Over the course of the past few weeks, the topic of average PhD duration at different institutions came up. I am in the physical sciences; it is normal to expect variations among fields, but in a single field you’d think the PhD takes more or less the same amount of time across different R1 institutions. In reality, it turns out not to be true.
One colleague tells me that, at his (elite) institution, a PhD in the same field as mine lasts 6-7 years. At my institution, it’s about 4-5 years. The 2-year difference is essentially equivalent to keeping the student on student pay but working as a postdoc. These students, when they graduate, have massively long publication records and are very competitive for prestigious postdoctoral appointments and academic positions. At the end of their 7-year PhD, these students are better trained than those after 5 years and have longer, better-looking CVs, which definitely helps with getting academic jobs.
Yet, the prevalent sentiment on the internet is that simply having a student do a PhD in your group is somehow exploitative and that the student should be allowed to graduate as soon as possible and go into the mythical real world. The sentiment is that the PhD training is this unfair, torturous ordeal, which the student has to endure in order to get the PhD;, that the learning, doing science, writing papers, and giving talks are all dues that the student pays grudgingly in return for the piece of paper that is the PhD diploma; advisors are for some reason evil to insist on these dues being paid, as if it were somehow possible for a student to receive a PhD without doing the work.
Federal tax dollars pay for research. They literally pay for the student to go to school and get training and in return it is expected that research will be done. So it pisses me off when people say that someone is being a tyrannical advisor for not letting the student graduate whenever and without papers. Graduate school costs money, and it’s federal money, and scientific papers are the product that is expected in return.
So, how much work is expected to be done for a PhD? I had a double digit of journal papers from my PhD, nearly all as first author. I was motivated, I loved doing science, I had an advisor who was willing and able to give me free
reign rein (thx to Spellmeister PhysioProffe), I liked writing papers and I wrote them fast. I really, really don’t expect my students (a majority of them) to do that or to even want to do that.
Students want to be all treated fairly and equally, but I am not sure they realize these are not synonymous, as students all want different things from their PhDs. One wants to just get out of here and get a job in industry, so I say three papers and you can go. Then another one says he wants to get out with three papers too; I say, sure, but you also want to be a professor, and with three papers you are not particularly competitive for postdocs. Why don’t you stay another year and really cash in on all the nice work you have done so far, really crank some papers out now that everything is working? But he wants to get out because the other guy did, and then when he’s not competitive and gets buried in a dead-end postdoc it’s somehow my fault. (The thing with grad students is that they are young and often don’t have the right perspective; ironically, the most talented ones are often the most stubborn ones and think they know better than the advisor, so they often end up undermining themselves.)
I understand why people keep a student 7 years and not 5. You invest so much time in a student and by the time they finally reach some level of competence, they want to leave, and you are back to working with untrained folks all over again. I can totally understand wanting to keep the good person around and actually get some useful work out of them. I understand that it seems selfish from the standpoint of the average student, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s good for the enterprise of science to be done by fully trained people and not people in training; some academically inclined students don’t actually seem to mind staying a little longer and getting the few extra papers out. One asks why not just pay them postdoc wages? Maybe the advisor is being cheap, but maybe it’s the fact that it actually does not look very good to stay at the same place for a postdoc, it looks better on the CV to be a grad student a little longer, then go elsewhere for a real postdoc.
If you are in a field like mine, essentially all your students are paid as RA’s the entire time. That means each student is probably a very poor investment of federal funds in the first 2 years, but they have to pay the rent and eat the entire time. So it seems to me it’s not inconceivable that the student should do a lot of work in years 3-5 to actually make the whole investment worthwhile from the standpoint of the funding agencies. I really don’t understand the people who say it’s swell to have your school and stipend paid for for years and then also have the gall to insist to graduate without papers.
So I don’t know. I know this will get me no love online, but doing academic science , while being to a great degree about training (how much exactly depends on the funding agency), is really not primarily about training; it’s about doing science professionally, with a mixture of trainees and career scientists. Funding is there to do the science, it’s not a gift or a handout or a guarantee for anyone. In many fields, such as humanities, people would be extremely grateful to be paid to do the research on their dissertation. I really don’t think publishing research papers in return is such as horrible thing to require.
Anyway, I will keep saying “You can graduate with 3 papers from your dissertation, but if you want to go to academia, that is simply not enough, you have to have more.” If they listen, good; they will stay longer and have more papers, If not, they graduate with 3 papers and we unleash them upon the world.
* For the young’uns, here’s where the title came from