How to Avoid Failing Your Ph.D. Dissertation

Daniel Sokol, who helps students appeal dissertation decisions, offers insights into the common pitfalls and how to steer clear of them.

September 10, 2020
 
 
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I am a barrister in London who specializes in helping doctoral students who have failed their Ph.D.s. Few people will have had the dubious privilege of seeing as many unsuccessful Ph.D. dissertations and reading as many scathing reports by examination committees. Here are common reasons why students who submit their Ph.D.s fail, with advice on how to avoid such pitfalls. The lessons apply to the United States and the United Kingdom.

Lack of critical reflection. Probably the most common reason for failing a Ph.D. dissertation is a lack of critical analysis. A typical observation of the examination committee is, “The thesis is generally descriptive and a more analytical approach is required.”

For doctoral work, students must engage critically with the subject matter, not just set out what other scholars have said or done. If not, the thesis will not be original. It will not add anything of substance to the field and will fail.

Doctoral students should adopt a reflexive approach to their work. Why have I chosen this methodology? What are the flaws or limitations of this or that author’s argument? Can I make interesting comparisons between this and something else? Those who struggle with this aspect should ask their supervisors for advice on how to inject some analytic sophistication to their thesis.

Lack of coherence. Other common observations are of the type: “The argument running through the thesis needs to be more coherent” or “The thesis is poorly organized and put together without any apparent logic.”

The thesis should be seen as one coherent whole. It cannot be a series of self-contained chapters stitched together haphazardly. Students should spend considerable time at the outset of their dissertation thinking about structure, both at the macro level of the entire thesis and the micro level of the chapter. It is a good idea to look at other Ph.D. theses and monographs to get a sense of what constitutes a logical structure.

Poor presentation. The majority of failed Ph.D. dissertations are sloppily presented. They contain typos, grammatical mistakes, referencing errors and inconsistencies in presentation. Looking at some committee reports randomly, I note the following comments:

  • “The thesis is poorly written.”
  • “That previous section is long, badly written and lacks structure.”
  • “The author cannot formulate his thoughts or explain his reasons. It is very hard to understand a good part of the thesis.”
  • “Ensure that the standard of written English is consistent with the standard expected of a Ph.D. thesis.”
  • “The language used is simplistic and does not reflect the standard of writing expected at Ph.D. level.”

For committee members, who are paid a fixed and pitiful sum to examine the work, few things are as off-putting as a poorly written dissertation. Errors of language slow the reading speed and can frustrate or irritate committee members. At worst, they can lead them to miss or misinterpret an argument.

Students should consider using a professional proofreader to read the thesis, if permitted by the university’s regulations. But that still is no guarantee of an error-free thesis. Even after the proofreader has returned the manuscript, students should read and reread the work in its entirety.

When I was completing my Ph.D., I read my dissertation so often that the mere sight of it made me nauseous. Each time, I would spot a typo or tweak a sentence, removing a superfluous word or clarifying an ambiguous passage. My meticulous approach was rewarded when one committee member said in the oral examination that it was the best-written dissertation he had ever read. This was nothing to do with skill or an innate writing ability but tedious, repetitive revision.

Failure to make required changes. It is rare for students to fail to obtain their Ph.D. outright at the oral examination. Usually, the student is granted an opportunity to resubmit their dissertation after making corrections.

Students often submit their revised thesis together with a document explaining how they implemented the committee’s recommendations. And they often believe, wrongly, that this document is proof that they have incorporated the requisite changes and that they should be awarded a Ph.D.

In fact, the committee may feel that the changes do not go far enough or that they reveal further misunderstandings or deficiencies. Here are some real observations by dissertation committees:

  • “The added discussion section is confusing. The only thing that has improved is the attempt to provide a little more analysis of the experimental data.”
  • “The author has tried to address the issues identified by the committee, but there is little improvement in the thesis.”

In short, students who fail their Ph.D. dissertations make changes that are superficial or misconceived. Some revised theses end up worse than the original submission.

Students must incorporate changes in the way that the committee members had in mind. If what is required is unclear, students can usually seek clarification through their supervisors.

In the nine years I have spent helping Ph.D. students with their appeals, I have found that whatever the subject matter of the thesis, the above criticisms appear time and time again in committee reports. They are signs of a poor Ph.D.

Wise students should ask themselves these questions prior to submission of the dissertation:

  • Is the work sufficiently critical/analytical, or is it mainly descriptive?
  • Is it coherent and well structured?
  • Does the thesis look good and read well?
  • If a resubmission, have I made the changes that the examination committee had in mind?

Once students are satisfied that the answer to each question is yes, they should ask their supervisors the same questions.

Bio

Daniel Sokol is the founder of Alpha Academic Appeals, a former academic and a practicing barrister in London. He is the author of Tough Choices: Stories From the Front Line of Medical Ethics (Book Guild, 2018).

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