Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why is a PhD this long and hard?

In most of the basic science departments in the United States (and in many other countries), a PhD takes between 5 and 7 years. That seems awfully long, doesn’t it? My five-year PhD was actually less than the average time taken to finish a PhD in my department. What’s interesting is that I’ve heard many PI’s say that it takes too long, and that “it used to take less time when we did our PhDs. I don’t know what’s changed” when in fact they are part of the “problem”. So, here are my thoughts on why it takes this long.

I don’t think it is simple. I certainly don’t think that the quality of students has decreased that much (at least in the premier research universities). The students I know have all been motivated, and have come in with some research experience (so weren’t complete newbies in the lab). They all work hard (most students work 6 days a week, 10 hours a day, juggling experiments with courses, journal clubs, assignments and whatever else). There may have been some wonderful students 20 or 30 years ago, but that probably doesn’t explain why PhDs have expanded from 3-4 years to the present 6-7 (that’s a doubling).

I would put down four broad reasons why it not takes so much longer to finish a thesis (which do overlap). The first is the structure or system itself, and the “requirements” for a PhD. Basically, there aren’t any clear expectations or requirements for what constitutes a PhD. When a student joins a program he/she isn’t quite clear on what all is required to have a thesis. Most good departments have some kind of unwritten “publication” rule, and students are expected to have at least a couple of first author publications in good journals (or one “stellar” paper). But that is a fuzzy rule, and much depends on how the projects unfold, and what their bosses themselves think is needed. I’ve known students who have graduated without a single first author paper and others who still are in grad school (even though they seem ready to graduate) after publishing some high profile papers. It’s a crapshoot. Part of it is because the expectations for the amount of data that goes into a paper has gone up, and substantially more work is required to make a complete paper. While some experiments are certainly easier due to easily available reagents, I don’t think the availability of improved reagents and tools is proportional to the amount of work that goes into a publication. A secondary factor might also be the massive increase in scientists, which has set the expectations or requirements from postdocs to be higher, and this trickles down to students as well. But a PhD is no longer only about coming up with a good hypothesis, and systematically thinking through and testing it, while acquiring a fairly thorough knowledge of the field.

The second is the more or less mandatory “rotations” that the student does before selecting a lab. The idea behind rotations is to give a student the opportunity to briefly work in 3 different labs for short periods of time, so that the student can figure out if s/he would be a good fit in the lab, if the PI wants the student, and if the research is exciting enough. However, most schools have approximately 3 month rotations (basically a full year of rotations). If the goal is only to give a student an opportunity to get a feel for a lab (without too many expectations of producing data), then 4-5 week rotations should be sufficient. Still, this is a more minor point, since I do think the rotations help students make better choices. However, there should be options for students with very clear research goals or ideas to avoid 3 mandatory rotations, particularly if they are sure they like the lab they have first rotated in, and feel it matches their goals.

A third (minor) reason PhDs drag on now is the non-research requirements that a student “has” to undertake. There is a substantial amount of mandatory coursework in the first two years, along with a few qualifier exams and whatnot thrown in. So, if you add that to the time spent in rotations etc, a student has barely done any serious experiments for about 2 years (discounting say a couple of months in summer). I actually liked courses, and took quite a few throughout my PhD, but I was able to multi-task, and get quite a bit of research done in the lab. But I do know that many students cannot focus on their research and simultaneously go through the grind of coursework and qualifiers. If I had to quantitate what this process does to the duration of a PhD, I’d say this adds another 6 months of time to the whole process (which isn’t that bad really, and can be useful if you get something out of the courses).

Which brings us to the final, and by far the most important factor that influences a PhD. The advisor. I have absolutely no idea what PhD advisors were like 25 years ago. But I do know that while there are still many good mentors out there (I had a great one), there are plenty of terrible ones. And a terrible mentor does not mean a terrible scientist (often it is quite the contrary). There certainly has been a huge explosion in the number of labs and PIs out there especially since the early nineties. Before that, there were perhaps a tenth as many scientists in research (particularly in the biological sciences). More importantly though, while I don’t know what the expectations from mentors were in the old days, I do know that there are NO real expectations from a PI as far as their graduate students go. Sure, there are department requirements and some committee meetings and suchlike. But those can be negotiated without much difficulty. There is no real incentive for investigators to actively mentor their students well, and importantly, there is no demerit if they are terrible. If an assistant professor is up for tenure, departments do look at her/his record with graduate students, and if they have managed to get out a couple of PhD students in their 5 years before tenure it is good for them. But, in most places, that is at best a secondary consideration for tenure. What matters is if the PI has managed to get a few grants, and a few high profile publications. After tenure, and particularly if the investigator is famous, there is no system in universities which really takes a look at how the students in that investigator’s lab fare. Neglecting a student isn’t noticed or penalized. As long as the investigator hasn’t done something seriously bad to the student, it’s all ok. This means a PI doesn’t really need to monitor a student’s progress, or sit down and think hard whether the student has a viable project or not, and can also tempt an investigator to make the student continue on a crazy (or dead) project far longer than they should. This is particularly true if the investigator doesn’t need to pay the student (who may be on some training grant or fellowship), or if the PI is so flush with funds that it doesn’t really matter. Finally, since there is no incentive for the investigators to get students out, they often appear to keep the students (particularly the productive ones) longer than they really need to stay, to get more out of them. That work might make the thesis thicker, but was it really needed for the thesis itself?

While this might sound like a critique of the graduate school system in the US, it is not. I have no hesitation in saying that the quality of PhD education in the US is far more substantial and comprehensive than anything else I’ve seen, particularly in the breadth of knowledge that is/can be acquired. I wouldn’t have come here if it wasn’t. However, while good, it certainly does drag on longer than it needs to (particularly for good, motivated students). Given that postdocs anyway not take much longer, at least the duration of a PhD can be kept to around 4 years. But that cannot happen if the key problem, that of the investigators themselves, isn’t tackled.

Many of the readers of this blog are (or were) grad students. What do y’all think?


post-doc said...

They're all excellent points - some of which I wouldn't have noted in such an elegant way.

I guess my thought is that my last year of grad school was the most productive, even while writing my thesis. I knew people and protocols and was comfortable giving the work my full focus. I'm actually rather worried that I only have a year left in my postdoc when I got such a slow start.

I do think you're right in noting that some people are ready to become independent much sooner than they're allowed. The post gives some excellent points to consider more carefully - thanks!

justescaped said...

While I agree that PhD's tend to be unnecessarily long, I am glad in peculiar way that most PhDs tend to be hard.
If it were not, the line between an experienced technician and a Phd would be blurry and that would take away all the incentive from pursuing graduate school. The ability to negotiate complex, open-ended, and often undefined, problems (with no financial motivation) is what separates an average PhD from an average non-PhD with same amount of work experience. This might sound elitist, but it is always the way it has been.

Wavefunction said...

As someone said, they give you a PhD. mainly for not intelligence, not achievement, not publications, but essentially for sticking around long enough.

Wavefunction said...

As you know, the duration depends on the field. For theoretical fields, it may take less time. In experimental fields, there is often a lot of tedious donkey work involved, so it may take longer. For example, I know very few people doing total organic synthesis who have finished in less than 5-6 years.

As you said, the PI is extremely important. An advisor of one of my friend lets go of his students in 4-4.5 years, almost irrespective of their achievements and/or publications (unless their performance is abyssymal). My own advisor is extremely laid back because he made hundreds of millions from a drug. So he never worries about funds or pushing the students. As a result, I think that students in our lab usually take 5-6 years, but technically should take less. But that's ok.

What's worst are the professors, both here and in India, who don't give their students PhD.s in 8 years or more. That's just cruel. Also here, Nobel laureates seem to remain in pristine order even after students in their lab commit suicide...

I personally think that the PhD. is quite overrated in general, especially when it comes to applied research. A lot of PhD.s do technician kind of work which can be done by good masters or even bachelor's students after a year of training. Unfortunately, we live in a system where having a PhD. is regarded as a big deal and a requirement for so many jobs. A PhD. probably helps for average students, but can be a real waste of time for the more motivated ones, even though it does build character in some ways. In general, I think it's not too bad, but there just seem to be so many cases where it looks like an abomination.

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

I haven't studied in the US, but spent some time in Germany where the system is quite (radically) different).

I went in with a very firm idea of what I wanted to do (to the extent of wanting to work on a minute set of proteins!!), but as time went by, I realised that having some coursework would have helped immensely. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I studied in India - where studying molecular biology (what we study) does not prepare us for knitting that information up with higher levels - physiology & so on.

As for rotations - a friend of mine did only 2 - he clubbed 2 & 3 in the same lab, & where he continued his PhD studies - but the time spent there was not counted for a PhD. Maybe they should be flexible about that.

Sunil said...'s almost the case with most grad students that their final year is the most productive. But I do think the productivity of most good students is maximum at around 4 years, and hopefully that should be close to their final year in grad school.

justescaped.....I think a phd is not about the years spent (which is why a technician with even 10 years of work experience often isn't there yet). It is about being able to conceive a project, plan it and execute it....and while doing so answer a bigger question in the field. Technicians are proficient with their hands but don't always think hard about the science or the story. So, to me, if a student has managed to think through and execute a project, with a sound understanding of the bigger picture, that student is there.

So that kind of ties in with what Ashutosh says. If a student has only done work any tech could have done, that student has not done a phd (no matter how long it has taken). But he's right (in his comments) that powerful, famous PIs can get away without caring the least for their students (and having terrible graduation records). So, anyway, there is some kind of "homogenization" of PhDs, and there should be a system where it is much easier for a really good student to get through easily. I think a partial solution should be for US universities to offer masters degrees (most basic science depts don't do that). But then....i don't think there are enough jobs out there, and now this discussion is beginning to cartwheel out of control.

madgenius....I actually don't like the german or british systems either(though the phds take less time) because there is little opportunity for increasing the breadth of knowledge (unless you are highly self motivated, which the best students often are anyway). The opportunities for coursework in the US do help in making the knowledge gained much more comprehensive.

Morpheus said...

Nice! Its strange how you think 5 years is not too Uk one finishes the research and the thesis in 3 years..max 3.5 in every area of academia...5-7 years is a BIT too long..

Anonymous said...


Excellent post! As someone who is a grad student, and has just finished with her qualifying exam....I can tell hit the nail on the head. This is where I'm at right now...2 years have passed..I've accomplished zilch in the lab, thanks to some heavy coursework and a demanding qualifying exam system. I hope to get out in another 3 years..but I doubt that will happen. work within the system. And as you pointed out, you do (hopefully) great work and learn a lot in the process.

I'm with you on the was heavy, but helpful. Getting rid of that would be a bad idea.

Some established rules on what is "enough" to graduate might be more helpful than the current "you can graduate when your PI and your committee think you are ready" system that is in place at present.

Born a Libran said...

Nicely put... In my experience, some of the chemistry departments around the US have very few course requirements just so that their students can do the donkey work in the lab... I think the course work is an essential part of the doctorate though it might delay graduation... Totally agree with the mentor bit... Too much depends on the nature of the adviser...

Sunil said...

morpheus....I know the system in the UK and germany make the phd process shorter. But i don't think the system there is all that great either. The variations in what has been done in a PhD is sometimes too much there. For example, many students in the UK can graduate without publishing a single first author paper, while other more motivated students have a few. At least, in most good departments in the states there is an unwritten "two good publications" (where "good" varies....but usually means a journal of reasonably high impact). And, the complete absence of coursework can be a problem, if a student wants to broaden the scope of learning. So, the line is a bit blurry there.

Charu..this lead from the previous comment. There's a bunch of "useless" coursework, but there certainly are some good courses. It really depends on the courses and the people teaching them. But yes, once you are done with them, you certainly do become more productive in the lab. I do think though that if a person has a Phd in say biochemistry, that person should have a strong understanding of biochemistry (which should not mean being able to do a western blot). That is often lacking. So, someone needs to sit down and figure out what courses are useful, and how to eliminate the rest.

born a libran.....that really is a dilution of a PhD. Ashutosh had a nice post on that here. It's terrible, and against my idea of what a phd should be like.

Kavi said...

Nicely written ! Given all this, i wonder how easily some of the Indian PhDs get awarded in much shorter time frames

Anonymous said...

In the US, most PIs are spending 90% of their time in finding grants. The university forces them to do so since they get a big cut of it. So no prof is allowed to keep his/her group small and concentrate just on a couple of research problems. So it is expand or bust. This is a complete contrast to the french system where I work where PhD is just another degree and is considered as an exercise to be completed strictly in three years. There is no course work and the first year is spent in training in the lab and the second year is about actually producing some results and most important is the writing.The french expect a magnum opus and so it has to take nearly a year to write it up. Mostly, the student himself/herself does only a very small part of the published work. Most published work is a collaborative effort of three or four labs. PIs are not allowed to have more than two to three PhD students at a time and everyone gets a degree in three years. Hence they are on the job market typically at the age of 25-26 and the smart ones get absorbed into the system as tenured assistant profs at by the time they are thirty.

Sunil said...

Kavi.....actually, I think it takes a while to get a phd in India. But the standards are extremely inconsistent. You need to do a pretty decent job at IISc or TIFR or NCBS or the like, but in most Universities, you get away with doing nothing, and pandering to a few professors. It's quite terrible.

Revathi.....I have substantial reservations about the French system. Sure, there is a significant amount of training the student gets, but I think, for a phd, a student needs to come up with an independent idea and take it to completion. Otherwise, there is little to distinguish you from say a master's student, who is reasonably knowledgeable in theory, but has not been through the pain of going through completely with a project. Which is why I do think a couple of first author publications that the student has actually written is important. Secondly, junior PIs in most of Europe never have the independence that researchers in the States have, and that really does effect the performance and motivation of the scientists. It isn't hard to see why US scientists are (on average) more productive than European ones (except those at institutes where they have a lot of independence).

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether or not it is appropriate to have this post here, I apologize if it is not. Actually these days, I am planning to pursue graduate studies, i.e., PhD. I did my Bachelors in Information Technology from Pakistan. I have an admission offer from University of Melbourne for fully funded PhD in CS. Seniors of mine, who are already doing PhD in Australia, have informed me that there is no compulsion to take courses in Australia and some times you advisor may even discourage you to take courses, as this will cause you to devote less time towards research.

On the other hand, I have got admission into University of Pennsylvania for Masters in CIS. I can even manage to take funding from some government organization in Pakistan to for this degree. If I go to Upenn, I would continue the graduate studies after getting the masters degree from any good US university such as Upenn itself.

Now I have two tracks to choose from. One is to go ahead with University of Melbourne degree and complete the PhD in 4 years and other is to go to US to spend another 2+4_5=at least 7 years to get PhD. If I go to Australia, I can have a job experience (or post-doc work) of 3 years by the time I complete PhD in US.

Personally I am inclined to do PhD from US because of two factors. Firstly I feel, after discussing with my friends in Australia, that I lack the coursework required to do PhD as I have not done masters degree and I only hold a bachelors degree from Pakistan, therefore Australia does not seem to be suitable place for me whereas US fulfills that deficiency. 2ndly, I have an impression that US graduates are welcomed warmly and recognized all over the world and may be given preference over the graduates of other countries in terms of jobs and salary , please correct me if I am wrong.

May I request you guys to advice me how to proceed. I will be very thankful for your assistance.

Confused Guy.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sunil,

Yes, your critism on european research is valid; there are a lot of organisation problems. This is not relevant to the number of years of PhD. The idea behind the short PhD is to be able to integrate these graduates into employment while they are still young.
I dont know how much you spent on your undergraduate education but typically in the US it costs about 160000 dollars in a good university and there is really not much motivation for a person in such a debt to continue earning a stipend. That is also the reason why the US is heavily dependent on foreign graduates students who are ready to spend 8 years getting a low salary and postponing family, own home etc.

Wishing you all the best in your scientific career,


Sunil said... are welcome to comment. Anyway, perhaps some others reading this post might be able to clarify your queries. As far as a PhD goes need to evaluate what you want to get out of it.....and a phd (or any research career) isn't just about getting the next job. All I'll say to your comment is to take your time, think about all options, do your homework well, and then make a decision. Whatever you do, a phd isn't (or shouldn't) be something you rush into.

Revathi...yes, you are quite right about many of the problems here in the US. There certainly needs to be a more serious thought about what happens to phds once they are done......and part of the problem is a "glut" of phd's in the mid nineties, thanks to a big increase in research money in the US (and perhaps in europe as well). So, I think we're on agreement here that the phd process in the states is sometimes unnecessarily long, however, the expectations from a phd have to be work that is significant. There can be some balance between what is seen in the states, and what happens in some institutes in Europe. As far as European phd's go, I've heard very good things about the EMBL labs, for example, and the EMBL phd program. Here, while the standards of work remain excellent, the time taken to finish it remains finite (4 years). So, it really does seem possible.

Here in the US, Cold Spring harbor seems to have come up with a well planned system for graduate school, which seems to be one of the best ones out there.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Amen to all that. Especially the part about 'no incentive to get grad students out.' My spouse suggests the uni should start charging full tuition after year 5 (or maybe 4) as a $35K/year inducement. If only.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys. Wonderful post. My personal feeling is most profs must undergo compulsory psychiatric counseling. I feel there are many psycho's around in academia and they need to be treated. Most really have a serious personality disorder and tend to exploit student. I had a bad experience with one guy. I have pretty much lost interest in research. After all it is nothing more than a selfish thing. In academia u are after this useless reputation. In industry after dollors. Both are selfish. I have come to a conclusion of dollars over name. It is a hopeless waste of time but still I am doing a PhD

Ram Kumar said...

I'm just beginning my journey towards a PhD - in a Masters program now.. but in Business. I've heard consistently from science Phds here in the US stories similar to what Sunil posted -- especially due to the very high number of Asian students from Korea, China, etc. pursuing PhDs in science/engineering.

It seems like a PhD in a Business area sees a much different picture. Maybe the rigor needed to answer a new scientific question is much more than some of the business questions which have thesis with many open-ended answers.

Is there any place to get statistics on PhD graduation rates, enrollment numbers, by field or degree?

Anonymous said...

Interesting points raised.
I am in my first year of my phd and for me the 3 years seems to be a big chunk of my life. No phd goes for more than 4 years in Australia from start to finish. interesting to note that 5 years is considered to be an okay timeframe.

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