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


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.


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 focus.


Many graduate students fail to give proper attention to the selection of a major professor (MP). Some students1 mistakenly believe that an 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 Department 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.


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 to explain.

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 growth curve.

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 of time.

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 following section).


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 Dissertation Topic.

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.


"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.


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. 1:11-12, 1985.


The authors would like to acknowledge the many professors who provided inspiration for various parts of this article, and who wish to remain anonymous.