The 7-Year-PhD Itch

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




  1. And behold! Somewhere in the wilds of the internet, a voice cried out “FLAME WAR IS ON!!!” and the eardrums of all were shattered by the sounds of furious typing, and physical therapists bought new cars with the revenue from treating the resulting carpal tunnel syndrome. And GMP cursed herself for not putting ads on her site, for the ad revenue surely would have paid off her mortgage.

  2. This only works if you are allowed to keep your students longer. Here in my UK university (and I think this is fairly typical for UK), PhD funding is for 3-4 years max and students have to finish within 4 years. If they dont, they have to re-enter the programme and be re-accepted and pay the full fees themselves with no funding, which is *a lot* of money, so noone wants to do that. Bascially, it’s either you’re done in 4 years or you are out.
    UK has however the shortest PhD from all European countries, in other places it’s 4-5 years, because you have to take a year of courses (no courses in UK) and also in most other countries you are an employee as a PhD student and there are mostly no or very low fees. Still, funding is never more than for 4-5 years and so there is the pressure for everyone to finish within this time.

  3. One thing that I have seen a lot of (at three different institutions in three different fields – all STEM/Bio, so it’s pretty common) is to have the graduate student stay on for a “fake postdoc”. Basically, the student graduates, but sticks around for a year or two to finish stuff up (essentially to write up papers or do a final project). The key is that (1) this “fake postdoc” does not count as a real postdoc, and the student still has to go somewhere else to do a postdoc before being ready for a faculty job, and (2) the PI pays what the PI was paying total cost of the student as a graduate student to the student as a postdoc. Since cost of a graduate student usually includes tuition, which used to go to the school, but now goes to the student, this ends up being a (small – sometimes not so small) payraise for the student.

    The idea is that
    1. The PI is paying the same cost before and after. But after graduation, more of that cost goes to the student.
    2. The student has in fact completed the PhD and could leave anytime. (So people shouldn’t be transferred into this pseudo-postdoc until they’ve really done enough for a PhD.)
    3. The student gets a couple of years to cash in on all that training and practice to write and publish a few extra papers before going on to learn something new as a real postdoc.
    4. The student still needs to do a real postdoc.

    The only problem with this is that NIH has started counting years-since-graduation for some of these young-investigator awards like K99 and ESI.

  4. I am sympathetic to your position. However, I do feel there is one issue that complicates things a bit. I, too, have been at one institution where 5ish years was the norm (Personally I graduated during my 6th year so 5.8ish :p), and now am a postdoc at one where 7 years is the norm.

    In general, the institution where 5 years was the norm had more productive students on a per year basis. Part of that is because of the fact that they know from the get-go (it’s emphasized during year 1) they are really expected to get their work done in a timely fashion. When you’re at a school where 7 years is the norm, the students really do spend a lot more time taking irrelevant coursework, spending entire semesters preparing for committee meetings instead of writing papers, and generally derping around, at least from what I’ve observed. There’s no sense of urgency whatsoever. Some of them still produce good work but they do it in 8-9 years when they could have done it in 6…

    That said I agree with you that students should not be graduating with zero papers. Where I differ a bit is where I think the pipeline should be closed. IMO students should be pushed MUCH harder during their first 3 years of grad school. If they aren’t making sufficient progress and show no sign that they understand they are expected to publish or perish, then they should be master’ed out. Much better to “waste” 3 years than 5-7. I agree the idea of keeping a student with zero pubs as a postdoc is not in general well advised. If you think they are not competitive for postdocs generally, why would you hire them?? OTOH the idea of hiring a very productive student as a postdoc for say one-two semesters so they can write up the work that is pub-ready, that makes sense to me, and this kind of arrangement typically is not a blackmark like a longer in-grad-institute postdoc can be (at least in bio).

  5. As usual, you nailed it. Points we have started to emphasize more to our trainees from day one, is (1) your PhD training is supported by the taxpayers and the expectation for that support is that you will do science and publish papers, and (2) regardless of what science-related career path you want, whether it’s academics, industry, teaching, etc, everybody wants to hire people that are productive. The currency of productivity in graduate school is not your awesome brain, it is papers. Many colleagues in industry have said they would hesitate to hire a recent PhD or postdoc with few to no papers, since that might suggest that the trainee did not prioritize getting things done.

  6. Has anyone ever seen “time as a graduate student” be an issue in faculty hires or in K99 or F32-NRSA reviews? I have never seen this issue raised. No one seems to count time at the individual level. Certainly, it is a definite issue for F31 NRSA’s and for T32 training grants and for departmental reviews. But at the individual student level, does anyone say “We don’t want this person as a faculty member because they took too many years to graduate with a PhD?

  7. You nailed it down correctly. You are expected to do professional science that provide answers to important questions while relying on untrained cohort (or training them on the process). No wonder a big percent of experimental results can not be reproduced and thus wasting a lot of time and money for everyone involved.

  8. Has anyone ever seen “time as a graduate student” be an issue in faculty hires

    Qaz, it came up in my experience. When I interviewed at my current place, one prof told me that the dean would not OK the hiring of anyone who took more than 5 years to graduate; it was that dean’s opinion that short PhDs are strongly correlated with success.

    And I have heard several instances where people who had a break between BS and grad school, and listed only dates of completion of BS and PhD on the CV so it looked like the PhD was long, faced questions on why it took them so long to graduate (even though it didn’t) or were dismissed outright. So there are definitely field-dependent expectations on how long a PhD takes, also perhaps institution-based expectations. Having an MS along the way does break up the CV and makes the trajectory look like it’s moving at a better pace (e.g. BS 2001, MS 2003, PhD 2008 looks better than BS 2001, PhD 2008, even though the PhD took 7 years in both cases).

    I don’t think anyone objects to the CV of someone who has had many papers and a short PhD. The question is when is a longer-than-average PhD becomes warranted, i.e. when is it a good use of everyone’s time, effort, and money?

  9. This–that doing science is primarily about doing science when already trained, not about getting trained–is a big reason why I sought an industry research position after my phd. The situation you describe, in which students often leave once they are trained, would be very frustrating to me.

    On the other hand, I also see myself as being one of those irresponsible graduate students who leaves too soon because I wanted to leave and get on with my life and my graduate group was not a very happy place in general. And, like you said of students who leave before they’re ready, my CV is pretty lame and unimpressive. I do have a job that I really really like right now, and I was able to get a few interviews just with my resume, but still…more publications wouldn’t hurt. On the other hand, it was not worth the personal life negatives that would have come with staying longer, and the professional positives were far from guaranteed.

    Does this make me a horrible human being? An irresponsible US citizen? Someone who doesn’t deserve a job, ever? I would probably look at my CV and think “oh lame” but, on the other hand, my current employer does seem to value me and my research skills. And it’s too early to tell post-PhD if things are going to work out for me the way I want them to, but I don’t really regret any of my choices so far, even though I wish I had been a better grad student. Maybe I should feel more guilt towards taxpayers?

  10. I admit, I was a pretty bad grad student in a lot of ways. Took 7 years, didn’t publish a lot. However, through a few strokes of luck I got a faculty job. The taxpayers didn’t get their money’s worth out of me as a grad student, but I’m underpaid as a professor, so I guess it balances out! 🙂

  11. I think it’s pretty simple, really. If you as a student are in a lab with a good, supportive advisor, where you feel you are still learning and have opportunities to showcase your work at conferences, etc., then I don’t think most students would mind remaining in that position a bit longer. Just like a number of people don’t seem to mind staying at a job where they are happy, even if they know they might be making somewhat more money elsewhere. The desire to get out the door ASAP is driven largely by substandard advising situations. (Though perhaps I should call them “unfortunate,” since the standard for advisors seems deplorably low to me….)

    “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.”

    How is it worse for someone to do a 4-yr PhD, 2-yr postdoc at PhD institution, and then postdoc or faculty appointment elsewhere vs. 6-yr PhD and then postdoc or faculty appointment elsewhere?

  12. How does the quality of work factor into all of this?

    I have been in graduate school for a while and have a double digit number of papers (both through a masters at another school and my current PhD work). Of course, I have a raging case of impostor syndrome and am my own worst critic when it comes to the value and innovativeness of my past work. I have had a few tempting ideas lately and am fortunate enough that funding is not an issue and my advisor gives me a fair amount of leeway in what to work on. I think I might be able to work on a project that could turn into something extremely good, but it would take quite some time and lead to a longer-than-average total time in graduate school. Do you think the promise of a big advance is worth a longer-than-average PhD (in general and for hiring committees), or should students be pushed out after a while as long as they have published enough solid quality work and are getting cited? (Of course, all concerns about quality are relative)

  13. A real issue with time-to-PhD is that people have to get on with their lives and careers *sometime*. For someone going into academia: a 7-year PhD, then 3-5 years as a post-doc, then 6-7 years on the tenure-track. That all assumes that there aren’t any glitches on the way. If one is going into academia, one doesn’t have an actual career until one gets tenure, and speaking from experience, it kinda sucks when that doesn’t happen until you are in your 40s. Independent of the valid issues raised by xykademiqz, one can *always* make the argument that a person would be better if they stayed at a certain level for an extra year or two. Say, 6 years as an undergraduate, 9 years as a grad student, 7 years as a post-doc, 10 years on the tenure-track. Push all of these out long enough, and everyone can retire before they get tenure! Perhaps more realististcally, unless you really do get one of those rare high-end research-intensive positions, all that extra time is probably not worth it.

    Another thing worth pointing out is that the PhD being completely supported by federal money is not universal. *Somebody* is filling the TA positions that just about every physical sciences department needs to fill, and not every PhD-granting department is always overflowing with grant money. Whether that’s right or wrong, some of us have obtained academic careers out of that situation. Maybe this is just my field, but I’ve also seen graduate students working as RAs on projects that have nothing to do with their dissertation. They get extra publications out of the deal, but if it’s not going towards their dissertation, it’s hardly a welfare program.

    Admittedly, I’m biased here because my PhD took 7 years, but in part that was because I had a full-time course load for 2.5 years and worked as a TA for 6 of the 7 years. The other year, I was 2/3rd covered by federal money. I don’t feel too guilty about that $7000 of federal taxpayer money, nor the 6 years of adjunct wages from state taxpayers for teaching labs and recitation sections. It’s been 15+ years since I graduated, maybe that doesn’t happen any more.

  14. I got my PhD in 4 years after BS. Out of the 4 years I was a TA for two semesters, RA for 2 semesters and got a graduate assistantship in the department. But I had two international collaborations and multiple papers to get my adviser to say yes. It also helped that I got an offer from a National Lab.

    I always thought that the function calculated by people is the productivity i.e. (#of papers)/(time). So 4 papers in 4 years is equalent to 8 papers in 8 years. Ofcourse this is assuming that prod. is linear, which it is not. But I always wanted to graduate in minimal time so that I can do grown up stuff. It worked out for me but might not for many people. In retrospect I wished that I didn’t graduate this early, not because it caused me any problems but because it was a lot of fun to be a graduate student 😀

  15. I spent 8 years on my PhD (of course, I changed fields from pure math to computer science to computer engineering in that time). I only had a few papers when I was done, but I was in a hot new field and got a tenure-track position immediately. Unfortunately, it was not a good fit, and I ended up moving to another institution after 4 years, where it took me 7 more years to get tenure. So my BS-to-tenure time was 19 years. (The second job was a good fit, and I’m still at that university, though in a different field and in a different department.)

    I find it difficult to advise students to race through grad school or to write huge numbers of crappy papers. I think that it is more important for students (and researchers in general) to write one or two high quality papers that might actually make a difference.

    Of the papers I wrote in grad school, one has never been cited (probably only one other person ever read it), one is my 6th most-cited paper (350 citations in Google Scholar and 86,600 hits with Google), and one has had very modest citations (85). My thesis itself was one-year throwaway work (only cited 9 times).

    Note: I had fellowships for most of grad school, so only worked as an RA for 2 quarters and a TA for one. The highly cited paper was one that was not the result of any funded project, but an idea that another fellowship student came up with on his homemade computer and that we played with for a few years. The idea made over $100,000 in license fees for the campus and is what got me into the hot field that I was later hired for. I think that a lot has been lost by pushing students to be “hands in the lab” for senior researchers.

  16. Like Pika, I am from a country where funding for PhD students is usually for 3.5 years and they are expected to complete in under 4 years. Most institutions have average completion times between 3.5-4 years. The strongest programs are at the bottom end of this range, and also get the most demand from international students. In this system a longer PhD raises flags that someone can’t complete a project with the required timeframe, and significantly more papers would be required to overcome that. It also hasn’t adversely affected my own former students. All are currently employed, and a number of them in other countries (including the USA).

  17. I have seen people criticize job applicants for tenure-track positions based on the length of time it took them to graduate – BUT ONLY – when they wanted to knock that particular person down for some personal reason they had (e.g. applicant was female, applicant had better record than the person they wanted to hire, etc.). So from time to time, such things can be used against you, but I think if you are productive during those years you are in graduate school, it won’t matter if you graduated in 4 or 6 or 8; as long as your productivity matches those additional years. I think people mostly judge you by what you produce.

  18. I’ve always considered graduation as a function of two things: 1. Does your committee think you’re ready for the career path you want to take, and 2. Do you have the tangible items necessary. The tangible items are your publications, data, dissertation, etc. My program didn’t have any written rules, but three pubs was the rule of thumb. But just because you have pubs doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready leave with your letters. The committee/adviser should be able to judge whether the student has the proper research dissemination skills, knowledge-base, and (unsurprisingly) the tangible items for the next stage of their career. I disagree that a student having three pubs preps them for industry. The student needs other skills. The students should be responsible to the taxpayers for not just the data they promised because they’re working on a specific grant, but also that they’re using the money to train as a scientist. For instance, when i fund a lab with industry money I know I’m getting the data I want, but I’m also scouting students that I can recruit. If they’re (they being the student AND the PI) using the money wisely, they’re getting the data and doing the best they can to ensure the student walks away a better scientist. I’m investing in the person AND the project. I tell this to students all the time that they need to utilize the resources around them in academia to come out best as scientifically possible. Not just get the pubs and leave. And if the student thinks they know better then the committee can put the student in their place. Who cares if they think you’re mean? Your students will come out better than other PI’s students because you made sure they left when you prepared them for the real world. I finished with double digit pubs in roughly four years, and while I could have left earlier, I stuck around because my adviser and committee were honest about my deficiencies. And I’m glad they did because I see PhD’s come through other labs around here and I can tell they published and dashed because they’re not good researchers.

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