Why does getting a PhD take so long?

One of my least favorite things about being a grad student is the frequency with which I am asked the following question, “So how much longer do you have until you’re done?”  It is seemingly a very polite and innocuous question right? The problem is that as a grad student this is what I hear, “Why aren’t you done yet, lazy?”  There is of course a healthy dose of my own special brand of anxiety in the translation but I think part of the problem stems from the lack of understanding among most folks about how the process of getting a PhD actually works.  Here’s hoping I can clear that up a bit at least with regards to how my program works here at OHSU.

The first two years of most programs are front-loaded with classes. You hang on for dear life through a tsunami of information about cell minutia and applaud your accomplishment when you can finally make it through a lecture from Dr. Barklis with around 60% comprehension. It is at the end of the first year when you pick a lab–that’s right, most people don’t even BEGIN their research until after year one. Second year involves more classes (albeit at a less neck-breaking pace) and if you are lucky enough to have picked a lab with a crazy organized boss you may even begin doing thesis research. The process slows again when you are sucked out of lab for a few months at the end of second year to prepare and defend a qualifying exam which mostly involves doing your best impression of a professional scientist while simultaneously trying not to cry, puke, or both in front of a panel of straight-faced professors (more on that in a future post).

Once you pass the qualifying exam and required course work you have officially advanced to candidacy. Wait, so it’s been 2 years and I am just now a “candidate for PhD?”…sweet. Third year begins with picking a thesis advisory committee that is made up of 4 or 5 faculty (including your mentor) who will ultimately be the people that decide when you’re ready to defend.  Students typically meet with their committee only one or two times a year for a progress report, extending the process even further. Don’t forget, amid all the requisite hoop jumping we are facing days, weekends, and even nights full of catastrophic experiment failure while trying to discover something, convince your peers to publish it, and hope that it in someway furthers the field. No pressure, its cool I can handle it. In the end it all boils down to 5 people and their mood on a particular day (bringing treats and coffee to committee meetings is highly recommended) to decide that you’re ready to write and defend your thesis. Upon reflection it’s a miracle anyone graduates at all. Grad school is most definitely a marathon, not a sprint, and we accept it willingly going in but now you are armed with the facts. So the next time you run into one of us, instead of asking about our research or vague endpoint you can instead ask if we would like a beer. Now congratulate yourself on your first successful interaction with a grad student.

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  1. Thanks for the explanation, most definitely painful. Not so in the UK: no classes, in the lab from day one, depending on results can defend thesis in < 3 years, a much more pleasant experience, one I thoroughly enjoyed. Good Luck!

  2. Katy, as ever, I love you so much!

  3. Don’t forget luck in your project (making sure the previous graduate student spent 7 years of his life establishing a sweet model for you to do your research in) as well as a supportive PI… can’t begin to underscore the importance of that one! :)

  4. Next day you have a bad day in the lab you should watch this:
    Zheng Lab – Bad Project (Lady Gaga parody) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl4L4M8m4d0

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