I have been an academic for over 20 years and not had a student fail MSc or PhD as a researcher. Several have dropped out due to personal or financial reasons. Outright failure is rare for two reasons. First, the screening and interview processes are rigorous and selects only candidates with a good chance of success. Many candidates are rejected at this stage. Second, until recently candidates had numerous extensions to do enough quality work and produced a good thesis. The supervisors ensure that the standard of work and thesis are of a good standard to succeed in a viva.
I have heard of people failing in other groups and universities. Why do they fail? What can you learn from failure? How can you ensure that you won’t fail?
10 mistakes to avoid
1. Poor aims and objectives
Some people have a vague idea of what they want to do. Your long term goal is to get a PhD but you need to clearly define your aims and objectives with a good project plan with a realistic timeline. You need to breakdown your goals into small chunks. Break down your overall goal into subgoals. What are your of yearly, monthly and weekly goals? Write a daily task list you must complete to ultimately achieve what you want. People who fail don’t have goals. They don’t have a target to aim for.
“Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles” Jawaharlal Nehru
If you blindfold the best marksman and then spin them around a few times and then give them the most powerful riffle and ask them to hit the target. You know what will happen. They have no chance of hitting the bulls eye. How do you expect yourself to hit a target you don’t have? Don’t fall into this trap. Get together with your supervisors and define your goals and tasks. Make sure tasks are done and report back your progress regularly.
2. Lack of focus
You can only hit a target if you focus on it. None can hit something without focusing on it. Concentrate on only one thing and really focus all your attention on energy in getting the tasks completed. Don’t get distracted by your mobile, e-mails and things that are not related to the goal.
“One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular” Tony Robbins
Multitasking doesn’t work. Single tasking will ensure that quality of your work is excellent. Do the right things at the appropriate time with single point attention and you will succeed. Make you studies a priority. Focus on it most of the time.
3. Weak commitment
No one can succeed without commitment. Failures give up as soon as things get difficult. You have to keep going until you complete the tasks set.
“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person” Albert Einstein
You must be resilient and keep going when things get tough. Build a group of supporters that won’t let you give up and encourage you when you are down.
4. Poor fit
Occasionally there is poor fit between your interests and capabilities with your research project. This is rare because the screening process ensure that you are qualified to do the project you have chosen. However, a poor fit increases you chances of failure. I have come across highly committed and hardworking student who did not seem to have the aptitude to succeed but eventually learnt enough and put so much effort in that they succeeded spectacularly in their studies. If you think you are not suited to the project then discuss this with your supervisor and suggest a change of project. This better in the long term for everyone.
“Human tragedies: We all want to be extraordinary and we all just want to fit in. Unfortunately, extraordinary people rarely fit in.”Sebastyne Young
However, you must do things differently from other people. Watch the masses and do the opposite. The masses are average and do things in an average way. You don’t to be Mr Average in your achievements, you want to be extraordinary.
5. Relying on talent alone
There are many people who are highly talented and they know it. They don’t put enough effort in and think they will succeed purely based on their talent. Without work talent alone won’t help you to succeed. Talent finds expression through work. Many people say I am talented in many aspects of research. However, I have always believed that my ability is average but my commitment is extraordinary. This commitment allows me to express my talents and achieve far more than most people would expect.
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work” Stephen King
Talent is God given. The effort to realise it is down to you. Don’t let yourself down. Put in honest effort. Even the finest talent is useless unless you use it to help yourself and people around you.
6. Taking short cuts
Many people shy away from work and take short cuts. A common short cut is cutting and pasting from research papers and thesis and pretending that it is your work. This is stealing, pretending the work is yours when it is really someone else’s. This is known as plagearism. You must never indulge in it. The universities take a very serious view and you will fail if you copy other peoples work. Staff have powerful software that can check in a few minutes if anything have been copied. Read papers, digest the information, reflect critcially, look at the good and poor aspects. What you write will take on a new perspective. Write everything in your own words from memory. Your writings will have a unique character. Your language skills and make you a better writer.
“Champions know there are no shortcuts to the top. They climb the mountain one step at a time, They have no use for helicopters” Judy Alder
Never take short cuts in trying to achieve your goals. Do everything properly. However, you must try to improve your efficiency to become more productive and get more things down in less time. Finding methods of improving your efficiency is good use of your creative powers.
7. Negative attitude and worry
Worry is thinking about what you have to do and then expecting a negative outcome. It saps your energy levels and causes stress. Think about your goals and expect the best.
“A lot of times people look at the negative side of what they feel they can’t do. I always look on the positive side of what I can do” Chuck Norris
Often your achievements are directly proportional to your attitude and effort. Always expect the best. Go for the best because second best is less satisfying and always available. Be positive and dynamic in everything you do.
8. Unwillingness to change
Some people know they must change but are unwilling to alter their actions. They keep on doing the same things even when they are failing or achieving poor results. Insanity has been defined as “doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result”. The results you achieve from your action is feedback to whether you are doing things right or wrong. If you get a poor result then you must examine why you are getting it and then change you approach and actions to achieve a better result.
“Courage is simple the willingness to be afraid and act anyway” Robert Anthony
You must be willing to change to improve yourself. It takes courage to venture into the unknown. However, this where all the joy and improvements are. The known is a trap. You must change for the better and embrace new ways of doing things that are better.
9. Poor response to information
You must respond to information and feedback. This is a sure way to improve and succeed. Some people know what they have done wrong and many people have given them feedback but they keep doing the same thing. When you receive information about something you must respond. If it is a health and safety matter then this is critical to respond because your response could be the difference between life and death.
10. Poor people skills
In the modern world often you have to work with people to achieve a goal. This requires good communication and right action. You need to have good people skills to communicate and persuade people to do things for you at the right time. You may want someone to do some analysis for you that is critical to your success. Excellent people skills will make it easier to ensure things are done.
“Arguing with a fool proves there are two” Doris M. Smith
People skills, honest and integrity are essential. One of the most important things to learn during your PhD is to develop your skills in dealing with people and getting the best out of them.
Avoid these mistakes and watch your success sour to the moon.