PhD students in laboratory

#46: What makes PhD students succeed?

Have you ever thought about what causes a PhD candidate to succeed in the end? What do those who complete successfully on time do differently from those who take way longer than initially planned or never make it in the end? – I would like to encourage you to do so! It can give you valuable insights for your own chances of successful completion. In this post I describe the top 5 factors that characterise successful PhD students, and you get an awesome free test to ‘Assess the factors that determine your own PhD success?’

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The question ‘what makes PhD students succeed’ has puzzled me for many years. In the SMART ACADEMICS blogpost no #39 ‘Why I teach PhD students how to succeed’ I have shared my initial motivation for this topic: during my PhD time I witnessed nearly all of my PhD colleagues drop out or complete many years later than originally planned. Years later when I was a university lecturer, that experience led me to start a course that helps PhD students overcome typical challenges, work that I have continued over the past decade at TRESS ACADEMIC. 

Working with over 2.000 international PhD students for 12+ years now, I have witnessed many times which skills differentiate those that are successful from those who are not. In this blog post, I want to give you the benefit of my experience and share with you the 5 factors that typically differentiate successful PhD candidates from the unsuccessful ones.  

How does this relate to you? If you are determined to complete your PhD on time, this is a golden ticket for you. Because as you’ll see, the factors that I describe do not come down to fate, genius, intelligence, or innate abilities! All of the factors boil down to complementary skills that you can learn! Yes, you can learn these skills! And if you are struggling with one or the other factor that I mention, you can start today and improve your underlying skill-set! You ARE able to increase your chances for a successful, on time completion! 

But I won’t simply tell you which factors determine success, I have compiled an awesome free test so you can ‘Assess the factors that determine PhD success for yourself’ 

What does ‘successfully on time’ mean?

There are numerous studies showing that a high percentage of PhD students do not complete within the given timeframe, or drop out and give up altogether. Among the first and most comprehensive studies are the US’ Council of Graduate Schools, 2008 and the UK’s HEFCE 2007 surveys. The US survey, which included PhD candidates from 29 US and Canadian Universities and tracked PhD candidates over 12 years, showed that only 55% had completed after 10 years. Not even 5% completed within a three year period. The UK survey shows the same low completion rate of less than 5% within a three year bracket. A recent study from the University of Delft in the Netherlands showed a completion rate of less than 5% in the standard period of four years (TU Delft 2019). Several Scandinavian studies (Dansk Center for Forskningsanalyse 2007, Högskoleverket 2011, NIFU 2012) and a study from the European Science Foundation (2017) show slightly better completion rates, but across countries and studies they still evidence that the majority of PhDs are completed with a big delay.

But let me clarify what I mean by ‘successfully on time’. In the end, there are two factors that make for a successful completion. One is the quality of your PhD dissertation, the other is the time it took you to complete it. As for the quality, you should always strive for the highest possible scientific quality within the available timeframe. So ’on time’ is always relative – in the end you determine what exactly this means for you! Let me give a few more details to make this point clear:

The vast majority of PhD candidates today has limited time available for the PhD. Their time is set by either the length of the contract, grant or scholarship, the PhD programme itself, or influenced by the traditions of the country in which you undertake the PhD. Presently, a period of 3 to 4 years for a full-time PhD-education is the most common. In addition, universities may limit the time you can be enrolled as a PhD student, so that it may not permit you to be enrolled in a PhD-study for more than 5 years initially, which can sometimes be prolonged through applying for an extension. So ‘on time’ is very clearly defined for most PhD students, but varies at the individual level. ‘On time’ for you means the time you have available, the time you were given by your programme or funding agency.

Exceeding the time granted by your funding can have multiple negative consequences (Rooij et al. 2019). And don’t get me wrong here, we’re not talking about a delay of a couple of weeks, we’re talking about delays of months or years. If you don’t manage to complete on time, you may be left entirely without funding, or be stuck depending on short-term stints as a researcher or teaching assistant while you still trying to finish your PhD. And there are detrimental side effects for your personal life, mental well-being and further career as well. But apart from ‘having to finish’ I assume you do ‘want to finish’ because this enables you to move on with your life and career and harvest the fruits of your PhD efforts sooner!

What do PhD candidates think the determining success factors are?

I pose the above question occasionally to participants in my course “How to complete your PhD successfully on time” to see how clear PhD students are on their ability to influence their success. And recently, I posted the following open question to several discussion groups on social media to see what PhD student’s own experience was: 

“What do you think makes some finish their PhD on time while others struggle for many years or drop out altogether? Ultimately – what makes the success of a PhD student?”

Here is a selection of the top answers:

“Perseverance.”

“Grit and commitment.”

“Determination.”

“Determination, grit, resilience”

“Determination, commitment and perseverance most of all. But having support makes a huge difference too.”

“Success of a PhD research student largely involves determination and focus, however, a supportive and committed supervisor with constructive feedback is the key to success.”

“Individuals who complete have realised that obtaining a doctorate isn’t completely based on intellectual capacity, but perseverance, endurance, and fortitude.”

“Not giving up in moments of anxiety and helplessness.”

“Clear goals, hard work is essential, but not sufficient.”

“Goals and targets. Manageable tasks. Believe in yourself.”

“PhDs are hard. Good supervision and writing habits help.”

“When I started my programme I told them I’ve got 2 and a quarter years. The department chair tried to tell me otherwise, but I don’t listen well. I have a timeline for my life and so 2 years and 1 quarter later I finished! You’ve got to make-up your mind before you start.”

“They told me the average is 6 years here. I was like ‘not I said the cat!’ I told them I’d finish in 3.5 years and I did. That’s the commitment I made to myself. So there you have it: 1. Clear goals. 2. self care, 3. support system. That’s how you finish on time.”

“Tenacity and really great time management skills are absolutely necessary for success. I developed a strong sense of resilience and stayed focused on my ultimate goal of completing the PhD.”

My experience

These comments very much reflect my own experience after teaching PhD students for so many years. The vast majority of answers point to one or more specific complementary skill! There are a handful of factors that stick out and are mentioned over and over again. And if you have a closer look, you’ll realise that they are not science related! 

Producing new scientific insights is a must, of course, and you need scientific knowledge and methods for this. I will always suggest you strive for the highest possible scientific quality in your work. But there’s a whole lot of things that, strictly speaking have little to do with how good your science is. In the end, there’s a number of decisive factors and their underlying complementary skills that are necessary in order to complete successfully (see figure 1).

Figure 1:  Decisive factors influencing PhD success

Let me give you more details on the determining factors and related skills and then you can see for yourself how good you are at mastering them with our free test ‘Assess the factors that determine PhD success?’

The top 5 distinguishing factors of successful PhD students:

1. Mental strengths: Focus, determination & commitment

PhD candidates who complete successfully often display a burning desire to obtain the PhD degree from the start. The have the ability to singularly focus on their PhD study and concentrate their efforts – like a laser beam – on the one goal of getting their PhD degree. That makes them good at shrugging off distractions and prevents them from getting sidetracked. They display commitment in not only saying they want a PhD degree, but putting in all available efforts and resources to make it happen. They ‘own’ their project and show a high degree of responsibility for every single aspect and its timely completion. Determination helps them in times when the PhD work is anything but fun, when working on difficult tasks, when they experience major setbacks, when they do not seem to make progress or the final success still seems light years away.  

These characteristics require mental strength, a high degree of self-control and self-awareness, which may require a shift in mindset. It is possible to work on these traits and there are smart techniques that can help you to adapt a different mindset that will allow you to increase your chances of successful completion. Since you determine the attitude with which you approach your PhD, you can influence this factor! Sport athletes, world-class musicians and top-performers in businesses use techniques to influence their mind-set to be more successful and so can you!

2. Managing time

PhD candidates who complete successfully have a clear sense that time is a limited and precious resource. They have a sense of urgency for their PhD and therefore avoid wasting time with activities that have little effect on their PhD projects in the end. They have the time management skills to make the best possible use of their time in the long run, but more importantly practicing it every single day. They plan their days out, know what to do and focus their efforts accordingly. 

Excellent time-management can be learned – there are fantastic and proven techniques that are fine-tuned for scientific environments, can easily be implemented into your workday and can super boost your productivity. If you master a few key techniques and your time better, you will increase you chances for timely completion.

3. Goal-setting and managing the PhD project

Successful PhDs have a clear and specific goal for their project. It’s not just a lofty idea that meanders and changes, but a set of written research questions that they have shared and discussed with their supervisors. As a consequence, they also have a clear idea of how to approach their research questions, like which methods to apply. That enables them to breakdown the major steps in their project and plan the timeline until completion. 

The underlying skill here is project-management, and there are sophisticated methods for dealing with the specific requirements of scientific projects. It can be learned! Planning and managing your project increases your chances to finish with the results you want in the time you have.

4. Good writing skills

PhD candidates who complete successfully are able to find time to write and produce scientific text regularly. They approach writing as a task that has to be done, just as they work on any other task for their PhD project. They have the ability to tackle the challenge of writing and have mastered the technique itself. They don’t procrastinate or keep dissertation writing until it is too late, but start writing bits and pieces early on, often in preliminary formats. Successful PhDs master the various types of scientific communication like peer-reviewed papers, abstracts, conference papers, the dissertation, a monograph, or book chapters (depending on how relevant they are for their subject area). They understand that writing about one’s research results is an inherent part of their work as a scientist. For them, it’s like two sides of one coin: they do research and communicate about it. 

One underlying ability of successfully academic writing is having the right ‘frame of mind’ and the confidence to tackle a challenging writing task (an entire dissertation). Another is to master the craft of writing. This means realizing that no one is born a ‘great scientific writer’, but that you will be able to become a prolific writer with professional input and the right writing strategies. Writing is a skill that you can train like a muscle and there are super efficient strategies to beef-up your writing abilities. Like any muscle, you’ve got to practice to get stronger! Check-out our SMART ACADEMICS blog-post no 5: How to get started with writing! 

5. Supervision

Successful PhD students manage to work with their supervisors in a way that supports them in undertaking their research and completing their projects. Not all supervisors provide excellent supervision, but successful PhD students manage to complete nonetheless. They often display the ability to benefit from the strengths of their individual supervisors and use it to their advantage, while carefully navigating or compensating for the deficiencies of others. 

The underlying skill is to be able to communicate with supervisors in a professional and efficient way. This is a relationship between two professionals, you and your supervisor. How you act, behave and communicate has a great deal of influence on the relationship. Professional communication with the supervisor can of course be learned, and through good and open communication, you can improve and optimise your supervision. 

What does this mean for you?

You’re probably not used to this way of thinking and you have eventually not thought about what will make you succeed with your PhD in the end. Maybe you need a while to get around to this way of thinking and then you realise how powerful it is! What I described above has two logic consequences for you: 

  • First: You can influence your own PhD success! The underlying skills that are required can be trained by professionals and you can implement them in your own PhD. It’s not massively difficult, but it needs dedicated skills training, practice and attention!
  • Second: Because the 5 factors mentioned above have such a big influence on PhD success, you should look at how competent you are at these required skills right now. Then you can figure out which ones you have to improve in order to optimise your chances of completion. If you can master these skills, you can master your PhD. For this purpose and to let you start right now, we’ve created our awesome free test ‘Assess the factors that determine PhD success?’

You know it is part of our mission at TRESS ACADEMIC to help academics succeed and PhD candidates complete! We’re on a continuous journey to improve our offers for you and that’s why we are currently developing a short free PhD Master Class that will give you further hints how to recalibrate your PhD process and gear it towards success. Sign up now, so you don’t miss out on this opportunity and we’ll give you a short when the next one is available.

Related resources:

OTHER:

  • Council of Graduate Schools (ed.) 2008. Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Analysis of Baseline Demographic Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project. CGS-Publications: Washington DC.
  • Dansk Center for Forskningsanalyse 2007. Ph.d.er i tal. Forskeruddannelsesstatistik 2005-2006. 
  • European Science Foundation: 2017 Career Tracking Survey of Doctorate Holders. Project Report
  • Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) 2007. PhD research degrees – update. Entry and completion. HEFCE Issues paper 2007/28.
  • Högskoleverket, Statistika centralbyrån (SCB) 2011. Universitet och högskolor. Doktorander och examina på forskarnivå 2011. Serie Utbildning och forskning. 21 Juni 2012.
  • Manathunga, C. 2005. “Early Warning Signs in Postgraduate Research Education: A Different Approach to Ensuring Timely Completions.” Teaching in Higher Education 10 (2): 219–233. 
  • Norsk Institutt for studier av innovasjon, forskning og utdanning (NIFU-STEP), 2009. Gjennomstrømning i doktorgradsutdanningen. NIFU-STEP Rapport 40/2009.
  • Norsk Institutt for studier av innovasjon, forskning og utdanning, (NIFU) 2012. PhD education in a knowledge society. An evaluation of PhD education in Norway. NIFU Report 25/2012. 
  • Rooij E. van, Fokkens-Bruinsma  M., & Jansen E. 2019: Factors that influence PhD candidates’ success: the importance of PhD project characteristics, Studies in Continuing Education, DOI: 10.1080/0158037X.2019.1652158  
  • Schoot R. van de, Yerkes M. A. Mouw J. M., and Sonneveld H. 2013. “What Took Them So Long Explaining PhD Delays among Doctoral Candidates.” PLOS ONE 8 (7): e68839.

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