Monday, January 21, 2008

How to not (or barely) complete your PhD

For the few of you who would like to decrease your chances of completing your PhD in Computer Science, here are some non-recommended suggestions:

  1. Code too much
    • in particular extremely polished and nice-to-have-features, can be fun, but time (and funding) flies.
  2. Write too much
    • writing is in general good, but there got to be some substance behind it and in my opinion either empirical support or proofs.
  3. Teach and tutor too much
    • Pros: Your students will love you and you will learn a lot about teaching. Cons: Your advisor or PhD committee might not. Thought about doing teaching instead of research?
  4. Not write papers
    • Paper collections has become alternative to monograph thesis in several countries, but if you are defending not writing papers because you are aiming for a monograph chances are quite good you won't make it.
  5. Being too focused
    • Being too focused prunes away a lot (which can be good), but sometimes you get ideas of fields that are slightly different from what you are researching, and if you aren't exposed to such fields you may be loosing important input.
  6. Being too unfocused
    • Is never a great idea, but you might learn a lot of other stuff (e.g. getting involved in system administration at university level can be useful).
  7. Have an obsolete research subject
    • Several research fields in CS can be considered retro, this can cause problems when trying to publish papers, what are the primary events and research communities?
    • The field might be exhaustively studied, and can be extremely hard to contribute to.
  8. Have a boring research subject
    • If you think it is boring, chances are that most reviewers will think it at least as boring as you do, and reject all of your papers.
  9. Do a startup
    • I don't necessarily think that doing a startup is a bad idea (why? left as an exercise for the reader, you might actually end up with honorable doctorates instead, and that is probably at least as good, but different and less probable), but for PhD productivity it might not be the greatest idea.
  10. Never finish anything
    • If you mainly have started-on-but-never-at-submittable-quality papers chances are your thesis will be of similar quality.
  11. Have an advisor that doesn't publish actively or interact with research community
    • I personally believe if your advisor doesn't publish actively, chances are higher that you won't either. Choose your advisor with care.
  12. Read too much
    • I have seen people who have an exhaustive-read-approach to PhD, e.g. attitudes like "I have to read all the references of this seminal survey paper". It usually didn't serve them well (in particular if they use this rule recursively..). Reading is good, but it has to be targeted, and doing something is better than only reading.

Disclaimer: This approach isn't recommended, but if recognize some of the above approaches as yours, then you should perhaps consider reading this.

1 comment:

Boyd said...


The most rigorous part of the dissertation includes the

Methods Section
Study Design
Research questions and hypothesis formulation
Development of instrumentation
Describing the independent and dependent variables
Writing the data analysis plan
Performing a Power Analysis to justify the sample size and writing about it

Results Section
Performing the Data Analysis
Understanding the analysis results
Reporting the results.
When you enter this phase of the program, you are nearing the end of the journey. Given the difficulty of this phase, one often wishes they had previewed what was to come.
Many Ph.D candidates seem to hit a brick wall and feel disarmed when called upon to work on the methods and results section of their dissertation.
This is the point where many students diligently search for help calling on their advisor, peers, university assistance and even Google.
This is also the time when the student asks themselves the question" HOW MUCH HELP IS TOO MUCH".
Surely no one will deny that having your dissertation written for you is very wrong.

On the other hand, it is not unusual for doctoral students to get help on specific aspects of their dissertation.(e.g. APA formating and editing) It also is not unusual for advisors to encourage students to seek outside help.

If you are a distance learning student it is almost essential you seek outside assistance for the methods and results section of your dissertation. The very nature of distance learning suggest the need for not only outside help but help from someone gifted in explaining highly technical concepts in understandible language by telephone and e-mail.

Distance learning, and the avaiability of programs, has increased exponetially over the last few years with some of the most respected institutions (Columbia University, Engineering; Boston University and others) offering a Ph.D in a variety of fields. If you are enrolled in a distance learning program, or considering one, you will be interested in reviewing the reference sites listed at the bottom of this page.

As stated above, many students hit their dissertation "brick wall" when they encounter the statistics section. Frequently, a student will struggle for months with that section before they seek a consultant to help them. This often leads to additional tuition costs and missed graduation dates.

If I were to name a single reason why a PhD candidate gets off track in their program it is the statistics and their fear of statistics.

So, the question is whether or not it is ethical to get help at all. If so, how much help is too much.

I don't know if there has ever been a survey of dissertation committee members who were asked this question, however, I know many advisors take the following position when they suggest or approve outside help:

To a large extent the process is self controlling. If the student relies too much on a consultant, the product may look good, however, the student will be unable to defend his/her dissertation.

It takes a committed effort on the part of the student and the consultant (resulting in a collaborative/teaching exchange) to have the student responsible for the data and thoroughly understand the statistics. The day the student walks in front of the committee to defend, there should be no question as to his/her understanding of statistics.

When their defense is successful, the question of "was the help too much" is answered.

If you are a Ph.D candidate and would like additional information, you may email me at:


Reference sites: