The most common way to fail a PhD is not to submit it. Or not to hand in the major revisions.
It’s pretty rare for people to actually fail PhDs once they are submitted. The kinds of figures that get bandied around for the people who hang in there are usually around a 3–5% failure rate. There is of course rather a lot of people who take much longer than is desirable, but by and large, the rule of thumb seems to be that if you can stick with it, the odds are that you’ll get doctored in the end.
There is a little bit of research about what examiners think makes for a failing PhD. It helps to know what it says because you then know what not to do. Barbara Lovitts (2007) for example interviewed around 270 experienced academics across several disciplines and came up with a generic list of characteristics of the failing thesis:
• poorly written with spelling and grammatical errors
• sloppy presentation
• contains mistakes
• plagiarises or deliberately misreads or misuses sources
• does not understand basic concepts, processes, or conventions of the discipline
• lacks careful thought
• the question or problem is trivial, weak, unoriginal or already solved
• does not understand or misses relevant literature
• argument is weak, inconsistent, self contradictory, unconvincing or invalid
• theory is missing, wrong or not handled well
• methods are inappropriate or incorrect
• data are flawed, wrong, false, fudged, or misinterpreted
• analysis is wrong, inappropriate, incoherent, or confused
• results are obvious, already known, unexplained, or misinterpreted
• interpretation is unsupported or exaggerated
• does not make a contribution. (pp. 37-38)
Experienced examiners told Lovitts it was quite possible to scrape through the PhD with work that was workmanlike (sic) and which demonstrated technical competence, showing the ability to do research. If this was the case, it wasn’t fatal if the work was, for example, not that original or exciting, if the writing was pedestrian and plodding, if the analysis was relatively unsophisticated, and if the research made only a small contribution…. As long as the literature review was adequate, the argument was sustained, and there was some theory, even if at a simple level, the PhD would ultimately be considered just acceptable ( p 37).
However I don’t think that this ‘passing’ list is what to aim for. Lovitt’s next list, of what is counted as good, is achievable – it’s not the stellar, potential Nobel prize winning inquiry that doctoral researchers fear is the pass criteria. She says that examiners told her that a good thesis was one which was:
• well written and well organized
• has some original ideas, insights and observations, but is less original, significant, ambitious, interesting and exciting than outstanding
• has a good question or problem that tends to be small and traditional
• shows understanding and mastery of the subject matter
• the argument is strong, comprehensive and coherent
• the research is well executed and demonstrates technical competence
• uses appropriate standard theory, methods and techniques
• obtains sold, expected, results/answers
• misses opportunities to completely explore interesting issues and connections
• makes a modest contribution to the field but does not open it up (pp. 36-37)
So that’s all entirely possible. The good thesis is not beyond the reach of the average hardworking doctoral researcher.
The Christmas message is that you don’t have to be Einstein to do a good piece of doctoral work and produce a good thesis. And that’s glad tidings, right?
Lovitts, B (2007) Making the implicit explicit. Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing