HELPFUL HINTS FOR GETTING YOUR Ph.D.
by X.P. Deeyent, Ph.D., and P.D.Q. Donne, Ph.D.
[Alias T.J. Blasing, Ph.D. (Wisconsin), and Don Lee, Ph.D. (Michigan)]
American Breakthrough Institute
UNDERSTANDING WHAT YOU ARE GETTING INTO
You already know that Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy. You may
also be aware that it is often difficult to know where philosophy ends
and bulls**t begins. Ph.D. is just a euphemism. It should really be
called the En.D., because it's as far as you can go. The letters
stand for Doctor of Endurance, because it takes a lot more endurance
than brains to get the degree.
SELECTING YOUR AREA OF SPECIALIZATION
Do not spend undue time making a decision about irrelevant issues such
as this. Whatever is selected is merely a means to the end of
graduating. A student who is confined to selecting a major professor
from only one area of specialization may become sorely disappointed
as the harsh realities of completing a Ph.D. degree come into sharper
SELECTING YOUR MAJOR PROFESSOR
Many graduate students fail to give proper attention to the selection
of a major professor (MP). Some students1 mistakenly believe
assistant professor is closer to being a student and therefore more
sensitive to student's needs and concerns. This is definitely wrong!
People are, by nature, more anxious to impress those who outrank them
than those whom they outrank. Therefore, an assistant professor will
be more attuned to the egos of the tenured faculty than to your
concerns. Happily married older professors with acrophobia are your
best bets. These professors are more likely to have children who are
college students, and less likely to fly out of town when you need
them. Also, be sure to consider name recognition of your professor.
A famous professor will be of more value as a co-author when you want
to get your dissertation published.
There are many (often conflicting) considerations in the selection of
your MP. Keep in mind the way each professor manages graduate
students. Average length of time until graduation is particularly
important. Averages, however, seldom tell the entire story. Many
professors use the first-in first-out (FIFO) system. This means that
if Professor Jones already has six students in the queue, there will
be six students that must graduate before you. If one of the more
tenured students is not particularly motivated to graduate anytime in
the foreseeable future, your graduate student days will be prolonged
proportionally. It is usually next to impossible to bump someone in
the order-of-graduation line. Changing MPs in the middle of the Ph.D.
track is not recommended, especially if the new MP has a lot of
graduate students, because it puts you at the back of a new line.
Many people are critical to the successful completion of your graduate
studies. The most important ones are the department secretary, the
department technician, and the secretary to the dean of the graduate
school. Work hard to endear yourself to these people.2
secretaries can often provide advance notice of impending developments
or sage advice as to how to engage the university system. Students
who fail to gain the cooperation of the department secretary are the
ones who often lose financial support, occupy the worst office space,
and receive the most horrendous teaching assignments. Technicians
can make or break your dissertation. They can make or otherwise
obtain all the material that is necessary to make a thesis successful.
They can also be conveniently busy if they do not like a particular
student. The greatest hurdle in learning to get along with people is
usually provided by the secretary to the dean of the graduate school.
People who tend to seek out this position derive their satisfaction
from unduly prolonging the agony of graduate students. Nothing
amuses them more than to find some detail (the more irrelevant the
better) that is not correctly attended to (where they define
"correctly"). You should attempt to act like you worship the ground
these dimwits walk on and to do all things with reverence in their
presence. Your humility will be rewarded by receiving your Ph.D.
within a reasonable time after your dissertation defense, as well as
by a greatly improved ability to get along with a variety of dimwits
that you will encounter when you finally get out of school and have
to go to work.
SELECTING YOUR DISSERTATION TOPIC
Avoid a topic that requires co-chairpersons. Few academicians can
agree on anything. They love to argue and debate, and particularly
trivial matters seem to be their favorite topics. The probability of
two academicians agreeing on the merit of your work is about the same
as the probability of a good teacher being promoted ahead of a
buck-hustling proposal salesman. An obvious extension of this principle
is to avoid like the plague a dissertation that involves two
departments. Nothing will ever be acceptable to two departments.
This has to be the case because departments are in deadly competition
for things they need to perpetuate their endeavors. If one department
looks good relative to the other, it will naturally come out on top in
the next petty squabble over something like office space. Avoid at
all costs becoming a pawn in this kind of chess game. Select your
topic such that no other department in the university will have the
slightest interest in it. The most successful dissertation topics
will excite no one in the known universe outside of your narrowly
defined specialty area.
Avoid empirical or experimental studies in your dissertation research.
If you must do an experimental study, keep it as simple and controlled
as possible. Theoretical studies provide many advantages and options
that are not available when your data are from the real world or any
close approximation thereto. Real-world data represent the results of
several competing effects and processes and are therefore impossible
The more variables and processes that are ignored in your research,
the easier it will be to explain any result. This concept is useful
in the event that your results do not turn out as expected. For
example, if the result is an exponential growth curve and you expected
an exponential decay curve, it is easy to postulate a heretofore
unimagined mechanism by which a variable that has been ignored in your
research can explain the growth curve. This startling result will add
pizazz to your work, increase the chances of getting it published, and
provide (via your hypothetical explanation) a new hypothesis to
explore when you need an excuse for further funding. If further
research shows that your hypothesis was a dud, then you may postulate
a new one etc. On the other hand, if your hypothesis turns out
to be right (or at least not clearly shown to be wrong), your
reputation as a leader in your field will also follow an exponential
Experimental studies require the collection of data. Real data often
destroy the most elegant theories. This is of particular concern when
said theories happen to be dear to the heart of any member of your
dissertation committee. Further, data collection can necessitate the
purchase and construction of apparatus. Purchasing materials in any
bureaucracy is a cumbersome process at best, and can be disastrous.
In difficult financial times (just about always at a university),
administrators have a nasty habit of declaring that funds are not
available for the purchase of whatever it is you need. Even if
project funds are available, the enormous bureaucracy that must be
endured (a partial explanation of the financial condition of
universities) can delay dissertation progress for inordinate lengths
Use a modular approach to formulating your dissertation topic. That
is, break the general topic down into about four separate problems.
A thesis that will allow you to graduate will generally have to
address at least two problems (the "once = luck; twice = skill"
approach to certification), where the second problem is supposed to
be more or less related to the first one. To be sure of having two
problems left at the end of your research, start with more. Problems
tend to disappear for reasons such as: there is presently no way to
address it, some other researcher solved it ahead of you, or your
results were inconclusive. If your thesis topic does not allow for
this modular approach, find another topic. When the time comes for
you to graduate, as determined by your MP (see above), you will want
to have at least two problem solutions that can: (a) be put together
in the form of a thesis and (b) be decoupled easily to provide at
least two publications from your thesis (as further explained in the
WRITING THE DISSERTATION
Writing well is very important. The first thing you must learn to
write well is your major professor's signature. This can save you
countless hours in the bureaucratic steps on the road to your Ph.D..
Careful planning of your research will result in a well-organized
dissertation that will be a breeze to write. To the greatest extent
possible, write your dissertation before you do any research. Then
fill in the blanks as the research proceeds. The legendary physicist
Cy N. Tiffic virtually finished his dissertation before doing any work
by designing a research project that only asked binary questions --
i.e., questions that can be simply answered "yes" or "no." When
getting to a place in the dissertation that requires some research
results, just write down one of two possible answers, e.g., "these
results show that A is clearly related to B." Then if A turns out to
be unrelated to B, just insert un as appropriate when writing your
final draft. This approach is much more likely to work if you have
paid careful attention on the above section: Selecting Your
When preparing the numerous drafts of your dissertation, never give
your MP an original of anything. Professors leave coffee stains and
other unsightly marks on anything you give them. Then they want the
marked up copy back so they can be assured that you have diligently
incorporated all their dumb comments into the next draft. Give your
MP a photocopy. Then, after the MP marks it up and gives it back,
incorporate the comments you like and ignore the rest. If an
unthoughtful comment appears on page 10, for example, throw page 10
away and replace it with a clean copy before giving it back. The
chances are that your MP will have forgotten it anyway. If not, the
comment may actually be valid, and worth discussing with your MP.
The committee-appeasement chapter is a very important part of your
dissertation. Off-the-wall philosophical trivia, irrelevant
references to the work of committee members, and other useless and
distracting material that your committee insists you include can all
be swept under the rug of Chapter 2, where it will never see the light
of day after your defense. This allows you to leave Chapters 3, 4,
... etc. in good form for publication after you complete your degree
work. Some candidates1 have attempted to make the committee
appeasement chapter the last chapter in their dissertation. It is
better to get it up front to give your committee a good first
impression. Further, it is a good bet that most of your committee
members will never read much beyond Chapter 2.
To the extent possible, write your dissertation in modular form (cf.,
last paragraph of preceding section). Each chapter should be prepared
as though it were to be a separate publication. You should publish
your dissertation as quickly as possible, even though you will have a
strong desire to forget it as quickly as possible by the time you are
finally done with it. (Children of Ph.D.s are often well along in
school before they learn that "damn thesis" is two words.) Treating
each chapter as a separate publication, and leaving useless and
distracting material in Chapter 2, will allow you to publish several
papers without additional research and with a minimum of
rewriting/rethinking your old research.
PREPARING FOR THE DEFENSE3
"Defense" is the right word. If you don't feel defensive before the
ordeal, you will by the time they get done with you -- and probably
for some time thereafter. The usual procedure is first to convince
you that you don't deserve the degree and then to give it to you
anyway. This procedure is a vain attempt to keep Ph.D.s humble. It
obviously doesn't work, but if anyone comes up with a better way, the
academic community should definitely hear about it.
After spending most of your life preparing for and taking examinations,
it may be difficult for you to say "I don't know." However, when
conducting doctoral defenses, professors have a way of asking
questions to which there is no answer. "I don't know" is often the
most intelligent thing you can say -- especially when you don't know.
Be familiar with the very basics of your method of research. For
example, it has been asked "How did you use the scientific method in
your doctoral research?" There is a wide variety of correct answers,
but "Gee, I haven't thought about it!" is not one of them.
A FINAL WORD
We leave you with the prayer for graduate students everywhere: May
your major professors always be available when you need them, and gone
when you don't.
1 Slowe, I.M. "Finishing Graduate School on Social Security."
J. National Procrastination Soc. (still in press).
2 Donne, P.D.Q. "Avoiding Misunderstandings with Secretaries and
Librarians -- Candy Works Better than Sledge Hammers."
J. Personal Diplomacy 12:34-56, 1982.
3 Deeyent, X.P. "Most Favorable Times of Day for Scheduling Oral
Prelims and Dissertation Defenses." J. Assembly-Line Educ.
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to acknowledge the many
professors who provided inspiration for various parts of this
article, and who wish to remain anonymous.