Why not get your Ph.D. in three years? Can’t you learn what is needed in this time frame? This may sound ridiculous to an American who may hardly even have identified a thesis topic by their third year. How did we get to this situation is the topic for another column. How to get out of it is my concern here.
After all, in the UK, in Denmark, and a number of other countries, the three-year Ph.D. is standard. Yes students may often extend the period a bit, but the main work is done in those three important years. In my experience the researchers that come out of these programs are every bit as good at the critical skills of a Ph.D. as those American universities languidly produce.
What should someone holding a Ph.D. in biology be able to do? They must identify and solve an important problem in their field. They must understand careful experimental design and a set of techniques important to their field. They must know how to read the literature carefully and critically. They must be able to analyze data and write. They must be collegial and good at teaching. They must have learned well how to learn, for all the questions and skills they have as new Ph.D.s will change in a decade or less. Each of these could be a topic sentence for a paragraph, but that is something I’ll write about later. Now I want to move on with how to do this in three years or fewer.
First of all, take charge yourself. You should have three to five papers submitted or published by the time you finish your degree. To do this, you need to be organized. You should read obsessively your first year and begin many experiments, jettisoning those that either don’t work easily, or don’t answer big questions. If your possible advisers have projects in mind, leap on them. You don’t need a unique project. In fact many of the countries with short Ph.D. degrees have students that do projects chosen and funded by professors. Just doing the work and writing it up will make it your own as you solve hurdles not foreseen by advisers.
Your first paper might be a review based on reading everything you can in the field you choose. You might write a draft of it early on, but sit on it for a year or two as you get more experience and perspective and see ways of making the review more novel and creative.
Learn a difficult skill, then collaborate with others that do not have the skill, but could use it in their work. If they do not come to you, go to them with ideas for collaborations in which you do not take the lead. It is your technique, analytical or experimental, but their system.
Sit in on classes so you can learn different methods and perspectives. Don’t forget the ones outside your department, either more mathematical or chemical, or environmental. Be sure to have a historical and philosophical perspective on your field. But generally do not officially take the courses. Your goals will be different, so you don’t have time to jump through their hoops.
In your own main projects, expect failure. Set up experiments, do field work, begin work. Then sit back, take a new direction and repeat. It is better to do several larger scale projects than to tediously tweak a method forever. Get advice and help. Keep moving.
Do the hurdles the department sets for you as quickly and easily as you can. Don’t let them motivate you, for you have your own plans. Do short rotations to learn perspectives or techniques, but do not linger. Do not settle into the comfortable role of permanent grad student. Take all those exams as early as possible. Get them out of the way.
Help others also take charge. Form writing groups, discussion groups, or statistical groups on your own. You don’t need professors for these things.
Unless responsibilities to other people, particularly children, force you to take time away from grad school, don’t do it. This is not the time to choose a balanced life. This is the time for intense focus. You know how medical residents are now limited to 80 hours a week, and some fret that it isn’t enough? Treat this time likewise. It is your chance to fully immerse yourself in ideas and experiments. The synergy of really intense focus for day after day cannot easily be obtained in other ways. This will feel more feasible for three years than for seven.
This does not mean you shouldn’t take vacations, even long ones. After all, all those northern Europeans certainly also do this. They help the work in a different way. Just focus as much of the time as you can when you are not on vacation.
Make your goal the three-year Ph.D.. Don’t worry if it actually takes 4 years for all the final write up and last experiments. But remember that being a student should not be extended. You can learn what it takes in a much shorter time than many do. Oh, and forget that Master’s degree, unless you need to leave a program that didn’t work out. It serve’s little purpose.
Will this be controversial? Yes. But a focused Ph.D. in a short but intense time will prepare you brilliantly for the next steps and will give you an enduring love of critical thought and discovery with a grip that lasts. The skills you learn during this time are exactly those that will let you have a more balanced life later.