How to Fail a PhD

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Every PhD is different. You will have some where an individual spends all of their time in a lab just to produce 1 paper. And, you may have a few where the student seems to be on vacation all of the time, yet they produce 3 to 4 papers a year. I know both of these types of individuals which makes a PhD a slightly weird experience.

There are a million blogs and articles on how to successfully do a doctorate. Heck, my whole blog is pretty much about being a successful grad student without going insane. But, very little articles that I have found talk about the things that cause students to fail. I want to talk about a few of the most important ones so you, the doctorate student, will thrive in your program. Here is a list of a few ways that you can fail your PhD.

List of Ways to fail a PhD

Black and White Checkered Paper Bag

1) Not asking for help

This is such an important part of doing a doctorate. You are going where few have gone before and that is exciting and down-right scary. At first, you may be working on stuff that is fairly straight forward and easy to do. But, soon you will find that doing a doctorate will take you places that may cause confusion and doubt. Ask for help! This can be asking your advisor for guidance on the next step or asking a friend to help you with some stress that you are having. Being stubborn and thinking you can handle everything alone is dumb and will cause you to fail. Reach out to people for help. I know you will find it.

2) Thinking you know everything

No one knows everything. Acting like you do will only lead to failure. Doing a doctorate is understanding that you don’t know everything, but you are willing to find out. I knew one individual that thought they knew everything there was prior to starting their grad program. Undergrad is a lot easier if you are like them but grad school is a different game entirely. In grad school, you are finding something out stuff that no one else has found out. You are contributing to knowledge. Those that think they know everything will become extremely frustrated in grad school because they will learn very quickly that our knowledge is extremely limited. The best way to succeed in grad school is know you don’t know everything but you are willing to learn as you go.

Crop unrecognizable coworkers in formal wear standing at table with laptop and documents while greeting each other before meeting

3) Always agreeing with your advisor

Your advisor may know quite a lot but they don’t know everything. Grad school is about becoming an independent researcher. It is about doing stuff that even your advisor doesn’t know. If you agree with everything they say, and take what they say as truth, then you will fail. Question everything they say because it may be wrong. In fact, it is often wrong because they are not doing your research, you are. You are the specialist in this field and it is Ok to question or even disagree with what they tell you. Don’t be afraid to disagree with things they say, especially if you know it is false.

High Angle View of Lying Down on Grass

4) Not taking time off of work

Rest is an essential part of work. If you are working at all times of the day, you’ll burn out quickly. Burn out is so sad to see, especially when it is with first-year students. A doctorate is a marathon, not a sprint so you need to rest to keep up your strength. Taking days off is a great way to increase productivity. In fact, I have written about how it helps (here).

Rest is essential because it allows our minds to recover and strengthen. If you work out, you know onset muscle soreness sucks. Burnout is like that but for your brain. If you over work tour brain, you’ll just be “sore” even more. You need time to recover. After working out, you are a tad bit stronger, and this is the same way with your brain. The days that I take off are usually the days where a “eureka” moment occurs. Try it out.

Woman Sitting in Front of Macbook

5) Not controlling your stress

You are going to be stressed in grad school. If you can control it, you have a great advantage. Stress can lead to all sorts of problems (read about them here). Stree management is key to your success. I have a few ways you can reduce it in my blog (link here). Check it out. Reducing stress will not only allow you to continue this journey but it will make it an enjoyable one. I think the stress that comes from grad school is the reason many people fail. If you can control this stress and use it to your advantage, you will be extremely successful, I guarantee it.

Person Holding Red Book With Silver Link Bracelet Round Analog Watch

6) Being afraid to fail

No one likes to fail, but failure is the way to being successful. One way to absolutely fail your PhD is being afraid to fail, period. I think in an age where we are put down for failure has made us afraid to try anything that may lead to failing. Social media doesn’t help because you look at everyone’s accomplishments, not their failures. Grad school is about failing at stuff so many times that you become desensitized to it. Your experiments will fail, you may fail exams, you will fail in writing and friendships and everything. This is good. It means that you are trying. If you are afraid of failure, you will never take any risks. You will stay in your comfort zone and miss out on the wonderful things that can happen outside of your comfort zone.

I am currently listening to the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. In it, the author talks about how people are afraid of failure and that is why there are a ton of missed opportunities. He emphasizes that failure is essential for growth. You try, you fail. You try again, you fail again but learned something from it. This is how growth occurs. If you want to grow as a researcher, you need to be ok with failure. Remember that a failed experiment may lead to a discovery that could change the world.

Final Thoughts

I want you to know that a doctorate is hard, life is hard, everything is hard. There is no right way to go about doing a doctorate but these things that I have mentioned are great ways to fail at it. For those just starting out, welcome. You will succeed, I know you will. This journey is an interesting, scary, exciting, and down-right awesome one. Enjoy the ride.

These were 6 ways on how you can fail your PhD. There are way more but I think these are the top few that really stand out. The journey is long, but at the end of it, you can be proud of what you accomplished. Also, the title “doctor” stays with you for life, which is kind of cool. Let me know in the comments of any other ways in which you can fail a PhD. I will update the post with your suggestions! Until next time, peace!