Saturday, August 12, 2006

How to finish your PhD in a reasonable number of years

My upcoming defense will be almost exactly 4 years to the day after I started this Ph.D. program. This has prompted some reflection on how I’ve managed to get it done. Well, and the upcoming Carnival of GRADual Progress may have made me want to blog something that others might find interesting. Or maybe not. Anyways, what follows is my advice for getting your PhD in the shortest amount of time that still allows some sleep and a wee bit of a life. Unfortunately, not all of the advice is that which I would give my hypothetical future grad students, either because taking short-cuts to minimize time might cut into the quality of their experience or because as a selfish professor, I would want the best possible science to occur. Hence, things I’ve done are getting a :) and things I wouldn’t tell my grad students are getting a :(.

  1. Know – really know – what you want to do before you start your Ph.D. This will hopefully help you avoid time advisor- or project-hopping, or worse leaving the program partway through. This may be particularly hard if you are coming straight out of undergraduate and the narrow specialization of graduate school seems so constraining. In my experience, the most focused grad students are the ones who have a M.S. or job experience or both. Of course, knowing what you want to do won’t negate the possibility that your project may morph before your eyes partway through. That’s just how science works. :)
  2. Know what programs – and what advisors ­– have a reputation for graduating students in a timely fashion. There is a big-name in my field who’s students routinely take 6-7 years to finish, even if they started with a M.S. Avoid people (and places) like that unless you have a really good reason for wanting to work with that one specific person.
  3. Get a fellowship. This single biggest slow-down I see among my fellow students (other than ski season) is having to work or TA all the way through. TAing usually takes ~15 hours a week and, when you are also taking classes, that doesn’t leave much time for research. On the other hand, a fellowship is paying you to do the best possible job of graduate school. And often it is paying you substantially better than you would make as a TA or RA. But getting a fellowship takes some advance planning. Some, like those from NSF, require you to have completed <1 style="font-family: Wingdings;">:)
  4. But if you don’t get a fellowship, get an RA that lets you work on your thesis. An RA is a research assistantship, usually funded by a grant that your advisor got. Basically, you work at least 20 hours per week on a research project. At some schools, almost all students on RA funding are using that project as their thesis, because their advisors specifically got the funding to fund a thesis project. Again, this means you are basically being paid to do the research you have to do to get your degree. At other schools, (insane) rules prevent you from using your RA work in your thesis. This is no better than TAing in terms of time effectiveness. The rules on RAs would be something to look at when applying for programs.
  5. Minimize the number of classes you take. Sure, there are a ton of courses that look interesting and may be helpful someplace down the road. But take what you need to meet your degree requirements and then stop taking classes. This gives you the maximum amount of time to work on your research. If the course listings are just too tempting, ask the professor if you can sit in on the lectures or formally audit. Then do the minimum amount of work necessary to know what’s going on in class. The point of the class is to give you the basics and expose you to a field; you can always learn the fine points on your own when you need them. :) :(
  6. Learn how to just do “enough” in your classes. Yes, the subjects are fascinating and you feel like you should maximize the material you get out of each class, but don’t. If you spend to much time doing all of the readings thoroughly and making sure you understand how to solve every last problem, you’ll never get your research done. The point of the class is to give you the basics and expose you to a field; you can always learn the fine points on your own when you need them. Also, figure out how to relate term papers and class projects to your thesis topic. Not only will it make your term papers easier to write, it may come in handy on your thesis itself.
  7. Don’t over-study for your comps/prelims. Set yourself a limited number of weeks to focus mainly on getting ready for your exams. Don’t allot a whole summer or term; you’ll get burned out and you’ll slow your research progress. I gave myself about a month. As my advisor told me, and his advisor told him: “There’s no way to study for these things, but you can’t not study.” The point is to reinforce the things you already know and to get them back up to the top of your brain so that you will be able to recall (most of) them under pressure. :)
  8. Winter break doesn’t mean a month off and spring break is imaginary. This is one of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between MS and PhD students. When finals end in the fall, the MS students leave and don’t come back until classes restart. Meanwhile, they’ve lost several weeks of time without distractions that they could have been using for research. Actually, I’ve gone home for ~2 weeks most Christmases, but I’ve always brought some finite piece of work that I need to complete as well as a stack of journal articles that I usually ignore. Ask my in-laws, I usually spend at least an hour or two every day of “vacation” getting some work done. :)
  9. Shorter breaks can recharge your batteries. I’ve also taken shorter vacations (like around my anniversary) and refused to bring any work along. And I generally take at least one weekend day completely off. These mini-breaks really help me sustain my enthusiasm, and they also help with that “having a life” thing. :)
  10. Don’t pick a research topic that requires multiple years of data. Long time-series or needing multiple field seasons can really slow you down. Let’s say you need two years of data to do a before/after study and the first year of data is worthless. That means you won’t even have results until after your third year of grad school is completed. And if you do field work, all sorts of natural factors (hurricanes, avalanches, etc.) can obliterate your field site and potential data through no fault of your own. (Unfortunately, I did not do this.) :(
  11. Pick a field site within a few hours of your university/house. Because then when you find that you’ve forgotten a piece of equipment back at the lab, you don’t have to hop an airplane (or pay overnight shipping) to get it. And I guarantee, that even if you have the best planned field campaign ever, as you write up your results, you will discover that you could really use a few extra measurements or some nice photos or something. I learned this lesson the hard way during my MS. :(
  12. Don’t pick your grad school location based on the skiing/surfing/rafting season. At least not if you know you’d probably end up participating in the sport more than 1 day per week.
  13. Limit your volunteer commitments. I know that saying this makes me sound a like a selfish person, but what I mean is that rather than spending one day a week working at the animal shelter, you might consider spending 1 week per year building an animal shelter in a hurricane ravaged area. You get an intense experience that helps with #9, makes you feel more altruistic, actually accomplishes something, and doesn’t take as much time. :)
  14. Commit yourself to externally imposed deadlines. Submitting an abstract for a conference is a great way to make sure that you have a chunk of research done a few months later. Going on the job market will sure light the fire for you to finish and defend. Getting pregnant, however, does not do the same trick as it will make you fatigued and less focused. :)
  15. Make to-do lists and set goals. Things that work for me: (1) listing my goals for each month at its beginning, posting them on the whiteboard by my desk, and then revisiting them at the end of the month; and (2) at the end of the day, especially on Fridays, make a list of a few (<6) style="font-family: Wingdings;">:)
  16. When you are not in the mood for writing, make figures. Or similar variations on the theme. Find something that you can be productive at and do that for a day or two until you are ready to write again. Variety is the spice of life. :)
  17. Finally, have a life. Life is too short and too precious and the world is too interesting to do nothing but work. Make friends, have a significant other, have a dog, develop a hobby. Time spent away from school work will make the time spent doing school work more bearable.


Propter Doc said...

Wow. This list is incredible - it is exactly the sort of thing that you need to know if considering a PhD program somewhere. Most of the points work regardless of subject and country. I am impressed by the sense of focus in alot of these points - you give the impression of knowing exactly what you want and knowing what to do to get it. The key thesis writing point is the 'when you don't want to write, do the figures' this is the one that got me through thesis writing.
I hope the rest of your writing goes well, four years. Wow.

phd me said...

Great list, SW! I agree with everything you said, even though I'm not sure I followed everything you said. :) Still, I got out in 4 years so I did something right!

skookumchick said...

I started to count the number of things I had done on your list, but stopped when I got to #10 and hadn't done any. :-S Actually, I exaggerate, but still, no wonder I'm still doing this in year 7... (Can I not count the first 3 years, after which I got a masters?)

hypatia said...

I really like and agree with your list (also out in 5 - but one year was gaining a necessary liscensure for employment purposes). THe only two I am hesitant on are:

5) - yes fewer courses will get you out faster. But don't assume will have time to learn a new topic later. Or at least not until your sabbatical. Take advantage of grad school when people will teach you stuff as opposed to Asst. Prof. where you have to teach yourself which is much more intense. The only way I know of to learn a new skill/topic area as an asst. prof. is to have a grad student into it who teaches you or teach a class on it.

10) - you have a frowny face next to this which I think means you wouldn't tell your grad students to avoid before/after studies. I would (and do) advise my grad students to think about time to finish when they select populations and designs. I also think about time to finish now because a 5 year longitudinal double-blind study might make great science, but it will be a bust when it's time for tenure unless you can publish along the way.

I strongly endorse #9 - especially 1 day off per weekend (and if you don't get it take 1 day off in the week) to recharge. I also strongly endorse #6, #15 & #16. These strategies also work for new faculty. Re: #6 prepare for class up to a point and then stop - at some point the ammount of effort you spend preparing does not pay off noticibly for the students. Figure out where that point is and don't keep going after that.

I would add to #15 at the beginning of the week look at the open chunks of time in your calendar (any time longer than 30 min) and plan what you will do in that time (e.g. prep class, write on xx paper, analyze data). Time under 30 min free is for administrative tasks like answering email and filing.


Writer Chica said...

So that's how you did it!

One of the biggest pushes for me to get some actual data and writing done was a conference. Of course, during that particular semester, I did 'just enough' in my stats class to not fail it!

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

awesome points! a little late in the day for me but nice to see them all in one place.

envirogrl said...

Agree with many of these points, esp. the class items and figures! I'm finishing with a master's and PhD in 6 years. Classes are OK - but ultimately what matters is your research.

I also agree with the shorter breaks vs longer breaks. And, having a life - I met my husband and got married all while in grad school (kinda scary now that i'm about to head out and have a real life - but REALLY exciting, too!)

I would also add having an advisor supportive of your decision to get out early. For the most part, my advisor was helpful but I kinda had to push her to get me out by starting the job search before she was ready. And now that I pushed to get out, I'm feeling a bit rushed - so there are consequences to every action!

Dr J. said...

In Europe and Australia the PhD progam is shorter and differently structured (the main reason i didn´t go to the States for a PhD was that it was twice as long as here and I´d have to repeat most of my undergraduate courses, as we have more specialised degrees). But based on the experiences a friend is having at the moment I would add:

Don´t let a professor walk all over you and demand years of unpaid work because of his overinflated ego and poor project management. Yes, the individual scientist is also in charge of their own work, but if a professor keeps on insisting stupid (and long) experiments to support an idea which is anyway being erroded in the lab and by other publications, stand up for yourself. If he continues and then refuses to award you a PhD because your results don´t match up with his hypothesis get external help, preferrably a second supervisor, and let every organisation within the University and funding bodies know your problem. Its one thing to think you destroy your chances at a good postdoc if you fight against your PhD supervisor, but you definately will never get one if you don´t get the PhD in the first place.

ScienceWoman said...

Wow! Thanks for all your comments. Keep them coming.

volcano girl said...

Hi Science Woman,
I agree with your list in theory, but in practice, I did not follow your advice! But I still finished my phd in just over 5 years without a master's degree.

- I had no idea what I was getting myself into!
-I was a TA for 2 years, taught 8th grade Earth Science for a year, then had an RA for 2+ years.
- I always worked hard in my classes and totally over-studied for my comps.
- I had a nearby field site, but kept going back summer after summer, which was awesome and I got some great experience. But if I had a field site, in say, South America, I would have had only one shot to visit and would have wrapped up the field portion of my research quickly.
- I also was always active in reading groups, outreach, external research projects, fieldtrips, and taught 2 classes. But, I did have a life!

I definitely believe that you shouldn't limit yourself and your interests. It's the excitement for your chosen area of study that drives you to finish in a reasonable time. Also, side projects allow you to make new connections, take on leadership roles, as well as add to your CV.

**And CONGRATS Science Woman! You are nearly there! I really admire your focus.

Monica said...

Excellent =) I'll do my best to follow your advices. I'm not taking a phd right now but I'm in college studying veterinary medicine, so I believe some of this tips are fittable right? :P
Thank you for sharing :)
Greetings from Portugal.

Rafter Girl said...

I agree with your list entirely. My MS took a full 3 years, but it was a double major in 2 fields I didn't have a BS. Also, I got 2 big pubs out of the MS project, plus another pub from a side project, which is some consolation to the extra length of time. (sigh...rafting was initially a distraction, but lost its luster when graduation got further away).

As your friend, I can say that you are the most dedicated student I've ever met. It's hard to impart that on future students, as few folks have the incredible drive you have. Even by limiting distractions & following your list, the overarching factor in determining the years till graduation is the students ability to keep their nose to the grindstone.

You, my friend, are a museum quality specimen in the category of hard, focused work.

B said...

Great advice SW! Have you considered writing a book on how to survive Grad school? Did you get your masters and PhD in 4 years? holy cow!

B said...

Great advice SW! Have you considered writing a book on how to survive Grad school? Did you get your masters and PhD in 4 years? holy cow!

bsci said...

My main critique is on the downplaying of teaching.
I was lucky enough to get into a grad program with funding and I never had to TA even once. While this helped me do more research in a 5.5 year PhD (a program with a necessarily high class load the first 2 years), I've essentially handicapped myself from any job where teaching is valued. I've done informal teaching and I would like to be a good teacher, but by CV just isn't strong and this will stand out.
Then again, I'm probably just as well off as someone who TAed for a lousy professor and wasn't given any freedom to teach or was just grading.

Holly said...

Thanks SW - that is a wonderful list! I especially think #2 (advisor) and #6 (just 'get by' in classes) are particularly important.

As someone who is struggling to get done (I think I'm in year 6) but very close, I can say that looking back, as a grad student you've got to set aside the habit that got you there in the first place. You no longer need to get the best grades in class. Read only what you need to in order to participate in discussion. Make every class project relate to your research. Just coast. It will make life much easier.

I figured that out on my own fairly quickly, but the single biggest thing that would have helped me the most is the advisor thing. The advisor can make or break you.

If publications is what you want, check out your potential advisor's CV - does s/he publish regularly? In what kinds of journals? Does s/he coauthor with students or colleagues at other institutions? Look for someone who publishes several papers a year in respected journals and has a track record of publishing with her/his graduate students.

If you want to eventually be at a place that prizes teaching and will expect you to teach WELL, you've also got to get quality teaching experience. TA-ing by giving a guest lecture here and there and grading will NOT prepare you for the HELL of having to put together 2-3 classes from scratch at the same time. If you can swing teaching your own class in graduate school, do it. You'll be that much more ready to go once you land your tenure-track job.

Daz said...

Hmm, I think your advise is maybe too late for me though I am not finished yet but I have less then 3 months to finish it but as it is now I am not counting on this...

Sjheba said...

Hi! Great list! wish i had known it before I started :D I am a so called woman in science as well...trying to graduate at the moment. May I add your blog to my page?


ScienceWoman said...

sjheba - go ahead.

sheba said...

Great thanks. I misspelt my name :P It's Sheba lol. typing is harder when you have been working in the lab till 7pm.

ms. phd said...

Found this lists a week after I filed my dissertation. It took me 4.5 years in total to get out of school (master and phd). I did all you said (sort of), so I endose that it works. One thing is that I didn't meet a husband or significant other while in grad school. That is my goal for post-phd life. ;)

Flicka Mawa said...

Interesting list. I am finishing my first year of grad school, and I'd say I'm off to a good start, as many of these things I have done or am doing.

I do disagree with propter doc that most of the points work regardless of subject and country, however, because I do think a handful of the suggestions aren't relevant in my research field. We don't ever have field sites but mostly work in the labs inside our primary building, I know of no before/after studies in the field, and getting an RA in which working on your thesis is what you do with the time is the standard just for being accepted into a program.

Also, I happen to have failed my quals, so I do caution on the studying just enough. That's sort of what I did, and I failed by only a smidgeon, but now have to wait a whole year to take them again, so it will definitely take much more time from my research than if I had just put in enough time to learn what I didn't remember the first time.

Emma said...

Thanks :) Your list is just great.

UmaBala said...

This is just the right time for me to read this..stepping into the second year of my Phd, and also looking to make my journey short ,yet significant. Thanks a ton! and congrats!

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