Wednesday, May 10, 2006

7 Secrets of Doctoral Success

Well, given the amount of interest in postgraduate studies and that many of you readers appear to be in the academia, I thought this article on 7 Secrets of Doctoral Success was particularly interesting :).

We have spoken often about how many PhD students and even senior academics at our local universities fail to complete their doctorates or took an immensely long time to complete them. Well, according to Flinders University staff development and training unit head Hugh Kearns and his colleague Maria Gardiner, distractions and procrastination are just two reasons students struggle to complete their PhDs on time.

The underlying reason, it appears, which causes "distractions and procrastination" are due to students' "battle with perfectionism, over-commit[ment], self-sabotage and ...motivation and focus while writing a PhD... Those negative feelings lead to procrastination and other feelings."
Ms Gardiner said negative feelings often led to delays in the completion of PhDs, wasted time, missed deadlines and people abandoning their work. But she said the problem did not lie in students not being intelligent enough to complete their work.

"It's not about people who are stuck and miserable who are not able to finish their PhD, it's about achieving elite results and coming up with good results in the end."
So what are the 7 secrets?
The seven secrets - revealed in detail in the books - are maintaining a close relationship with a supervisor, writing, showing work and meeting short-term deadlines, being realistic on the quality of the PhD, saying no to distractions, keeping office hours, seeking help when needed and confidence that "you can do it".
Sounds like nothing too special, but here's the rub. What it apparently means to a PhD candidate, Tim Moore was this:
...after learning he did not have to be perfect and his work was unlikely to be worthy of winning a Nobel prize, Mr Moore finished his PhD on schedule. "It helped me to understand it wasn't the most important thing in the world ... and recognition that it didn't have to be perfect."
And to sum it up, the author of 7 Secrets of Doctoral Success, Mr Kearns said:
"To undertake a PhD you need 10 per cent intelligence and 90 per cent persistence."
Woh woh woh. There you have it. Hence the reason why some of our senior academics can't seem to complete their PhDs has got to do with they inspirational quest for perfectionism. And Kian Ming, you don't have to be that smart after all! :)

To quote Eric Beerkens, whose blog referred me to the above article:
It is so simple. You just lower the expectations, compromise quality, and make students realise that nothing needs to be perfect and you have created highly successful PhD students. You see, it's not that difficult.
Oh, and maybe that's the way to achieve 100,000 PhD students in 15 years as stated in the Zahid Higher Education report, and debated by Kian Ming. :)


Anonymous said...

Good to see that I'm nothing special! At least there are reserach findings to explain my anal retentive and very slow progress =D
On another note, I want to ask a question. There is a standard set by middle class society that one must pursue a university education. And if you don't you're labelled as lazy, or uneducated. Yet when you pursue a Phd, then one too is lazy (to work!) and self-indulgent. Perhaps this is where the key stress of "am I good enough?" comes from.

Anonymous said...

I think the tone of this blog is unnecessarily sarcastic. Realising that your PhD is not Nobel Prize winning material does not mean that the ultimate work is crap. It really should not be viewed as a life altering event. A PhD merely shows that a person can research and create a work that is of good quality. It can be a stepping stone for one's life's work but it is rarely the be all and end all of academic endeavour.Except maybe for the very few, like that Nash fellow who got his Nobel prize based on his PhD (I think) thesis (if the movie is accurate!) But he was a genious and most of us aren't (I am not even sure of my spelling of genious!)

At the end of the day, one has to do one's best under the guidance of the supervisor. The PhD is an academic qualification which you get upon examination. That is all. No more no less. It proves your ability to research and your ability to express that research. That alone makes it a worthy endeavour.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon May 10@12.44pm,

I completely agree with you!! Taking PhD requires more than intelligence, attitudes count a lot. Many doctoral candidates fail not because they are not smart but because they are not disciplined enough to get thru the process. At schools or university, most of us get thru the learning process with the input by the lecturers, but doing PhD means you need to be resourceful..and have the ability to study independently.

Anonymous said...

the key factor any faculty seek for in a potential PhD candidate is whether the person is able to conduct independent research successfully. although intelligence may not be the most important factor, it does still matter. you still have to be above average to be considered, and have some good (not excellent) grades. there are just too many phony PhD candidates these days that universities all over the world are increasing their requirements.

referring to the point by lil miss phd "Yet when you pursue a Phd, then one too is lazy (to work!) and self-indulgent." i agree with you on this. i too find it quite surprising how joe public actually 'discourages' people from taking up a PhD. somehow, they have the perception that PhD is easy, that students would rather 'take the easy way out' to postpone finding a job. i guess the problem stems from how the majority of people view success. they're not interested if you have researched successfully something new. they're more interested in materialistic values e.g. how much are u earning? what car are u driving? etc. hopefully, as we (malaysia) progresses, our cultures and mindsets change too.

Anonymous said...

You want to know the real world of PhD? Go google Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham. That will give you a very clear picture of what it is like.


Anonymous said...

One thing is not to get fleeced on a doctoral program managed by an Australian university. Pay RM38000 in advance and when the agent franchisee college changes ownership you lose both your money and doctorate! Students BEWARE. Then when you take up the case with the industrial tribunal the agents tell you not to take up the case as even if you win you might be sued for defamation by the owners of the college. Horrors!

Anonymous said...

To anon 4:37pm
Why you dont enrol in our IPTAs, you get the course done in a fraction of the cost..albeit a slight hard work and longer time frame.. :)-

Anonymous said...

To simplify doing PhD into seven basic secrets is not accurate. Every PhD does require the main characteristics such as:
1 Intelligent enough
2 Hardworking enough
3 Can work independent enough
etc etc

But what one often get forgotten are the elements of luck and risks
1 Certain candidates are lucky to have a good caring experienced supervisor, while some are left in the lurch on their own
2 Certain PhD projects are so hard even Stephen Hawkings would not find the answer. Some PhDs might require years to finish with no end in sight!
While certain candidates may have ' cyclostyled ' Phd' which are routine except change a bit here and that from the previous candidates of the same supervisor
3 Some candidates are bad lucked enough to develop natural repulsions and antagonistic relationships with the supervisor from day one

So there are a lot of factors.
The point is, each PhD is different. You are lucky if you have a good supervisor with good track record. The supervisor is lucky if he has a brilliant and hard working student

Anonymous said...

Underlying the seven tips stated by the web, I suppose the real issue is that PhD program is less structured than a master or undergraduate program.

In other words, if one does not set one's goal and plan throughout the 3-year time frame, procrastination sets in, and time flies easily.

One of the way to combat this is to set many periodic or short-term
goals like completing a paper for conferences, etc.

Have periodic goals and break them up to monthly goals, just like what I did...

Persistency is very important. Constancy to Purpose is also very important. But having said that, one's basics in quantitative subjects are very important. It is advisable to complete those core
courses in this first year of one's studies.

As a rule of thumb, set to complete some tasks everyday!

Even making a small progress in a day will make a difference in the long run.


Eric said...

I think Tony P. and I used the same sarcasm in our postings referring to the article. My point was to emphasise that you do need some specific qualities (not just intelligence) for obtaining a PhD (like you need that for any degree or for any carreer-promotion). However, you do get quite some time to work on a thesis (usually 4 years) and therefore it is good to start with high expectations and to keep those up as long as possible.

My critique on the '7 secrets' is that they are far to generic. I think every PhD student needs very specific advice about their progress, their directions and their struggles. And this is where the role of the supervisor comes in. These are basically the only ones that can tell the students whether it is wise to lower the standards or compromise on quality. And I think this is also where one of the most important problems is in relation to the low and slow completion rates in PhD Programmes (worldwide).

Maybe the two should start giving seminars to academics on how to improve PhD supervision. On the other hand...maybe these academics can better spend that time on actually supervising the students ;)

Anonymous said...

To Anon 3:24 PM, as silly as it sounds, it is such a relief to hear another Malaysian agree with me! Many of my Malaysian friends, some family members and parents' friends all have this sort of inferior attitude to my pursuit of a PhD. Now I'm not an intellectual genius, nor is my life so much harder then everyone else's but it's not that much easier as well (and I'm sure that all of my esteemed Phd students in this blog space will agree with me). Personally, that is where one of my fears comes from, and it is something that sometimes retards my progress. Perfection out of fear! It's a common hinderance to many 'Phders' I know.
In regards to the 7 Secrets documents, I don't think it is a bad thing that the study points out generic issues faced by research candidates. Most problems stem from a common cause and evolve into individual and unique issues. I think it is a useful tool to indentify the generic root of the problem and then addressing specific problems that effects one's progress. So while I do think it's a handy and interesting article to read (since I identified with a host of the generic problems), I would use that article to help form a base to plan a effective reserach strategy but not as a the mainstay.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tony,

Today's Sin Chow paper's parliament commentary section actually had the audacity to publish out the JPA results for the past 5 years.

Unsuprisingly they only give 20% to non bumis.

Anonymous said...

Have a look at this link

It gives suggestions and advice on how to complete graduate school.

Anonymous said...

Bewarned about doing a PhD or DBA from most institutions be it local or foreign. Sometimes, not being awarded the degree and asked to pay limitless sums of money is a fruitless pursuit rather than an academic and honourable one. Nowadays most universities are only there to make money so bewarned and becareful.

Anonymous said...

The "Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham" comics reflects my PhD experience to the full extent. By the way, I am a 2nd year PhD student at the Uni of Melbourne. These are the pros and cons that I could think of:

1) Works alone 99% of the time, without any assistance
2) Minimum supervisions: write a journal paper and he will review the grammar, structure, and presentations
3) >3 cups of coffee daily
4) Free foods and seminars
5) Low pay, long hours
6) Pressure to publish
7) Always counting the remaining years of candidature
8) Free internet access
9) Always compare publications records among group mates
10)Need to assist supervisor in writing grant proposals
11)Getting bald, and a PhD gut

the list go on and on

Anonymous said...

hmm.. tony

any PSD Scholarship woe tales this year again?

coz you can easily interview anyone on the recom website. a lot of people with good results didnt get it as usual.

Anonymous said...

Worse thing about being a doctorate student is that after graduating the pay is lousy and there is no guarantee that you will get a good job just the name DR before the name that looks nice.

Anonymous said...

PhDs are becoming a dime in a dozen with DSc taking centre stage soon. After that it would be Post Doctoral and Fellow, how about a Doctor of a Doctor with the letters DDr. The list goes on with the crazy search for credentials within the country just to impress and be impressed. I think looking at oneself in the mirror would definitely be CHEAPER.

Anonymous said...

To anon @ Thu May 11, 11:15:38 PM,

I disagree with your opinion above. Most people who undertakes a PhD are doing so because it is their interest in that particular area. No one will be foolish enough to spend a good ~5 years of tedious study and research just to earn a Dr. title. Ask any self-respecting academician, and they'll all tell you the same thing. It's definitely not about the title or money. It's a big public mis-conception.

BTW, a DSc title is earned through ones achievements and contributions to their area of expertise. Often, it's only given after many years in the field (>10) with significant contribution (Read: ground-breaking work). Not anyone can simply apply for it. Postdocs and Fellowships are totally different, and again not all can apply for it. Your achievements, aptitude and attitude counts a lot.

I think the problem is people tend to think that academia is easy. Which is totally wrong. Academia is like any other industry. You have to excel in your field through your hard work. But unlike the private industries, there's no butt-licking involved. Well, maybe a little, but it's definitely not prevalent.

Anonymous said...

One thing I do know....If you have succeeded in getting your PhD in the right and proper way, by the time you finish it, you will be a 'changed' person.

For the many years you spent thinking and researching about your thesis, day and night, you will suffer frequent insomnia as your brain is now attuned to thinking and problem solving.

Even if your body is tired due to age, yr brain is still active, and though you close your eyes yet you cant sleep

This is the CURSE of a PhD! So be forewarned to those who intend to pursue this path towards enlightment and glory...hehe

Anonymous said...

My niece had a very difficult time when she pursued her PhD at a high-ranking UK university. Her supervisor, a well-known professor (whose academic qualifications were from the Cambridge University and Imperial College) encountered serious marriage problems. For almost a year, the professor chose not to respond to her as regards her progress reports. In the end, the university administrator stepped in. To make a long story short, she got her PhD after four instead of three years. I was told that one of the professor's non-UK students got into depression and was forced to return home.

Anonymous said...

yes, it is not easy. contrary to popular belief that doctoral candidacy is a walk in the park, there are many who fail to complete it. a lot of hard work and sacrifices which incidentaly causes these group of people to have one of the highest suicide rates. MIT, a top science school in US, has a suicide of approx 1 per every 2 years for just one department. this rates tend to be highest among the sciences. so please stop bashing these young hopefuls unnecessarily like in the few comments above. it is uncalled for, immature, shows a lack of respect to others, and in my opinion, simple jealousy.

Anonymous said...

I agree with one of anon that after graduating with PhD, paywise is more or less so in our Bolehland..

IMHO, the recognition for PhD is still very low in Malaysia.

Just check our PSD for job entry level. Young lecturers are placed at a scale with a basic salary of RM200-300 more than a Master's degree at entry level?

What on earth is that? No wonder existing lecturers in our IPTAs
have no incentive to pursue PhDs..

And on top of that, we cannot attract anyone to come and serve our IPTAs except government-funded scholars.

Check our down South neighbour..
a foregin fresh PhD holder has a starting pay of SGD4,000 to 5,000.

And in places like Japan, a fresh PhD would get more than RM11,000 monthly, not to mention the attractive annual bonus of 5 months.

It is time we should give due recognition to our lecturers.
They should be placed under different scheme from usual civil servants!

And seriously, dont waste their time by asking them to queue up to do those PTKs exam?

I mean queue up...Ya..despite a stipulated requirement for the service. One has to wait for one's queue to do it..

Even attending course is subject to availability!

Seriously unbelievable for ISO cerifiied institutions.

Do their counterparts in UCLA or NUS or Tsinghua have to do PTKs?

Res Ipso Liquitur.

I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

Getting PhDs are a serious matter.

In good institutions found in developed countries like the States and Japan, etc, PhD candidacy will not even be granted if one has not gotten any publication in journal or international conference.

In top universities, granting a PhD degree in sciences comes with a
requirement of at least 3 publications in international journals.

That makes their graduates count in the market place! These are top-rated institutions..

There is probably no such requirements for second-tiered institutions, but would require one or two external examiners for the PhD thesis commitee..

In the third-tiered institutions where completing a written work, so called PhD thesis, and submission of fees or lump sum monies would mean automatic conferment of degree.

We have seen the proliferation of commercial inclined institutions that grant PhDs or DBAs to successful businessman after completing a piece of written work!

What is the contribution to mankind in academic sense that warrants the conferment of such degree?

So, caveat emptor (let buyer beware).

Anonymous said...

"Most people who undertakes a PhD are doing so because it is their interest in that particular area. No one will be foolish enough to spend a good ~5 years of tedious study and research just to earn a Dr. title. "

Actually, I did came across some people who are vain enough to want the Dr title. If you read th comic Piled Higher and Deeper you will see people go for PhD a lot of them are for..'different' reasons. The comic is actually a very accurate potrayal of how life is going on in university, like one of you who mentioned it. Kind of like the Dilbert of university level.
As for achievement and contributions, as far as I know, your Phd thesis is a walk in the park compared to your advisor's tenure process and getting funding and their work. So yeah people do tend to think in the academia is easy, here are the common complains:

1) Is so easy for them to get money, only know how to teach and be done with it : Not true, Professors have to personally get their fundings from industry out there to fund their research or get it from their school to do it. Getting it from school is a lot harder too. They have to write and publish a lot. Hence the culture, publish or perish. Teaching is only secondary priority to them. Research is the main cutting edge stuff.

2)They have so many holidays: Depends if you are tenured or not. If you are not tenured, you work like a dog holidays or no holidays. You go overdrive for the first 5 years on average.

3) You got your PhD already arent you already a professor or good enough? No, you are the lowest of the food chain among the elites in their field. Hence you need to go through the tenure process to be tortured to get to a better position. Instead of competing with average people, you are competing wiht the people best in their field well known in the world. Still think it is easy?

4) Their life is not even stressful: You think so? You keep drinking coffee non stop and always worry about food hence hunting for free food around campus and constantly worry about low pay. Work for your advisor and always keep reporting to them. Always got whipped to publish. If that is not stress, I dont know what is. Again except for those who got tenured, they already have a golden bowl of rice.

Of course for more information read the comic I suggested and get a good laugh :)


Anonymous said...

Yes, getting a PhD is only the beginning - you are at the foot of a hill and you just got the license to climb and compete your way to the top.

In many countries, after your PhD, you go for 3 to 5 years of postdoctoral to prove your worth in research.

However, in Malaysia, many SLAB returnees think that getting a PhD is the end of their academic struggle. They think that they have reached the summit of their academic mountain. Time to rest, relax, and reap benefits as appointed administrators. Time to take in postgraduate students and let them be slaves, with minimal or no supervision. In fact, many of them, doing the politically correct things, got promoted very quickly to associate professors and professors within maybe 10 years after their PhD - some much faster than their PhD supervisors overseas. Malaysia, land of plenty and easy rewards!

Anonymous said...

SLAB like our good o Ungku Aziz, born at the right time doing very little stuff. So it is questionable if someone said he is good.

Anonymous said...

"SLAB like our good o Ungku Aziz" - no lah, he was not a SLAB trainee, he was before SLAB time. It was during his time as VC that the SLAB was initiated.

Let's be factually correct.

Starting around mid 1970s, Ungku Aziz was responsible for appointing or approving many academically substandard Malay graduates as SLAB trainees, who subsequently became academic staff of UM. The legacy of Ungku Aziz and his Deputy VC (Academic) then.

Anonymous said...

While we keep talking and talking about our lousy education system and lamenting about our lost brains, the world around us moves on quickly to another level.

China produces 80,000 to 90,000 PhD holders a year.

Singapore A*STAR, under the leadership of Mr. Philip Yeo, aims to achieve its 10-year target of having a pool of 1,000 PhD scientists in Singapore by 2010, of whom about half are Singaporeans. Currently, more than 550 young Singaporeans and Singaporeans-to-be are being nurtured for research careers and scientific leadership in Singapore and abroad. Some are already back in Singapore working with senior researchers to develop the little red dot as a biomedical research and development hub.

Mr. Philip Yeo is one of the three recipients of 2006 Nikkei Asia Prizes.

In a couple of years, we don't even know what hit us and why we are lagging so far behind in many endeavours! We will still be talking about racial discrimination, NEP, and UMNO's greed making a mess of the nation.

Anonymous said...


and read how one person with the right vision and support of the system can use the limited resources to make things happen for the betterment of the nation and people.

Why can't Malaysia, with the boleh boleh slogan, cannot do something as simple as this? We end up with lots of mediocre people with PhD, and the majority the unproductive kind and messing the future of the nation. Money down the drain.

Anonymous said...

How about this? TESL lecturers with PhD from UK universities cannot even speak grammatically correct English while teaching and conversing with students, and they prefer to revert to their mother tongue (BM) when holding thesis discussions with thesis supervisees. Yes, this happens in a local university down south which aims to be a "world-class university" foot!!

Anonymous said...

I'm taking my PhD rite now... actually just starting.

I'm more interested in the part about having no distractions.

I'm under the SLAB scholarship... and it really2 sucks. I will be distracted.

I am thankful that the MOHE has sent me to Australia to do my studies... but... they've left me with a bewildering task ahead... which are:

1) my PhD (which is part and parcel, so I wont complain :P)
2) Financial woes... Whhhoooaaaaa :(

Here, the LOWEST rentals go at 220 per week. And here I am with an allowance of 680 per MONTH! I got a wife (who is also doing her Masters towards her PhD) and is getting $204 per month. My baby, who is a cute 1 year old, is also being given 204 per month. I dont know about you, but I dont know whey a baby's allowance and an adult should be the same.

Anywayz, this financial distraction will certainly have an effect on my PhD. Yes I have a job at a university in Malaysia. But when looking at the exchange rate, PLUS the fact that I am only a TUTOR (even with a masters degree).... that salary back home wont help much. As a matter of fact, when we factor in everything... it seems that I' on a negative scale! :(


Just venting out my anger. Dont know whether this is the place or not.

But it certainly has PhD and DIstraction... which are two points discussed in this posting. LOL!


-Ministry of Higer Education sponsored below Ozzi poverty line student-

Anonymous said...

in malaysia phd candidates face many problems with the supervisors. international islamic university is a classic place to delay foreign students due to supervisors not doing their part. there is no one to monitor the supervision at all. at the end of the day student is the victim. some supervisors dont even read the student's work and if they dont like the student they simply reject the work. no help given to student at all.

Anonymous said...

To 680 per month.....whys is it that people like you complain, when you and your wife have been privileged to have your education paid for you, and you left out the $26K each of tuition fees per year you're also privileged for, and I'm guessing the $3000 of medical cover might have also been given to you?!. Furthermore, you complain about having a one year old! What happened to adults being responsible?! If you're going to study, think twice before you add another element of difficulty to your lives and have a's time you grow up and learn to be thankful for the opportunity you've been given!