The thesis committee is there to stop the natural tyranny of the PI

July 25, 2010

Gerty-z of Balanced Instability blog posed an age-old problem in post-graduate education.

I was talking to a graduate student the other day. It was a hallway interaction, she had not searched me out for advice. I have known this grad student for several years, and she is one of the superstars in a highly-ranked graduate program. By every metric, she should be graduating. Now. Turns out, her advisor has been suggesting that she stick around for another year or two.

ruh roh! Conflict of Interest raises its ugly head.
I bring this up because this is not the first time I’ve heard a similar story. In fact I’ve heard of what appears to be at least one entire department that is riddled with this tendency to prolong the graduate school interval as long as possible, seemingly only to extract more value out of productive trainees.


The story continues:

As I pressed further, Pre-doc superstar told me that she is the only person in the lab that knows how to work the Magical Data Machine. She is also, bar far, the most productive person in Dr. Advisor’s lab. If she sticks around for longer, she will probably publish one or two more papers. But she will have a LONG graduate career. I think that Dr. Advisor is thinking more about his own lab than the career of Pre-Doc Superstar.

Gee, you think? We can all see this…from the outside. Are we so able to see these situations, which are often slightly more subtle, in our own laboratories?
Comrade PhysioProf was all over it in the comments.

It is the responsibility of the the thesis committee to rein in this kind of PI behavior.

He’s spot on. This situation is wrong. It is absolutely ridiculous that graduate education has stretched up to a median of 6 years. Now of course there are going to be individual cases. Sometimes folks run into a situation where extra time is really needed. An initial stint in a lab that went poorly and a smart student needs a re-start. Fine.
This is what the doctoral or thesis committee is for. To make those decisions about timeline, when to defend and how much work is required to deserve the PhD.
In this, however, they are supposed to be on the side (so to speak) of the student. Why?
Because the PI is inextricably conflicted by his or her own scientific and career goals. Those goals tend to prefer that trained and data-pumping individuals stick around as long as possible. That papers get finished, even when the reviews come back demanding another 6 mo or 12 mo of work from precisely that model in which the student is expert.
It is not even trivial to understand the motivations that the supervising PI / doctoral advisor has to keep graduate students in the lab as long as possible.
And they have all kinds of tricks, most of them no doubt totally subconscious. Sit on those paper drafts. Insist the paper *has* to go to a higher falutin journal (and of course the longer the trainee has been working at a project, the greater the perceived need to show it was worth it with an exceptionally high IF journal acceptance, right?) Insist the data, while statistically significant, aren’t “pretty” enough.
Then there are the more overt ploys. Plead tenure or Full Prof promotion fears. Appeal to funding concerns (real or not). Play the-science-is-most-important cards. Act the ass about the productivity of someone else’s doctoral student when on her committee so as to keep the departmental average training duration as high as possible.
All of this is natural and inevitable. People have intrinsic motivations and goals that are in conflict. The key is to set up administrative structures that minimize exploitation of others. The doctoral committee is one such structure and it should, in my view, function as the gatekeeper that negotiates the differing interests of student and doctoral supervisor.

53 Responses to “The thesis committee is there to stop the natural tyranny of the PI”


  1. You are spot on that this is the principle purpose of the thesis committee. This is why it’s critical to have at least one committee member who is willing to go toe to toe with the PI. It’s also why a committee should not be composed of PI’s collaborators-they share the same conflict of interest.

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  2. This is occurring in one of the labs at my institution. We have a badass grad student who has churned out four great first author papers, helped write grants, draft manuscripts and review them. Her boss just changed institutions and is hanging onto her for an extra year or longer so that he doesn’t have a big gap in productivity. She is really polite but utterly fucking seething about this. Her boss keeps trying to dangle the high impact journal article over her head but she says she doesn’t have enough data to get one in the time line that he proposes and just wants to get the fuck out and start her postdoc.

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  3. queenrandom Says:

    Absolutely this is what committees should be doing.
    The trick is getting them to do what they should be doing rather than viewing committee time as just another damn meeting to get over with as soon and with as little effort as possible. I find this attitude to be rampant in certain departments, and it’s really a shame, because just a little more effort on the part of committee members could have curbed a lot of abuses of students that I have seen during my grad career – and perhaps stopped a few students from quitting the program.

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  4. And that reminds me of something too. When can the grad student tell the PI to fuck him/herself? Probably never, because they have that degree waving over the grad student’s head. The PI also has letters to write for future jobs and future grant applications no less!
    Too much power. Even with a committee.

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  5. nobody Says:

    Wow. You just described my graduate student career. I was the program’s superstar. My PhD time strung on about 3 longer than my less productive, less original colleagues.
    My committee absolutely agreed (in private) that I was ready to be done and that I was completely capable of defending several years before I actually did defend. However they also all said (behind closed doors) that they weren’t willing to rock the political boat. They wouldn’t pressure my adviser to let me finish because they didn’t want him to pressure them to let their students finish. They were completely open and honest that it was completely political.
    Finally, I was convinced by a prospective postdoc adviser to go to the dean. And after much political wrangling, they were forced to let me defend.
    But in the meantime the grant has sailed and the guy was forced to find another postdoc to meet the timeline (although he’ll keep me in mind for next time). Having gone to the dean instead of waiting around who knows how many extra years (I thought defending 3 years after completing my dissertation was quite enough delay), I now can’t ask anyone on my committee for letters of recommendation because I’ve proven that I’m the sort of person who rocks the boat. No one wants that, either in industry or academia. I can’t trust them not to tank me in letters.
    Now I’m stuck with a degree that over qualifies me for any position that doesn’t require recommendations and no recommendations from my committee. Sure, I can get recommendations from peers and this guy who was trying to give me a postdoc, but that’s not going to carry much weight if I don’t have a letter from my own adviser.

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  6. neurolover Says:

    The power imbalance means that the situation is intrinsically unfair, and I don’t think relying on the committee, especially one chosen from within the department offers much protection. Some universities used to require an outside member, a “graduate school representative”, but even this minor cover seems to be disappearing out of expediency.
    nobody- the first step in rehabilitating your situation would be a post-doc. Might still be hard to get, but if you found someone who believed in you, you could use pro forma revs for that and work on getting real refs from a post – doc advisor, and senior colleagues in that position.

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  7. whimple Says:

    I used to get excited about this kind of thing, but not anymore. Academic science is all about exploitation. Learning that first-hand is part of your education.

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  8. studyzone Says:

    I’m experiencing something similar as a postdoc – from a research/teaching perspective, I am ready to go on the job market now, and for family reasons, I need to be in a settled position. I’ve discussed this decision with several faculty mentors, and they support my timeline. However, my PI insists that I stay on another year, and I’m afraid that he will write only a lukewarm letter to ensure this. Yet, it will look very strange if I apply for faculty positions with a letter from my current PI. I wonder if others have experience with postdoc committees, and whether these committees have been helpful? Some departments at my university have postdoc committees that serve a similar function to grad student committees. My dept. does not support postdoc committees because faculty are over-subscribed with grad student committees.

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  9. Funky Fresh Says:

    Where is YFS on this post?

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  10. antipodean Says:

    That’s why you have monetary incentives to graduate your PhD students in civilised countries. The university gets money for completions within timeframe.
    If your student takes more equiv full time years than specified the highers and betters start asking serious questions and you don’t get money.

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  11. Namnezia Says:

    What if the student gets her degree and sticks around another 6 months to a year as a postdoc to complete the papers?

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  12. becca Says:

    This is like saying “it is the mother’s job to stop the abusive stepfather”.
    It’d be nice, but back on planet reality, abusers keep abusing because the people that can stop them by removing the other victims have to *live* with the fallout for years to come.

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  13. GMP Says:

    I agree with DrugMonkey. However, in reality you will find that the faculty on the committee will rarely risk getting into a conflict with a department colleague (the PI) over a student (no matter how stellar the student). So unless there is blatant abuse, the committee will usually defer to the PI in matters concerning the dissertation timeline. I’m not saying this is fair, but it is true.

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  14. Alex Says:

    While there are no guarantees, here are some minimal steps to hopefully make it possible for the committee to do its job in at least some cases:
    1) At least 3 people besides the primary advisor.
    2) At least 1 member from outside the department, so that in theory there’s at least 1 person somewhat shielded from the political heat.
    3) Of the 3 who aren’t the primary advisors, at least 1 full professor, if not 2. People who no longer have tenure and promotion issues hanging over them.
    4) Mandatory annual meetings of the committee until the student finishes. This way, a student who’s being strung along isn’t “going behind the advisor’s back” when he/she shows the committee the progress thus far. Instead the student is just showing the progress thus far to the committee as part of a normal process.
    All of this does mean more work for faculty, but faculty are allegedly there to help students with their educational progress, not just to generate papers and grants. Yeah, yeah, I’ll wait for everyone to stop laughing.
    Now, here’s a situation: Say that the student has done enough for a Ph.D., but everyone suspects that if the project is just taken a bit farther something really significant might come out. While normally it’s a good idea to just go out and do a postdoc to broaden your experience, in a situation like that it might very well make sense to stick around a bit longer. In that case, however, it’s only fair to the student to (1) confer a degree sooner rather than later and (2) pay this person as a postdoc while taking the project to the next level. Perhaps institutions could offer matching funds or something so that paying this person as a postdoc rather than a student isn’t a huge burden on the advisor? This removes a financial conflict of interest, and also puts a small feather in the cap (some sort of internal award or fellowship) for the person sticking around to take the project to the next level.

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  15. mxh Says:

    @Alex

    4) Mandatory annual meetings of the committee until the student finishes. This way, a student who’s being strung along isn’t “going behind the advisor’s back” when he/she shows the committee the progress thus far. Instead the student is just showing the progress thus far to the committee as part of a normal process.

    This is great advice. I met with my committee every 6 months and by the time I was ready to defend, no one could say I didn’t complete what I proposed.
    Another piece of advice is to ask graduates of the lab you’re interested in about time to get the degree. If they get pissed at the PI for delaying their PhD, they may let you know. Asking more senior grad students may also let you know who’s known for keeping their students forever.

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  16. Ria Says:

    I completely concur with Alex. As with so many people, I had an advisor who was insistent that I remain in his lab for at least 2 more years, despite having already stayed 1 year past when my committee chair (full tenured prof in another department) said I should defend. My committee chair risked the political fallout and went with me to the Dean, and I was able to write and defend in time to take the arranged postdoc that I had set up.
    I chose my committee based off the advice a more senior student had given to me: always choose a committee chair who is equivalent in power or more powerful than your advisor, just in case you have problems down the road. That includes tenure-track status, political power (ie: well funded? well-known?), and a different department. She also advised me to avoid collaborators of my advisor. All excellent advice.
    Even with choosing my committee carefully, however, issues of “data-stealing”, misappropriation of portions of almost-finished projects, and sexism were not dealt with for political reasons (explicitly explained to me by the committee chair). Only when it came to allowing me to graduate was the political pressure turned up on my PI.

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  17. bsci Says:

    Another general thing is that my graduate department required a thesis research proposal that was signed off by all the committee members. It’s generally a nice document to have, but if a PI is dragging feet, that document has power. If a student proposed X and did X, and the PI+committee said X is sufficient for a degree, then that person should get the degree. Using the proposal as a checklist to limit PI directly research tangents can be a non-adversarial, but powerful tool for grad students.
    As a related point, a thesis proposal should focus on the minimum work necessary to produce what the committee will call PhD worthy work. A student can always elect to do more or let scientific explorations go other interesting ways, but if a career’s worth of ideas are put into the thesis proposal, it might take a full career to graduate.
    That all said, by research went a different direct from my original proposal and everything turned out ok.

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  18. I want my students to graduate as qiuckly as possible so that they can move on to excellent post-docs and further independent careers, thereby burnishing my own scientific reputation.

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  19. zoubl Says:

    I’m with CPP – shouldn’t the success of past trainees (grad student or post-doc) contribute to a professor’s reputation?

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  20. g canterbury Says:

    Yes, it should and it does almost most of the time. However, reputation can also be “pre-marketed”. Students should be provided with criteria for discerning one from the other at the earliest possible stage of their training decisions (where and with whom). It is not gold all that glitters.

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  21. Eric Lund Says:

    Plead tenure or Full Prof promotion fears. Appeal to funding concerns (real or not).
    The tenure card is almost always bovine guano. Timing and experimental luck have to be close to perfect in order to graduate a Ph.D. student before the professor comes up for tenure, and anybody who has been around for more than three years or so knows (or should know) this.
    The full professor promotion is a more reasonable fear, but by then the professor will have been expected to see some of his Ph.D. students graduate. Indeed, this is where the student is most likely to have a lever to move her advisor to let her graduate in a timely fashion–the promotion committee should, and often does, consider graduation rates in their decision. Once the PI becomes a full professor, he no longer has a P&T reason for caring, and too many don’t.
    Funding concerns? Maybe things are different in NIH-land, but NSF expects the PI to list accomplishments with previous NSF funding in their proposals, and graduating a Ph.D. (or having one who is about to graduate) who was supported by the previous grant is a plus. The PI can fake the “about to graduate” part of that, of course, but depending on the size of his specialty that will catch up to him sooner or later. I would think that if funding concerns are real that would be an incentive to graduate the student while the PI can still pay her.

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  22. leigh Says:

    um, becca? what the fuck?

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  23. becca Says:

    I was not meaning to be flippant about childhood abuse… if the wtf is at all oriented about that aspect I’m very sincerely sorry.
    If you are wondering why I am so very cynical about the nature of thesis committees… well, there’s a story there…

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  24. Hope Says:

    The key is to set up administrative structures that minimize exploitation of others. The doctoral committee is one such structure and it should, in my view, function as the gatekeeper that negotiates the differing interests of student and doctoral supervisor.
    How, even in theory, is the doctoral committee supposed to accomplish this? Taking into account our “natural and inevitable” selfishness, grad students come and go … tenured colleagues stick around a lot longer. What, exactly, is the incentive for committee members to take on a PI for the sake of a grad student? Is it any wonder, then, that doctoral committees often fail to protect the student?
    And by the way, I am totes not impressed by tenured faculty who shrug their shoulders and say, “yeah it’s not right, but that’s the way it is.” If *you* don’t have the power to change this about your dept.’s culture, who the fuck does? The untenured? The students?

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  25. bayman Says:

    Ok sure that’s the proposed “idealized” role of the committee. In reality they have no power in this matter. PI has veto power over student’s entire future. “Didn’t finish that paper? No reference letter for you”. And as simply as that, candidate’s postdoctoral future has ended before it began.
    So finishing up is negotiated solely between student and supervisor. Which is to say that student operates almost entirely at the whim of supervisor. To make matters “worse”, it’s fully impossible for would-be student to know how future PI will play the endgame when signing on to the program. Student only gets to know after the 6-year down-payment has been laid out.
    The only real solution is for American institutions to join their peers in the rest of the civilized world and cap PhDs at the 3-4 year mark. And come down hard on PIs who do not demonstrate the capacity to move PhDs through their lab in a timely fashion.

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  26. Gerty-Z Says:

    I find this post and comments really informative. In every situation that I have observed, it seems like the thesis committee just does whatever the PI wants. Probably for the reasons that everyone has mentioned above. What I am wondering, as a new PI myself, is what can be done to make this situation better? As an Asst. Prof there is NO WAY that I am going to be the one to stand up against a colleague in a committee meeting. It doesn’t seem that the NIH or other funding bodies are doing anything to reign this in. You could probably make an argument that the incentives of these agencies have set up the system the way it is. Is there anything that we can do to change the culture of the departments that we are in, or do we wait quietly until after tenure? Does anyone that HAS waited until after tenure changed when they finally got there?

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  27. bsci Says:

    What, exactly, is the incentive for committee members to take on a PI for the sake of a grad student?
    There are some purely selfish incentives. For example, if a department gets a reputation as abusing grad students’ time-to-degree, it becomes harder for everyone to recruit good students to a program. This doesn’t mean individual students can’t get screwed, but everyone had motive to make sure it doesn’t become too regular an occurrence.
    To make matters “worse”, it’s fully impossible for would-be student to know how future PI will play the endgame when signing on to the program.
    This isn’t true. It helps for students to do their homework. How many grad students has a PI trained. How long did it take them to graduate? How many dropped out and why? What are the grad students doing now? You can’t know everything, but certain answers or non-answers, to these questions can be red flags. Of course, of course you can’t answer these for younger faculty, but, at least in those cases, you hope senior faculty are better able to put pressure if problems occur.
    What I am wondering, as a new PI myself, is what can be done to make this situation better?
    Be a bureaucrat. Encourage students to get things in writing. You don’t want to argue with your colleagues whether experiments X,Y,&Z are sufficient for a degree, but if a PI previously signed off that X,Y,&Z are sufficient, it’s much easier to discuss the very specific research your colleague still thinks needs to be done.
    It doesn’t seem that the NIH or other funding bodies are doing anything to reign this in.
    There are no strict rules, but there are a few things that do reign this in. For example, the NIH F31s, Project period normally may not exceed 5 years, and is often limited to 2-3 years. It’s not a hard limit, but it means if a PI wants to keep a grad student extra long, it’s coming from the lab’s budget.

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  28. bayman Says:

    It helps for students to do their homework. How many grad students has a PI trained. How long did it take them to graduate? How many dropped out and why? What are the grad students doing now?
    All great suggestions, all things that putative grad students should be seriously researching. However in practice this information cannot predict how student X will fare in the lab of PI Y. When this information is even available. PIs who are scientifically successful but degenerate leaders of (wo)men are very adept at keeping the skeletons in the closet until new recruits sign their lives away. Many PIs running great lab environments don’t bother to keep tabs on the track records of the former trainees. Depressed trainees, dropouts, etc can be found in any lab. What are former lab members doing now? By and large, not research. So what?
    Best you can do is pick the lab that is productive, well-respected in the field, well-funded and has interested people who seem relatively happy with their lives. And using these criteria it is most likely that you will indeed end up in a lab where students are slow to graduate. That’s the point…PIs who are adept at squeezing every bit of data out of each trainee are rewarded in cash come grant time. And labs with cash are the labs everyone wants to be in. It’s a systemic issue. I bet if you compared grant-funded to internally funded labs you’d see a huge difference in time-to-defence.

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  29. antipodean Says:

    Bayman, it’s a great idea
    American institutions to join their peers in the rest of the civilized world and cap PhDs at the 3-4 year mark.
    Unfortunately, it aint true. Nobody caps PhD length at the 3-4 year mark. There are some places that cap it at 8 or 10 though

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  30. bsci Says:

    I don’t think my suggestion regarding looking at a lab’s past students can turn up all skeletons, but it doesn’t hurt. If a senior PI has 30 PhD students over a career and none or very few women, that’s a warning. Also, if a PI doesn’t keep track of former students, that’s a PI that isn’t invested in the career of former students and that’s bad. At the least, this information needs to be included on many types of grant applications. People who drop out are harder to track down/count.
    I absolutely agree that productivity, external respect, funding, and happy current students are definitely things to look for, but I don’t understand your jump in logic to say these things mean a lab as a large time-to-degree. I’ve seen many highly funded and respected labs where most people graduate in a reasonable time because their PI knows how to guide them towards projects that can be completed in the appropriate time scale. I’ve also seen underfunded labs with poorly designed projects where students have a stipend, but not enough resources or support to get to the end.
    I also don’t get your point on grant funded vs internally funded. If anything an internally funded lab has no reason to let someone go. All they means is they’ll replace an experienced person with a new person who starts from the beginning. If you’re living on grants, you have to think where each person’s salary will come from every year.

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  31. bob Says:

    antipodean, try doing an 8 year PhD in the UK. Not gonna happen. You typically get three years of studentship funding and this can usually be extended for another year (from what I’ve seen, it essentially always is). It’s definitely a 3-4 year cap. I think it’s a bit short though. I would prefer a 4-5 year cap.

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  32. qaz Says:

    It is important to remember that while this system does fail due to politics for some people, it actually works for many. At my institution, both of the cases we have recently had where there was a disagreement between the PI and the student about what “done” means were resolved to everyone’s satisfaction through an interaction of the graduate program director (a senior faculty equivalent to the department chair but for a grad-pgm) and the chair of the thesis committee talking to the PI. An interesting question (that I don’t know the answer to) is what proportion of these situations are correctly handled by other faculty stepping in and what proportion are not.
    Also, in response to the several people who said “why would faculty do this”? The simple reason is that some faculty actually do have their students interest at heart. In my experience, most faculty I have interacted with are genuinely interested in their students futures (and that of their colleagues students, who they have helped nurture through collaborations, classes, and simply being part of the same department).
    That all being said, I think someone needs to speak up for the strength of taking 5-6 years to do a graduate degree. There is a qualitative and dramatic difference between a typical 5th year student and a typical 3rd year student. Graduate school is one of the few places that you really have room to concentrate on a topic and to explore it at the same time. (Note: I definitely feel that 7-8 years or more is too long – I knew one student who took 13 years, which was WAY too long. But all of the cases I know of that took longer than 6 years included disasters along the way that impacted the student’s progress and productivity. [e.g. getting divorced in year 4]). There is a big difference in what a student can get done in the 6th year to make the thesis something really important and the quick “get-something-minor-done” thesis of a student who leaves in year 4.
    (Yes, I know that many of the commenters here are going to complain that a thesis should be a hoop to jump through, but in my experience, the most successful students in my field have done theses that were much more than that. Several of the theses were de-facto books that were passed around and read, as evidenced by the number of times that the theses themselves have been cited. Some of them actually became books.)

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  33. Alex Says:

    The debate between 3-4 years and 5-6 years is complicated by the different structures of the first 2 years in the US and many other places. In the US, in just about every scientific field the first year of a Ph.D. is spent taking classes, teaching and/or doing research rotations, and attending seminars. Year 2 often has a few more classes and a transition to research. There’s often a qualifying exam of some sort somewhere in there, and a thesis proposal somewhere along the way.
    In many other countries, students take no classes in the Ph.D. program because they either start with an M.S. or else their undergraduate coursework was more advanced (which in turn is a result of more advanced/focused high school curricula and fewer GE requirements for undergrads). In some countries, they start a Ph.D. after an M.S. with thesis, at which point they’ve already gotten a sense of the field, at least a few technical skills, and an idea of where to go.
    So, I think a 3-4 year Ph.D. is reasonable for a person with an M.S. thesis in hand. For a person with no courses or qualifying exams and a research advisor chosen from the start, 4-5 is reasonable. For a person who needs courses and rotations to find an advisor, 5-7 is going to be common by necessity.

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  34. DSKS Says:

    “There is a big difference in what a student can get done in the 6th year to make the thesis something really important and the quick “get-something-minor-done” thesis of a student who leaves in year 4.”
    I really don’t think the metric for graduation should be the completeness or impact of the project’s science. At this stage it should merely be the candidate’s competency in the act of carrying out the science and presenting a thesis with a reasonable arc and sufficient data to draw some substantive conclusions that determines their qualification for graduation (negative data and low impact or positive and sexy, it shouldn’t matter a damn). Holding these poor buggers up for a “good story” is fucking lunacy.
    I think 4 yrs is a fair period, and this includes any further teaching requirements (although I feel strongly that US institutions should review whether certain graduate course materials wouldn’t actually be more appropriate given at undergrad level). At the end of this period, the thesis committee should really just ask themselves, “Given the time I’ve known this candidate and become familiar with their work ethic and productivity, do I feel that they have sufficient potential to warrant the opportunity to go forth from this institution and succeed as a scientist?” A publication or two will certainly clarify this, but really shouldn’t be considered a requirement for graduation given the often fickle nature of publishing.
    If this trend towards longer graduate school continues, then I really don’t see how US research can maintain its current momentum. Few smart Americans as it is are attracted to going into a 6 yr graduate period with a mountain of undergraduate debt and no clear career prospects. Over 6 yrs, and you really have to start wondering about the judgment of those candidates who are actually prepared to take such a gamble with their future. Time is really of the essence in terms of trying to lure native talent into academia again, because the US can’t rely on its reputation to keep a hold on the foreign pool of talent indefinitely.

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  35. pablito Says:

    I think someone needs to speak up for the strength of taking 5-6 years to do a graduate degree. There is a qualitative and dramatic difference between a typical 5th year student and a typical 3rd year student.
    I would have to agree with qaz on this. I’ve seen postdocs who got their PhD in less than 4 years, but who were not competitive with other postdocs that took longer to graduate. At times, the promised first-author paper from their thesis work also never materialized, putting them in an even deeper hole compared to their peers. The idea of rewarding institutions for early graduation is also risky, as it creates an incentive to turn out PhDs prematurely.

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  36. Alex Says:

    DSKS,
    I largely agree with you that requirements should not be made higher and higher if they keep people in longer and longer. However, on this:
    I think 4 yrs is a fair period, and this includes any further teaching requirements (although I feel strongly that US institutions should review whether certain graduate course materials wouldn’t actually be more appropriate given at undergrad level).
    Shifting more stuff to undergrad is a non-starter as long as 4-year graduation is a rarity, high schools are preparing so many students very poorly, and general education requirements (something that I support but will not take up here) are a significant portion of the degree requirements.

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  37. DSKS Says:

    Alex
    “Shifting more stuff to undergrad is a non-starter as long as 4-year graduation is a rarity, high schools are preparing so many students very poorly, and general education requirements (something that I support but will not take up here) are a significant portion of the degree requirements.”
    Well, yeah the problem is bigger and goes back further than grad school, I agree. It isn’t really an issue of moving more stuff to undergrad, though; it’s about putting back into undergrad what was intended to be there in the first place, instead of fostering an environment that ultimately facilitates the current trend for deferring educational goals. Personally, I think Higher Ed needs to take the firm road and simply stop enrolling students who are not up to snuff on the basics and put back in place a key incentive for early education to prepare its students appropriately. Of course, that requires Higher Ed across the board to keep one eye on quality instead of both eyes on the dollar sign.
    The concern is that, when you look at it, the entire education system has a big fat incentive to hold onto students for as long as possible. That’s a serious conflict of interest right there.

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  38. Alex Says:

    The dollar incentives to keep people as long as possible at every stage are a big part of it. It reinforces/gets reinforced by a sense of fairness, that everybody should eventually get a degree and nobody should be told “Sorry, you suck at basics, get out.”
    I have my own conflict on this: An undergrad who just finished did some research with me, and was on a paper. He’s a guy who got D’s in high school, had to take remedial math at a community college, but worked his way up and got into a good 4-year school (mine) and sweated his way to a degree. He had to work for a living along the way, so he often had to drop classes or sometimes just scrape out a bad grade, but he never gave up, and whenever he was able to focus on his studies and research he actually did pretty well. So here’s a guy who crawled along and never gave up, and yet it would be so reasonable at any point to say to him “Sorry, this isn’t working.”
    But I know he’s a smart and absolutely determined guy, and I’m proud to work with him even though I know that the system could have quite rationally written him off. I don’t want a system that throws dollars at getting kids through who have no real chance, but I also don’t want a system that just writes off students like the one I worked with.
    I have no answers here.

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  39. neurolover Says:

    “I really don’t think the metric for graduation should be the completeness or impact of the project’s science. At this stage it should merely be the candidate’s competency in the act of carrying out the science and presenting a thesis with a reasonable arc and sufficient data to draw some substantive conclusions that determines their qualification for graduation (negative data and low impact or positive and sexy, it shouldn’t matter a damn). ”
    I disagree whole-heartedly. I think a Ph.D. should mean that you made a meaningful contribution to the field. Negative contributions/null results might do so, and projects should be structured so that they are. I think one should be able to make a meaningful contribution in six years, given appropriate support & ability & absent significant setbacks (i.e. babies, sickness, . . .). I also think people should be told to leave after inadequate qualifying exams, done on a short enough time scale that they’re lives aren’t wasted, with master’s degrees (if they deserve them). I think Ph.D’s for less than a meaningful contribution degrade the Ph.D., and are part of the grade inflation (in this case giving a Ph.D. for master’s work) that pervades education these days.
    (I think what I’m saying is perfectly clear for an academic Ph.D. I know there are Ph.D’s whose purpose is different — clinical psychology, education, and engineering, as examples, where the person is planning on doing something else, but I think the solution there is that those people probably shouldn’t be getting Ph.D’s, but should be getting a professional degree instead).

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  40. miko Says:

    Much of this discussion seems to posit the existence of an entity alien to me: The Thesis Committee That Gives A Shit About Anything Except What Kind of Bagels Are At The Meeting.

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  41. DSKS Says:

    “I disagree whole-heartedly. I think a Ph.D. should mean that you made a meaningful contribution to the field”
    Out of interest, what would be your metric for a “meaningful contribution to the field”?

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  42. antipodean Says:

    Hi Bob
    Bob said try doing an 8 year PhD in the UK. Not gonna happen. You typically get three years of studentship funding and this can usually be extended for another year (from what I’ve seen, it essentially always is). It’s definitely a 3-4 year cap.
    The education system in the antipodes was set up by the English and Scots. So we’re speaking teh same language about the same system. They do cap PhDs at 8 or 10 calendar years as many people will do them part-time- I am coloured by my experiences in medical schools where this is very common. One of my previous posts made the point that you can quite effectively control the length of the PhD using monetary methods. But I did neglect to mention student stipends as a good method for doing that.
    Thank you for reminding me. I’d just about forgotten the feeling. Was very effective in my case as I handed in the week the money ran out at 3.5 years.

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  43. whimple Says:

    …what would be your metric for a “meaningful contribution to the field”?
    Lots of achievable possibilities come to mind: Publish a paper that someone else cites, have people take an interest in a presentation at a national meeting, participate in collaborative work external to your own institution.
    We could also define examples of meaningless contributions: give a poster at your own institution, present a paper at a journal club, publish in the journal-of-nobody-ever-reads-it.

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  44. bsci Says:

    I know there are Ph.D’s whose purpose is different — clinical psychology, education, and engineering, as examples, where the person is planning on doing something else, but I think the solution there is that those people probably shouldn’t be getting Ph.D’s
    Neurolover, This statement is very wrong. In ANY field, the healthy majority of PhD’s don’t spend their careers in academic positions with significant research components. Pretending it’s only a few fields does a disservice to many students who don’t end up in those careers.
    As for saying people who don’t go into academic careers should be getting a trade degree instead of a PhD is fairly close to a “no true Scotman” argument. You’re trying to change the definition of what a PhD has been for decades.

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  45. Hope Says:

    As someone who’s getting her PhD in engineering precisely because she wants to do research (although not necessarily in academia), and who has a close friend who just got her PhD in education and is now faculty somewhere, I think that the point of getting a PhD should be to learn how to do innovative, independent research – period. If you haven’t mastered that skill by the end of your studies, you don’t deserve the degree. What you choose to do with that skill after you graduate — use it or not — is irrelevant. So frankly, I don’t think that neurolover’s expectations are so out of whack. Though I do think that his/her distinction between “academic” PhD and a PhD in those other fields is superfluous and misguided.

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  46. pablito Says:

    As a PI trying to recruit postdocs, I used to think that someone who graduated in 3-4 years had above average ability. I learned, however, that it might mean that some institutions graduate students when the money runs out. A PhD should indicate some potential to be successful at the next level. In my field, that means publishing a first author paper in a good quality journal (e.g impact factor > 5). By analogy, that might be like a baseball player being able to hit a major league curveball.

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  47. miko Says:

    “In my field, that means publishing a first author paper in a good quality journal (e.g impact factor > 5).”
    Ideally this is a good system…two first-author papers in “good” (not defined) journals were required in my PhD program. However, I know for a fact that the intellectual and practical contribution to these paper made by the first-author grad students varied enormously. Some graduated who couldn’t independently research their own toe fluff. They get graduated because no one cares.
    The problem I continually see is the entrenched apathy among faculty with regard to anything that doesn’t involve their own lab’s productivity. These are things they are supposed to care about, but there is no accountability. When did someone not get tenure because they did a terrible job of looking out for the interests of students in other labs?

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  48. DSKS Says:

    I suppose I agree with the idea that publication becomes a pretty sensible criterion for graduation if one accepts that 6 yrs should be the standard duration of PhD degree, but I just don’t accept this and I haven’t seen anybody present a vaguely compelling argument for why anyone else should either (other than to enable the train wreck of the formal education system by shifting the goalposts further and further away; are things so inevitable that a palliative approach is the only solution?).
    The weirdness of the conversation, though, is highlighted by mico’s statement,
    “Some graduated who couldn’t independently research their own toe fluff. They get graduated because no one cares.”
    Exactly. All this talk about candidates proving their metal sufficiently for a PhD is really rather empty in practice isn’t it? In the UK a department usually performs a review after the first year to determine if some candidates might prefer to simply turn in a masters thesis and call it a day. But after that, short of blowing up the university or getting caught in the vet school sheep house with one’s shorts around one’s ankles, one is assured a PhD after 4 yrs. For good or ill. Well, to be honest there’s really nowt ill, because a crap candidate walking away to a burger-flipping job with his PhD has little bearing on scientific progress; at worst it might take a little shine off of institution’s already provably malleable (dollar signs!) sense of prestige, but even that’s a trivial negative.
    But if we do opt for more stringent criteria, it doesn’t change the fact that a thesis committee that’s actually paying attention should be able to identify and isolate a candidate lacking the motivation and competence to warrant a PhD inside 3 yrs, let alone 4, publications regardless.
    If it takes 6+ yrs to figure it out, then frankly the PhD of the PI and faculty should be revoked due to questionable competence and/or being complicit in labour exploitation.

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  49. pablito Says:

    …a crap candidate walking away to a burger-flipping job with his PhD has little bearing on scientific progress…
    There’s such a demand for decent postdocs in the US that these people probably will land a position, especially in fly over parts of the country. When there, they will negatively impact the lab’s productivity if they can’t perform at the level demanded by national and international competititve pressures.
    It’s also important to remember that grad students in science are often being supported by grant or institutional funds. If they aren’t productive as measured by publications, the lab may fail, and in a broader context, the system might collapse. If productivity didn’t matter, institutions would charge tuition for getting a PhD.

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  50. Anonymous Says:

    When did someone not get tenure because they did a terrible job of looking out for the interests of students in other labs?
    This is the essence of the non-cooperative nature of academia. What primarily helps your career is what helps primarily just your own lab: grants and papers (in that order). Anything you do that doesn’t contribute directly to your own lab’s productivity is a distraction. There are conversely lots of examples of people who didn’t get tenure because they focused too much on things like teaching and (not their own) student career development.

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  51. Hope Says:

    Just out of curiosity, how many of you think that a prerequisite for earning the PhD should be demonstrating the ability to carry out independent research* (as measured by some criterion that we need all not agree on right now)?
    I’m asking because I always took that for granted, but recently, I was involved in a discussion with two science profs (one tenured, one not) who told me that I was wrong to think that, and that there were “plenty of places” outside of academia (e.g., industry) where PhD’s incapable of doing independent research could “thrive.”
    *By “independent research,” I don’t mean that a grad student has to come up with his own original idea of what to investigate. The original idea can come from the advisor, but by the end of her training, the student should own the project to the degree that the advisor is now more like a senior colleague rather than a supervisor who’s always telling her what to do next.

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  52. mikka Says:

    “tend to prefer that LOW WAGE trained and data-pumping individuals…”

    Fixed it for ya

    Like

  53. Pat Says:

    When I was in grad school, this almost happened to one of my classmates. According to him, his major prof was unable to convince him to postpone defending, so at the defense the major prof trashed his work to the committee, even accusing him of not having generated all the data. Fortunately, he had kept them all up to date on his work as he went along, so they knew the accusations were bogus.

    caveat: my classmate heard this from one of his committee members later, so it is third-hand. The moral of keeping your committee up to date is still good, though.

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  54. Monakhos Says:

    In b4 someone says this has happened to them. Oh wait, this happens to everyone…

    Like

  55. Jaycee Says:

    I am a science faculty member too, and I agree: I want my best students to leave and get great post-docs and become professors themselves. Any faculty who values one more paper over the long-term legacy left by sending great students into the world is really missing the whole point.

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