The monastic glory of a seven year Ph.D.

Grad students Sara Kalla, Jennie Kuzdzal-Fick, and Chandra Jack helping undergrads including Julia Ridgeway-Díaz with their posters.

Grad students Sara Kalla, Jennie Kuzdzal-Fick, and Chandra Jack helping undergrads including Julia Ridgeway-Díaz with their posters.

Anything you do for seven years is a way of living, not preparation for something else in the tangle of life. It is the time from birth, when you are just working out that you are no longer a part of someone else’s body, to second grade when you can read and possibly take the bus on your own. It is all of high school and college. It is the time to tenure, or the time between sabbaticals. If you are beginning graduate school right after college, at about age 22, on average you have 60 more years of life in the USA, or about 8.5 more 7 year periods (National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 62, No. 7, January 6, 2014). Seven years is the period of Michael Apted’s famous series, Seven Up, based on a misinterpretation of what the Jesuits want (they don’t want boys under seven, not boys until seven).

So why should you take seven years for your Ph.D. when I argued in an earlier post that a Ph.D. could be accomplished in only three years? If you love learning, if you love research, if you love the freedom to pursue an idea to its conclusion, how could you not want to extend the time to Ph.D.? After all, at no other time in your career will you have more freedom to investigate. I know you might have to take some courses. You might have to be a teaching assistant year after year. You might have to satisfy your adviser and your committee in all kinds of ways. You still have far more time for true curiosity-driven science than I do.

In graduate school you take a vow of poverty, hence the monastic of the title. But you live well anyway. You have a rich social life with fellow graduate students. These will be your friends for life. With them you have a bond hard to match at any other stage. This is your team. At national meetings you will get together. Trust comes easily because you know each other so well. Parties are pot-luck and casual. Living situations are transient, shabby but usually warm. Help with experimental design, with statistics, or with life, comes easily. Funding is generally not that hard to maintain for seven years, though the graduate school might start to grumble.

In some ways my graduate school days were a dream. I read. I met with my friends to try to decide where our field was going. I went to seminars. I went to a single national meeting. I thought about science nearly all the time. I should have written more. But overall it was a glorious period. Once I arrived at a thesis topic, I lived and breathed wasps. I wondered what they did, what experiments I might perform to figure out their social lives. I watched them. I marked them. I took away their queens; I took away their honey; I even took away their nests sometimes. I had time for failure, never getting allozymes to reveal genetic relatedness (something I fixed later). I watched Lake Travis flood out nearly all my marked colonies of Polistes annularis in 1977. I had time to grow slowly into a competent researcher.

So why did I argue for a three year Ph.D. just a few posts ago? It is because there is a difference between choosing a life style and getting an education necessary for a next step. I argued that  what is needed for a Ph.D. can be attained in three years, the way it is in some countries.

1. Identify and solve an important problem.

2. Understand careful experimental design and acquire a set of important techniques.

3. Read the literature carefully and critically.

4. Analyze data and write clearly with excellent visual representation of data.

5. Be collegial and good at teaching.

6. Learn how to learn, for all the questions and skills of a new Ph.D. will change in a decade or less.

What is the same about this post and the previous one is my advice. First of all take charge of your own education. Until you really get that this is the big difference between undergrad and grad, you will be an ineffectual learner. Meet the rules, but go way beyond. Read everything you can get your hands on relevant to what you are doing. When you meet with your advisers, you should have many more new ideas and things to tell them than they have to tell you. If there is a new paper relevant to your research, you should have discovered it first. Set up a slew of Google alerts to help with this.

Mostly on my Facebook page, others argued that a longer Ph.D. makes you more competitive for an academic job. This is true if you are productive the whole time, so my advice on approaching your graduate career is the same here as it was for the shorter Ph.D., though you might work fewer hours, but make them equally strategic. But most Ph.D.s do not arrive at academia. They find other work, often equally compelling and fun, just less familiar. And many long Ph.D.s do not use their time well.

It is also true that the year you get your Ph.D. time stamps you. The next stage, postdoc for many, should generally not last more than 5 years, or at least funding becomes more difficult to get independently after that time. So keep being efficient when you get your Ph.D.

How long did I take? I took 5 years, right in the middle. Was it enough time? That is hard to answer. I did another year of field work on a postdoc right at the same place, so you might argue that I really took 6 years. But even then I had not really learned to write. That would take another year to minimal proficiency. So from the time I started to the time I had a slug of papers published was seven years. But I studied two species of wasps but only put one in my dissertation. I might have used the extra time for more writing, but I loved both species.

Why did I quit, for that is what leaving graduate school feels like? Life intervened. I had a partner in another city. I was ready to have babies. This can be done in graduate school, but then the poverty becomes starker (unless you have a partner with funds), and doing it across the state is a challenge I wasn’t interested in facing.

Well, if grad school is so great, why stop at seven years? Why not ten, twelve, or even twenty years? Lots of reasons. The funding gets more difficult. The poverty gets more trying. If you have been effective, your publications will start to create a reputation in the field that helps make the next step attractive. The main point is to be in charge. It is a big chunk of your life.



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 Graduate school and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The monastic glory of a seven year Ph.D.

  1. johannaohm says:

    I’m interested in the idea of “stamping” in a different sense. I keep hearing that I need to “brand” myself: become the go-to person for one specific thing. My problem is that I hate being one thing. I am happiest (and hopefully functioning best) when I have three+ different things going on at once. Advice I’ve been given is to save the “distractions” for tenure. Focus, label yourself now, explore later. My dissertation is likely to contain some projects that don’t seem to necessarily fit into one storyline, which I don’t see the danger of if I get the same number of papers as someone more focused on only one topic. Is demonstrating diverse interests dangerous?

    • I think diverse interests are great! You follow one thread then another. You don’t get bored. You love what you do. I never heard of having to brand yourself for what you are interested in. I never gave it any thought. I often wish I knew something better than I do, but like you am not willing to give up all the other things. I think it will serve you well. Academically, the trick is to publish in the different areas. Publishing counts. Just one interest and odds are you will get tired of research. Just one will also make it harder to be creative. So you are fine!

  2. Julia says:

    Hi Joan, Good to see you’re blogging as always – I love the guidance and encouragement here for getting people into science. We need more scientists and science-literate people! (But what a surprise to see that old photo of me and Chandra.)

    I’m still at UCSF finishing up my third year in med school. I’m trying to decide what to do for my residency.

    I think of you and our work in the lab often – exploring evolutionary theory was such a joy and so intellectually stimulating. I was also recently looking at pizza recipes and was reminded of your awesome homemade pizza parties!

    Warm wishes,

    • Dear Julia,
      Glad to hear you are doing well! We are enjoying our students here at Wash U. I’m still trying to help everyone understand the culture of academia! Maybe you’ll come to Wash U for residency!

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.