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The 3 Biggest Reasons Postgrads Don’t Finish on Time (and What You Can Do About Them)

Posted by Capstone College on 24 October 2018

While you probably had all the motivation and enthusiasm in the world when you first started your exciting new postgraduate degree, you might end up feeling at some stage that writing your thesis has become an insurmountable task.

You worry you know less than you thought you did or feel like you don’t understand what your supervisor wants.

You could be juggling studies, work and a family, while your friends ask why you never have time for them anymore.

You may even wonder if you still care about your topic!

Faced with an uphill battle, you might be struggling to complete your thesis or, worse, you might be considering dropping out altogether. Imagine investing all those years, all that money, and all those long evenings—and coming out with nothing to show for your hard work.

Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common scenario. In 2016, more students completed their postgraduate degrees in Australia than ever before. 

But during that time, more students than ever didn’t complete their degree at all.

Statistics for PhD attrition rates are difficult to establish, as candidates often extend their studies rather than formally withdrawing.

However, according to the federal government, there were 207,771 commencing postgraduate research students between 2001 and 2016, with 126,564 completions during that period. The non-completion rate of 39.1% is comparable with both the United Kingdom and the United States of America, where it is closer to 45%.

(Source: Universities Australia)

Postgraduate degrees require serious time, significant financial commitments and, of course, a requisite level of academic skills, capabilities and knowledge. Not everyone should be able to complete a PhD (or one of the postgrad degrees that leads to one), or else it wouldn’t hold value as the highest educational qualification available.

But we shouldn’t just accept the discouraging statistics and throw our hands in the air.

I believe there is something seriously wrong with the tertiary education system in Australia (and around the world). And while universities themselves aren’t oblivious to the issues, they’ve been very slow to address them.

In this blog post, we’re going to look at some of the main pitfalls postgraduate students face and give you some suggestions for things you can do to offset them.

If you recognise yourself in any of these, don’t be shy about seeking the support you need to successfully complete your thesis on time.

BONUS: The REAL Thesis Checklist

We developed the Real Thesis Checklist to include everything left out by the universities—the really important bits you need to know in order to succeed. This must-have detailed checklist takes you from the beginning to the end of your Honours, master’s or PhD thesis journey.

Make sure you know EVERY STEP you have to take to complete your thesis, on time and stress free!

Reason 1: Lack of Support from Supervisors and Universities

Having access to high-quality, consistent and reliable academic support while you study is critical to success. That support should come from both your supervisor/s and your university. 

If you get limited (or non-existent support) from either one, it can make your path to completing your thesis significantly harder.

General academic support might include English language classes for international students; one-on-one tutoring; academic skills presentations and workshops; the provision of networking opportunities; or postgrad peer support groups. 

Universities can offer student counselling services, and resources like adequate study and office spaces, computers and free printing—which can all boost productivity. 

Disappointingly, the majority of postgrads in Australia and New Zealand report that these forms of support are often absent, inadequate or booked out.

Postgrad students need to have (or learn) some fundamental academic skills to be successful, but the sad truth is that overburdened and underfunded universities are simply not able to offer sufficient support to many of their postgrad students. 

For example, as an academic editor, I used to wonder why students (and even supervisors) found it difficult to correctly reference their research. Looking further into the issue, I found that several universities (not naming any names!) have produced and distributed referencing guides to their students that contain errors. 

How could this happen, you ask? 

I dug even further and discovered these referencing guides were written by a procession of casual staff members. None of these people had the skills to produce an accurate guide, and the team lacked a single qualified research academic to oversee the project and ensure consistency and continuity.

It’s no wonder postgraduate students are struggling.

Unfortunately, the lack of academic support and resources (and the high non-completion rate for theses) hasn’t stopped universities from continuing to encourage hundreds of thousands of students to enrol and pay for postgraduate degrees.

Even though they know they aren’t offering enough assistance to get those students through to the end of their degrees successfully, recruiting efforts continue and students keep pouring in.

But what about your biggest source of academic support—your supervisor?

Universities now recognise that there is a direct link between the performance of supervisors and the attrition rate of postgrad students. While a lot supervisors are supportive of their students, there are some who simply don’t provide the support you need.

Postgrad students who come to my company for professional thesis editing have told me some horrifying things over the years. More times than I can count, I’ve heard students say things like:

  • ‘My supervisor has never looked at my thesis.’
  • ‘I only met with my supervisor two or three times throughout my entire degree.’
  • ‘My supervisor said I have to finish my thesis and pay to have it edited before they will read it.’

Many institutions are trying to solve some of the problems by instituting strategies like supervisor training and accreditation, reporting mechanisms and student evaluations of supervisors—but the issue still persists.

But it isn’t as simple as blaming the supervisor—we must also consider the overall context of the contemporary tertiary education system in Australia and New Zealand. 

Many academics are systematically overworked and underpaid. They often spend their own wages to do things that are required of them in their positions, such as travelling for conferences or field trips (just like postgrads who have to fund their own research). 

They are usually stuck with supervising more postgraduate students than they can really manage, and simply don’t have time to provide the requisite ongoing feedback.

How to Combat This Problem

If you need to increase the support you’re getting for your postgraduate studies, the first thing I’d suggest is having an honest conversation with your supervisory team about your needs. Once you’ve expressed your concerns, ask your supervisor/s what they can do to support you. 

You might also consider joining your university’s postgraduate support network, or starting your own, if one doesn’t exist. Make sure you are on the university mailing lists for research training events, so you can find out about workshops and networking events.

If you are still finding there is a lack of support from either your supervisory team or university, I recommend taking matters into your own hands and considering strategies like:

  • enrolling in online academic development courses
  • borrowing books on everything from thesis writing to ‘managing your supervisor,’ and adding them to your already crowded reading list
  • considering a request to change your supervisory team
  • moving your enrolment to a different institution. 

Rarely are these last two options required, but remember: this is your postgraduate degree, and you have the right to demand (and receive) the support and resources you need.


Reason 2: Poor Academic Writing Skills

Of course, sometimes the issue is not just about the support offered by supervisors and universities, but with your own level of academic skills. Several researchers have found that one of the primary reasons postgraduate students don’t finish their degrees is a lack of academic writing skills.

To successfully complete your thesis, you must be able to write cogently and clearly, getting across your ideas and conclusions in a logical fashion. The act of writing doesn’t just describe your thinking, it helps to clarify it. 

If you come to your postgraduate studies without the proper writing skills, you will find it difficult to capture your ideas and create a working hypothesis. 

Many students may struggle long before they come to write their thesis if they’re at the postgraduate level, because their research proposal won’t be strong enough and they may not have their candidature confirmed, meaning they are not allowed to progress in the degree.

To further complicate matters, in many disciplines, the expectation is that students will publish in journals throughout their studies. Poor writing skills can hurt you here as well, potentially putting you even further behind.

But when considering this problem, it’s important to distinguish between skill and ability

Studies show that the difference between those who complete their theses and those who don’t is not due to intellectual capacity or innate ability. If you’ve been accepted into a postgraduate program, it’s clear you have the capacity and ability to successfully undertake your studies.

The significance of that can’t be overstated. Students don’t lack the ability to finish, they lack the necessary resources and support. That’s both an injustice and an opportunity. 

It’s a serious problem when intelligent and capable students end up failing to complete because of lack of support. But it’s also an opportunity for you to address the barriers that get in your way and find extra support that patches up any gaps in your writing and/or learning skill set.

Writing a thesis requires a particular set of skills, and students are rarely given the opportunity to learn them at university prior to undertaking their postgraduate degree. Many students have never even read a thesis before they begin their postgrad degree!

Many students who reach postgraduate level have never performed a literature review (or anything similar to it). They certainly will never have written a research proposal that could be as long as 10,000 words, and is required to include a comprehensive literature review, as well as a logical research design and methodology.

Supervisors don’t have the time or resources to teach all these skills to their postgraduate students and it’s not solely their responsibility either. However, if these writing and academic learning skills aren’t taught conscientiously and in detail by teaching and learning centres, student services or anywhere at universities, what can students do? 

How to Combat This Problem

If you need help with your academic writing and learning skills, I recommend starting with your supervisory team and your university. Ask for additional help.

You can also register for online training programs and support programs, or go to an academic editing service for assistance and advice.


Reason 3: Trouble Finding Time to Write

Successful postgraduate students typically have good organisational and time management skills, including staying focused for set periods, maintaining that focus over the long term, and breaking down tasks into stages and smaller steps.

But it is easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes to sit down and do the actual writing of your thesis. You may find you’ve spent too much time on your literature review or have lagged over your data collection and analysis. 

If this happens—and it often does—you won’t have enough time to actually write up your findings. 

Of course, the opposite problem is also significant—where you can spend too little time on the research and then attempt to write a thesis without having enough to say, or without adequate evidence of what you are trying to prove.

A postgraduate degree requires a great deal of autonomous work and self-discipline. To be successful, you need to carefully divide the overall task into manageable stages, allocating adequate time to each, while making sure to leave enough time to revise and self-edit the thesis before submission. 

Many students don’t enter their postgraduate studies with these kinds of skills, and don’t have the support they need to acquire them once they’ve begun their research.

One of the most difficult parts of the transition between undergraduate and postgraduate studies is the immediate expectations that you’ll be able to manage your studies independently. From the structured environment of a bachelor’s degree, in which you have timetabled lectures, tutorials and periodic assignments, you are now faced with a multi-year process with very few deadlines. 

If you aren’t clear on what needs to be done at each stage, it can be a real challenge to divide your time properly and not fall into the trap of thinking that you have ages to finish your work. You don’t.

For part-time or mature students, competing demands on your time (like family responsibilities or working at an outside job to take care of living expenses) can create further complications.

The average age of a PhD student in Australia is 35. A study by the Grattan Institute found that, among undergraduate students, the two highest risk factors for dropping out of one’s course were being part time and being a mature age student. Postgraduate students are very likely to be both of these—which means carving out time to write will be even more important.

How to Combat This Problem

Procrastination is your enemy when you’re working on your thesis, so the best thing that you can do to manage your time and maintain a sustainable life balance is put together a plan for your thesis. 

I recommend starting at the year level, noting each major milestone of your entire candidature. Then work down to a monthly plan, where you have key outcomes (complete a chapter draft, analyse a dataset, and so on). 

Finally, block each week with the thesis work you are undertaking. 

Keep in mind that life is going to throw you curve balls, so be ready to adapt your plan for your changing circumstances. 


You Will Face Hurdles—But There Is Hope.

Some of Australia and New Zealand’s best and brightest students are commencing their postgraduate studies with enthusiasm—and leaving with nothing to show for everything they have sacrificed

In a system where about 40% of all doctoral and Masters candidates fail to complete their theses, something is obviously very wrong

While there’s clearly a problem with the system, in the end, it’s postgraduate students like you who will bear the burden.

In the absence of a fundamental change to the entire system, you have to empower yourself as a postgraduate student, and seek out the skills, knowledge, resources and support you need to finish your thesis.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help: from your supervisors, your university, your peers, and also from wider communities of scholars online and through academic networks. 

Read as much as you can on quality academic writing, enrol in courses that support your own development, and try as much as possible to enjoy the journey you are on. 

The end result is worth it!   

BONUS: The REAL Thesis Checklist

We developed the Real Thesis Checklist to include everything left out by the universities—the really important bits you need to know in order to succeed. This must-have detailed checklist takes you from the beginning to the end of your Honours, master’s or PhD thesis journey.

Make sure you know EVERY STEP you have to take to complete your thesis, on time and stress free!

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BONUS: The REAL Thesis Checklist

We developed the Real Thesis Checklist to include everything left out by the universities—the really important bits you need to know in order to succeed. This must-have detailed checklist takes you from the beginning to the end of your Honours, master’s or PhD thesis journey.

Make sure you know EVERY STEP you have to take to complete your thesis, on time and stress free!