The neverending PhD

I’m often asked, “What is the worst part of grad school?” For me, that’s an easy question. It’s not the late nights in the lab. It’s not the low stipends that forced me to spend 6 years in a run-down row house with 50 to 60 roommates (three human, the rest mice). It’s not the pain of grading 300 misleadingly worded undergrad exams. It’s not even the mayhem of dealing with 300 undergrads who’ve just received partial credit—“Partial credit, you stupid TA, now I’ll never get into med school!”—on their misleadingly worded exams.

The worst things are the stagnancy, uncertainty, and farce-level bafflement that erupt when your degree (surprise!) stretches longer than 5 years.

A Ph.D. program, therefore, occurs on a theoretically infinite time scale.

Science Ph.D. programs famously tell entering students that the average time to graduation is 5 years, because science Ph.D. programs famously tell entering students anything entering students want to hear. Sure, you can rotate outside the department. Yes, that professor is taking new students. Of course, we always treat our grad students as well as we did during “Prospective Students Weekend.” No, there’s no need to panic—the haggard, desperate, grief-stricken waifs you see sleeping on the lab sofa are postdocs.

Because you hear the number 5, you attach a tentative date to your plans, which you might even share with friends and loved ones. “I’ve got about a year left,” you tell them during your fourth year, completely believing it. Then, during your fifth year: “Um … maybe another 6 months.” Sixth year: “Like, 2 or 3 months. I’m so close.” Seventh year: “Stop asking me. Just stop. I don’t know, okay?”

Of course they continue, thinking they’re asking helpful questions, guiding you toward obvious solutions you must be overlooking. “Have you tried asking your thesis committee?” suggest your concerned parents. “Is there a class you need to take or some piece of paper you forgot to fill out?”

It’s hard for some to comprehend because most graduate and professional programs—especially master’s degrees but also medical school, law school, and business school—have a defined end date, just like colleges. Yet, in most Ph.D. programs, you graduate at some nebulous time in the future. You graduate when, in the opinion of your interest-conflicted adviser, “you’re ready.” You graduate when your adviser gets sick of you, needs the space, or has a whim. You graduate because you’ve been there 8 years, and your adviser now believes you don’t actually deserve a Ph.D., but it would look bad for him or her to admit it at this point.

You graduate because a grant is running out, or you don’t graduate because a grant isn’t running out. An experiment fails, and you stay another year. A journal accepts your paper, and you can leave a year sooner. Your lab relocates, and you’re kicked out early—or your lab relocates, and you join another lab, effectively starting over. Your graduation, in other words, like many aspects of life, is determined not by your accomplishments but by an inscrutable set of circumstances over which you have little control.

Isn’t grad school the best?

As a consequence of this unpredictability, there is a bolus of time toward the end of your degree when you have the following simultaneous thoughts:

“Wait, wasn’t I supposed to graduate?”

“Wait, when can I graduate?”

“Wait, how do I graduate?”

But you’re thwarted by the fact that, for a Ph.D. program, there are no graduation criteria. Yes, your department may require a certain amount of coursework, most of which you probably finished during your first few years (despite the university somehow still justifying continuing to charge you tuition). But it’s not just coursework. It’s coursework-plus-whatever, and “whatever” is subjective, hazy, arbitrary, capricious. A Ph.D. program, therefore, occurs on a theoretically infinite time scale.

So what’s the trigger for you to graduate? What’s the magical “last experiment” your adviser is waiting for you to perform? And why won’t he or she tell you what it is so that you can go ahead and do it? Yes, science is fluid and tenuous and unpredictable, but you’re not required to cure cancer before you can get your Ph.D. You just need to do good work, learn a few things, and … what? What is it? TELL US. PLEASE.

Worse, we know the time span of grad school is arbitrary because different labs release students at different rates. Five years in this lab equals 8 years in this lab. Why? Is this another daylight saving time thing?

I was reminded of this amorphous time period recently when I spoke to graduate students in Texas. One of their classmates had just defended his thesis that morning—and failed his defense.

To those outside of science who are for some reason reading Science, I should explain that failing a thesis defense is not common—not at all. Every school is different, but you typically only schedule your defense when you and your adviser know it will go well. It’s an anxiety-provoking formality. You give a talk, answer questions, and  half-listen as your committee suggests future experiments that you’ll never do because, well, you’re done. A sandwich platter probably makes an appearance. Your thesis adviser publicly says something nice about you for the first time ever, and you start thinking something nice about your adviser in return. “Man,” you’ll say to yourself, “we may have had our rough times, but this crazy kook’s all heart.” Then, except for the weird couple of extra months you remain in your graduate lab “just to finish up,” you’re done.

This student in Texas, it seems, tried to grab the reins of his Ph.D. a little too forcefully during his fourth year. He told his committee he was ready to defend, and they said, “No, you’re not, you have no publications.” So he quickly published something in a journal with a miniscule impact factor, something like the Journal of Everyone Gets a Trophy.

Okay, he told his committee, now I’m ready to defend. He then brilliantly scheduled a defense date against the committee’s judgment, neglected to give committee members a draft of his thesis ahead of time, and basically did everything possible to set himself up to fail, which he did.

A sixth-year grad student told me this story—it was all the gossip around the department that day—with the understandable undertone of “What’s wrong with this idiot?” It was validating, I think, for her to confirm that graduating couldn’t possibly be as simple as declaring, “I’d like to graduate now, please”—because if it was, what excuse did she have for being a sixth-year student? Love of pipetting? Lost track of time?

But as naïve as this audacious grad student sounded, a tiny part of me completely sympathized. I even admired his chutzpah. Because there were definitely times, especially during my sixth and seventh years, when I wanted to ask my committee, “What exactly is the plan here? Give me a hint! A timeline! A list of tasks to accomplish! A Gantt chart! Any kind of clue about your expectations!”

I remember limping home after another vague thesis committee meeting, carrying absolutely no vital information from this once-a-year check-in, wondering how in the world I could apply for postdocs or jobs—or even placate skeptical relatives at Thanksgiving—with an ending date that was, at best, accurate to ±3 years.

When I finally graduated, after 7 years, I thought of that scene in . Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) comes up for parole once a decade. Each time, he tells the parole board that he’s reformed, he’s learned a lot, and if he can get out of prison, he’ll never do anything bad again. Each time, his parole is denied. Until—spoiler alert—he’s an old man and he tells the parole officer, “Stop wasting my time.” Parole granted.

Is that what I did? Was the committee waiting for despair to peak, thus instilling a realistic view of academia? Is “loss of eager shininess” the graduation trigger? Does the concept of hope make you seem too much like an undergrad?

I can understand the rationale for many of grad school’s lamentable qualities. Long hours aren’t fun, but they’re productive. Low stipends aren’t something to celebrate, but if you say the words “finite resource” and cover my eyes when I walk past the beautiful new athletic center and the university president’s mansion, at least I know what you’re trying to convey.

But what’s the advantage of keeping graduation dates and requirements mysterious? I just don’t get it. And I don’t think it has to be that way.

Advisers, please remember that science itself has plenty of mysteries. Whether or not to renew one’s annual apartment rental agreement needn’t appear on the list.

As for that pitiable fourth-year grad student in Texas, I hope he gets another chance. Not too soon—I wouldn’t want to make the sixth- and seventh-year grad students in his department explode—but not too late, either. Then, degree in hand, he’ll raise his head high, smile into the sunlight, and spend a few more months in his lab, “just to finish up.”

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