Why you should aim for a three year Ph.D. degree

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.

Promising young graduate students in Ecology and Evolution at Wash U.

Promising young graduate students in Ecology and Evolution at Wash U.

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.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in behavioral ecology, Graduate school, Managing an academic career and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why you should aim for a three year Ph.D. degree

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    I like this advice Joan. And pointing out that a Ph.D. can be done in 3 years (or 4 years in Canada) is a good way to open the eyes of American students who may think that it has to take 5-7 years.

    But it’s perhaps worth noting that British undergrads typically specialize to a greater extent than do US undergrads, and so enter their Ph.D. programs further along than many US students.

    Re: M.Sc. degrees, I disagree a bit. I think there are good reasons to get one: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/advice-how-to-choose-a-phd-program/
    Those reasons don’t apply to everyone of course (they didn’t apply to me, for instance), and if they don’t apply then there’s no reason to get one.

  2. I disagree.

    One important thing that you left out was that most PhD students have to take courses, and often (like me) need them because they went from a bachelors to a PhD, possibly even switching fields. Then there’s also teaching requirements, and if you’re not funded with an RA or fellowship, there’s TA responsibilities, which can take a surprising amount of time and energy.

    Comparing the US to the UK and Denmark is an unfair comparison, as their bachelors and masters feed into the PhD differently. From my experience with the German system (I worked as a RA over there for a bit), there is little, if any, teaching and coursework responsibilities.

    I think the recommendation to work 80 hours isn’t helpful either, as this is the time to learn how to balance your work with your life, as if you’re thinking about going farther in academia, it’s an important skill to develop (says the graduate student, and also faculty members: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/you-do-not-need-to-work-80-hours-a-week-to-succeed-in-academia/).

    Frankly, I think this sounds out of touch with the time that graduate students actually have to do work with, and the abilities they possess when coming into graduate school. This contains some good advice on taking charge of your education and getting your exams out of the way as soon as possible, but I think overall this is just filling grad students with ideas that they need to work all the time and give up on having an outside life.

    Also, regarding 80 hours a week, is that 80 hours a week of constant work, or just 80 hours a week of being on campus or saying that you are “working.” There’s a massive difference.

    One thing I must ask, Joan, did you do this as a graduate student?

    Derek Nedveck
    3rd year PhD Candidate at Univeristy of Minnesota

    • OK, 80 hours is the low end of what training doctors do. So why not explore it? Not all the time. Just focus or vacation. So crazy? Me, in grad school? I worked too much, did two complete projects on different wasps, wrote only one up for my Ph.D.. Ended up with about 17 papers for that period of data, but the writing took several years more. I may have worked a ton of time, but after all, what could be more joyous than rowing out to your Lake Travis field site where fascinating wasps awaited.

  3. I’m surprised that your prediction of this article being controversial hasn’t shown up in the comments yet. I’ll bite: while, I really like the advice in here about skills that are important to pick up in grad school, I disagree with the premise that grad school “is not the time to choose a balanced life.”

    Academia can be more demanding than many other careers, but the expectation of 80+ workweeks continues to make students who can’t maintain that stressful level of activity feel like failures and push fantastic researchers out of science. You frame grad school as the time for especially intense focus, but shouldn’t that be the postdoc years? When you are a postdoc your goal is to try to get a faculty position and it’s do or die. Or should it be when you’re an assistant professor and tenure is looming? Or once you have tenure and want to show you’re not going to slack off so you can get to full professor? Or once you are full and are striving to get into the National Academy or win some big award?

    We are in a career that demands all our time and then presses for even more. I’d argue that, for most people, if you want to have an enjoyable life in academia the one skill you must learn right from the get-go is how to strive for a work-life balance that allows you to have a strong level of productivity *without* a constant feeling of overload and stress. I’ve only started striving for this balance in recent years (after getting to full professor and having a son, I’ve dropped to ~50 hours per week from a typical 60-80) and I’ve discovered that I’m actually more productive with the reduced stress and enjoying life more. I wish I had done this years ago, and do encourage the same in my students — I don’t think people should need a family as an excuse to protect some of their time.

    Yes, there’s an incredible amount to do if you want to be a great scientist, but the expectation that science must become our entire life is (rightfully) driving away too many amazing people.

  4. Pingback: Remember the theory of mind when communicating officially with graduate students | Sociobiology

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