taking other classes could prove helpful to conducting your research.

  3. Expect perfection – Dr. Might says,

    For students with problems starting on a paper or dissertation, my advice is that writing a paper should be an iterative process: start with an outline and some rough notes; take a pass over the paper and improve it a little; rinse; repeat. When the paper changes little with each pass, it’s at diminishing returns. One or two more passes over the paper are all it needs at that point.

    I recognize that it is difficult (an understatement on my part) to make papers perfect and that there is always room for improvement. I do not necessarily think that “‘Good enough’ is better than ‘perfect'” though.

  4. Procrastinate – Self explanatory
  5. Go rogue too soon/too late – By going “rogue,” Dr. Might means breaking off into your own ideas. You need to find the right time to where you are ready to do it, but not too late. I think this one will prove to be the trickiest for me.
  6. Treat Ph.D. school like school or work – Wow. Dr. Might gives so many nice quotes here. I think you should just read what he has to say and let me know your thoughts.
  7. Ignore the committee – Do not forget what your committee tells you. They will remember what they’ve told you.
  8. Aim too low – I’ll discuss 8 & 9 together. I tell my friends (in other disciplines, it holds for math too) to never compare yourself with the student next to you (I’m guilty of it though). Doing this will not allow you to do your best. You will either get discouraged by the prodigy who outshines everyone or you will stop working because folks are not performing at your level. Either way, it is a recipe for disaster (not to use clichés or anything).
  9. Aim too high – see above
  10. Miss the real milestones – Dr. Might says the real milestones are three good publications. 

What do you think about Dr. Might’s list? Do you agree with all he has to say? Let us know in the comments section below!

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