Advice for Prospective Graduate Students

January 6, 2017

There is a lot of great advice of the usual sort floating around – talk to current grad students and postdocs about Department, Program and Lab culture. Median time to completion*. So I won’t repeat that.

But here’s one thing you may not hear about.

Ask the Program Director for the past two 5-year reviews of the Program. Yes, graduate training programs get peer reviewed on a periodic basis. Every 5 years in my limited experience.

Ask to see the review. Absent that ask for the top five most serious criticisms. In fact you should ask this latter question if anyone who interviews you to get a sense of how much the Program is integrated vs ad hoc.

Here’s another important question to ask the interviewing faculty: “Who are the most recent 5-10 faculty appointments to come from your Program alumni?” The key here is to ask it on the spot so they can’t look it up.

The most important thing here will not be the actual-factual answers. It will be how the faculty respond to your inquiries.

Good luck.

*Please tell me every prospect asks about the median time to PhD?

UPDATE: I meant this as a step to take after you are invited to interview or offered admission. A step for you to take to help decide which program to attend. Although I suppose even if you only get one offer it is helpful to know what to expect or watch out for.

74 Responses to “Advice for Prospective Graduate Students”

  1. boehninglab Says:

    A significant minority of our graduate students want to become faculty. The question of how many alumni now have faculty appointments is essentially meaningless.


  2. boehninglab Says:

    Prospective grad students would be much better off talking to other students currently in the program, not the program faculty.


  3. Dr Becca Says:

    I think DM’s point is that it identifies which programs care enough to know where their alumni went after graduating, not the specific type of job they got.


  4. boehninglab Says:

    Dr. Becca-could you answer that question for your grad program?


  5. Postdocin it Says:

    How much weight do you recommend placing on these metrics vs. metrics of specific PIs in program? Always assumed PI pedigree >>> program pedigree in terms of future opportunities.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    It just goes into the mix. Weigh all factors.


  7. qaz Says:

    I think this is bad advice. First, program reviews are rarely written in interpretable styles, particularly with information that a prospective graduate student would understand. They are intended for a different audience and are more likely to be misinterpreted than understood by not-even-graduate-students.

    Second, time to graduation is a stupid measure of success. Except for T32 reviewers on study section, no one has ever asked anyone successful how long they took to graduate. If you really want to know, ask your successful friends (meaning people in jobs you want to be in – see pt3). I think you will be surprised. But don’t base your decisions on it. (Yes, many students ask that. I always tell them what it is, but then I tell them that it’s the wrong question.)

    And, third, instead of asking about faculty, ask about the job you want to go into. Graduate programs are training programs. Do they train people to do what you want to do? Moreover, do the faculty know who those people are who’ve been trained to do what you want to do. And do they respect those choices?


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    Yeah qaz, “surprisingly few graduates have attained faculty positions” is really complex stuff.


  9. AcademicLurker Says:

    My old PhD program lists alumni and where they are now on the web site. Don’t other programs do this?

    Anyway, the really important question for prospective students to ask is: do the professors pick up the tab when the lab goes out to dinner?


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    Time to graduation is not about “success”. It is about the ratio of training to labor exploiting as a systematic feature of the program in question.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    AL- all alumni or just the greatest hits?


  12. AcademicLurker Says:


    Pretty close to all. They might be missing a few, but it’s definitely not limited to “greatest hits”.


  13. physioprof Says:

    T32 grant reviews are almost wholly focused on grantsmanship and minutiae like how accurate the endless tables are. The pink sheets would be completely worthless to grad school applicants.


  14. Ola Says:

    The issue I see with the second question (# of alum –> faculty) is for small programs with say 6-8 students a year, using typical numbers where less than 1 in 10 go on to be faculty, then we’re talking maybe 1 student every couple of years. The likelihood of a single faculty in a program (especially someone like me who is a program member but not a primary department appointment holder) knowing the career trajectory of every one of the students who achieved faculty status is quite low. If I was asked on the spot I could name two (both from my own lab), maybe a couple more.

    As others have iterated, the better thing for the applicants to do is speak to good students. Seek out senior students that already have published papers and ask them how they got to that point within that program. And of course ask individual PIs about their funding status, availability of training grant slots, etc.


  15. Morgan Price Says:

    Asking current students is great as far as understanding what the grad student experience will be like. But I don’t think current students have a great perspective on what the long-term careers look like. In fact, for most programs, I do not think there is any good source of information as to what the ultimate job opportunities are. (My impression is that AcademicLurker’s department is unusual.)


  16. AcademicLurker Says:

    My estimate is that a bit over 80% of our alumni are accounted for on the program web site. It’s an interdepartmental program that’s been in existence since (I believe) 1990, takes an average of 5-6 students per class, and there are 127 alums listed. So they do a pretty good job of keeping up with people.


  17. AcademicLurker Says:

    Actually, it’s better than 80% I forgot to account for the fact that people admitted in the last 4-5 years won’t be alumni yet.


  18. qaz Says:

    “Time to graduation is not about “success”. It is about the ratio of training to labor exploiting as a systematic feature of the program in question.”

    Only if you consider graduate student time as labor exploitation. I never considered it such when I was a student, nor did any of my student colleagues that I know of. I know that it happens, but maybe we should address THAT issue directly. Maybe we should identify situations where there is labor exploitation and fix those.

    I do think that students should look up alumni and ask “was it a good experience?” “did you get the training you need?” “should I go there too?”. (I always recommend this to students looking at individual labs.) But this is unrelated to time-to-graduation. A three year graduate school can still be poor training even if you’re done and out quickly.


  19. EPJ Says:


    “The most important thing here will not be the actual-factual answers. It will be how the faculty respond to your inquiries. ”

    agree that statistics convey numbers and have a truth in it, but then the responses leads to a dialogue that would be more informative. Like a difference between multiple choice answers and writing a short interpretation answer. Then you have both side benefiting from the time invested.

    @A Lurker

    About the issue of picking up the tab, here is an anecdote from somebody I met and was surprised at lunches in the US in front of the PC, and at a place were good quality food matters for brain function:

    In some countries every day lunch for science groups can be a fancy dish with wine and while seating around a real table at a common room-kitchen at the workplace. It is done by subdividing the participants into small groups that take turns at footing the cost and cooking the fancy meal right there. Unusual but doable and it should help to break animosities that are detrimental. Competition with the university kitchens? yeah, but at least poor students, faculty, and PDs have a good lunch and a ‘communion’ time every week day.


  20. Hmm interesting. I agree the response is more interesting than the answer, especially with regards to the review results (we also have an annual report, in addition to cyclic and accreditation reviews). My department doesn’t really have anything to hide (our reviews have been very positive), but I wonder if the GPD or chair would release the results to a prospective student.

    With regards to alumni going on the faculty positions–that is a great question. While most incoming students in my field do not want faculty positions, the range of where our students go is pretty broad, so I might not be able to give a recent example for a particular sort of position if the position is narrowly defined. I know where all of my students ended up, and I know where students I interact with a lot end up, but I don’t keep track of them all. That said, even though I’ve only been at ProdigalU 7-8 years (not even long enough for any of my students to apply for faculty positions yet even if they were interested in such a thing), I could list at least 5 recent alumni in industrial positions or faculty positions and where they ended up. The response would definitely demonstrate the level of faculty interest in student outcomes.


  21. Established PI Says:

    Asking to see the pink sheets suggests suspicion, while asking for a list of the study section’s criticisms (and not program strengths) suggests a negative attitude. A program with an NIH training grant that has been renewed has to be pretty competitive. Better to ask specific questions, e.g. time to degree, outcomes, expectations, thesis committee structure and policy.

    Knowing employment outcomes is important – our program web site shows current positions for all alumni (unless they can’t locate them), as well as bar graphs showing proportions in different types of positions. But why the need to memorize which students (other than their own) got faculty positions after their postdocs, as long as the information is on the web? Makes no sense for big umbrella programs like ours, but I don’t even get what it reveals for a single departmental program.


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    I never considered it such when I was a student, nor did any of my student colleagues that I know of.

    You do realize that your feelings about the system in which you work has no bearing on how it is, in fact, structured, right? Some factory worker in the Rust belt insisting that the shareholders surely do not extract any surplus value from his labors doesn’t mean that Karl Marx was wrong. Some woman in a workplace insisting that she’s never been discriminated against doesn’t mean that systematic sexism magically doesn’t exist or, for that matter, affect her. etc.


  23. Curiosity Says:

    The single best thing I ever did for my career was take too much time to graduate. Exactly no one cares about how long it took me, and instead I appear to have been wildly productive. In other words, my being exploited (dismal paycheck) for an extra year or two was remedied by payment in full later on with great papers and an eventual job. In some worlds, that’s called an investment. I get it that DM wants to change the system and (laudably) fight labor exploitation, but there are likely other options to ameliorate graduate student exploitation than premature graduation (graduated payscales, for example). My experience is hardly prescriptive, but nevertheless cautionary against the institutional conventional wisdom to shorten the PhD.


  24. drugmonkey Says:

    I don’t see where I was saying programs should force you out under any particular timeframe.


  25. EPJ Says:


    sexism toward females is present, but I say that maybe the strategy needs some change, because women are getting hurt even more, be it when pregnant or not, with kids or not, single or not, young or older.

    Same thing you find between males, though less obvious and less frequent.

    The problem I see is that those with the bad attitude get rewarded, so it eventually becomes the norm, and degradation follows overtime. That internal attrition almost looks like an strategy to wear out the participants.

    I wonder what would happen to the science outcome under different conditions. Like students well payed, post docs with a more clear path ahead and defined cooperation rather than dirty competition, and PIs and tenured with enough time to do lab bench work or having less bureaucratic participation. Accessible biotech places near by to even rotate through or cooperate with.

    But it doesn’t happen, and I thought that it has to do with the economic model gone wrong, and the appearance of a new normal in the mental process through successive generations.

    So how can it be improved?


  26. qaz Says:

    “I don’t see where I was saying programs should force you out under any particular timeframe.” But that is what asking about median time to PhD is all about.

    In my experience, this attitude of asking about time to PhD leads faculty to start to push students out after year 5 and for students to either panic if they get to year 4 and things aren’t going well or to punt on great work if they’ve “done enough” at year 5. But in my experience both as a student and a mentor, for the students who are in it for the science, for those whose goals are to “contribute to the knowledge base of the world”, taking the time to run a slightly longer PhD is extremely beneficial for exactly the reason that Curiosity brings up. You’re the world expert on some topic. You’ve set all the pins up, now you can just knock them down and hit it out of the park (to mix my metaphors).

    If you just need the magic three letters by your name to go do something else, and you’re not really in it for the science*, then I suppose that’s another story. (* There are many great things you can do after your PhD that are important and impactful and contribute to society that are not about making discoveries.)

    Furthermore, concerns about time to graduation does create sexism (and other isms) when people have issues (kids, health, mental health, caregiver situations, family crises, etc etc etc) that slow down their progress. (Maybe we need a clock-stopping process, like tenure, for crises.)

    I don’t think PhDs should be longer. I just think we shouldn’t be spending so much time worrying about time-to-graduation. And especially that incoming graduate students shouldn’t be worrying about those questions. I think incoming graduate students should be asking “Does this program train me for the kinds of things I want to be doing?” “Are their graduates successful?” (by whatever definition of success you want to use).


  27. biochembelle Says:

    Two thing my UG profs suggested that I found very useful in the interview process:

    1) Ask: What’s the typical time to PhD completion? Worth asking of profs & students. It’s not just number that’s informative, but how they frame & the additional info that they provide with it (like whether funding dries up after a particular length of time).

    2) Ask if you can talk with the student who’s been in the program the longest. The prof’s rationale: the person who’s been in the program the longest is likely to be one of the most disillusioned. I also found that you get a sense of how rare/typical long PhDs are at the institution, & the reasons for long PhDs.

    When I visited one prospective institution, the education coordinator asked first thing if there was anyone I specifically wanted to talk to, beyond who was on the schedule (profs I w was interested in, program director, department chair, current students). When I put forward number 2, she knew immediately who fit the bill, & by lunch, she’d arranged for me to meet with the student one-on-one. That instant knowledge & willingness to arrange a meeting, combined with what I took away from the meeting with that student, told me a great deal about the program & definitely boosted my confidence in selecting that institution for my PhD.


  28. sel Says:

    “Ask the Program Director for the past two 5-year reviews of the Program. Yes, graduate training programs get peer reviewed on a periodic basis. Every 5 years in my limited experience.”


    Those “5-year reviews” (we call them “quality enhancement reviews” at my university) are 4-inch thick binders. EVERYTHING is reviewed–undergrad program, grad program, student training, time in program, outcome stats, course reviews, faculty research, teaching, service, department organization, outreach, etc. They are written for an external reviewer, usually a dean or chair from a peer university. If any prospective grad student asked to see one of these behemoths, I’d dump it on his/her lap and say, “enjoy looking through that for your data…I’m not doing it for you because I’m not a f**king secretary.”


  29. Grumpy Says:

    Qaz, I couldn’t agree more. Now as a prof, I constantly hear the “how many years” question and shake my head. I asked it myself when I was a prospective student. I think the DMs of the world have brainwashed students into thinking that this is important, but to me it is an extremely short-sighted concern.

    Speaking as someone who did a lot of hiring in industry, doing a great job as a grad student can help keep folks employed for many years to come. Even if they didn’t have the opportunity to do high profile work or publish for years after, a strong grad publication record plus reasonable positions after can be enough for an interview invite.

    So taking an extra year or two to bang out publications at the end of grad school is, to me, worth way more than the order $25k in foregone short-term salary.


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    I note that the vast majority of apologists are focusing on paternalistic recommendations about career success after grad school. Success in a highly competitive job market that has been created by the overproduction of PhDs. This overproduction is driven very clearly by the seduction of cut-rate labor devoted to the ends of the Professor class that defines the PhD criteria.

    How do you not see how circular and self-justifying your reasons are?


  31. EPJ Says:


    are you placing emphasis on the reason for going into a PhD is to make discoveries and contribute to knowledge?


  32. There is a big difference between the average time to a PhD and the specific time it will take any individual, which depends on the individual circumstances. However, knowing the average time to a degree and comparing this to the departmental or field norms would enable a prospective student to consider if there are artificial internal roadblocks set up, such as when a particular PI routinely keeps fully trained students for an extra year or two to enhance group productivity. Obviously, for any particular individual, YMMV, but if I were a student, I would be concerned about joining a group with an average time to degree that is one or more years above the departmental or field norm (with the exception of brand new groups–students in new groups often take an extra year or two because the first students also set up the lab). I would also be concerned if someone responded very negatively to being asked, or if they didn’t know the answer, because it suggests lack of concern for students as individuals rather than as research labor.


  33. qaz Says:

    @EPJ – There are two kinds of PhD theses. One is a “magnum opus”, a “great work” that you can live on for a decade or more, one that will “make your name” and “set you on the track”. (*) The other is a hoop to jump through that will allow you to go on to other things. It’s not that one view of the PhD is better than the other, but rather that time-to-PhD is a poor measure of the first case, while it could be a reasonable measure for the second.

    * In practice, few PhD theses are truly great works of the kind of “make your name” scale, but there is a view that a PhD thesis should be a large and complete story that is a seminal contribution to a field. I have seen many situations where theses become the key cited component for a field. And before DM jumps on me about this – in those cases, it is the student who has become famous for the contribution, not the advisor. The advisor gets “advised” credit (as in “that’s my kid!”).

    In my opinion, both are fine goals and conflict ensues when the student and advisor have different opinions. (Lest people assume – I have seen it go both ways [where advisor says “just get it done” and student wants to “hit the homerun” and where student says “I just need the degree” and advisor wants the magnum opus] – both cause conflict.) One of the things I advise graduate students looking at advisors is to know what they want here. It’s not that one is better than the other, but that they should look for an advisor that matches their point of view on thesis scale.

    OK, DM, let’s address the labor issue. As a graduate student, you are not paid as much as a PI, but (assuming that the deal is done right), you are provided a sheltered space to do great science, as well as resources, training, and advice from (hopefully) some of the great minds of our day (in your field), all while being provided a reasonable salary. I am *far* more stressed as a PI than I was a graduate student. How many PIs do you know who think of graduate school as the best time in their lives? How many non-PIs (in industry or elsewhere) do you know who think of graduate school as the best time in their lives? I think we need to treat graduate students as adults and assume that they can make their deals appropriately. It’s not exploitation if the deal is done fairly. I am still not convinced that the job market is oversaturated, except when people limit themselves to very specific places and institutions.


  34. anon Says:

    “How many PIs do you know who think of graduate school as the best time in their lives?”

    This is ridiculous and totally beside the point. You can be exploited but too stupid to know it and be blissfully happy. That doesn’t change the fact that you were exploited.

    This point has been made before but for some reason, for you, it just doesn’t sink in. Grad students can’t make “deals” because they hold no power. When was the last time you heard of a grad student negotiating their salary or other benefits?


  35. drugmonkey Says:

    The deal is not done fairly qaz. If it were, every grad program would trumpet their time-to-completion and low faculty attainment % loudly, front and center and without handwaving excuses.

    Probably should have something about the typical series of postdocs and associated financial, family and mental health issues.


  36. qaz Says:

    Nobody is forcing you to go to grad school. There are lots of jobs that don’t require a PhD. Most of those jobs pay much better than even the best faculty jobs. What is ridiculous is the idea that the one choosing to go to grad school has no power. Go or don’t go. (And I don’t know how involved you are in grad school admissions, but students DO often have a choice of where to go to grad school, and grad schools compete for them, including by raising salaries, just not on an individual level [usually, but some are now trying bonuses to recruit top students. We did not find that bonuses helped recruit students.] Nevertheless, students do make a CHOICE to go to grad school.) So students are agreeing to the deal. And most of them are happy.

    And, DM, we do not tout our time to graduation because we think its a stupid measure, but we also don’t hide it either. But we DO tout our successful non-faculty graduates, including listing them at our recruiting visits, and bringing them back for alumni preaentations. We’ve been told it’s one of our best selling points.


  37. drugmonkey Says:

    And what about your less-than-awesome-success rates, qaz?


  38. Curiosity Says:

    So what is the relationship between PhD time-to-completion and rate of faculty appointment anyway? If we are saying one is “bad” (long time-to-completion) and one is “good” (high rate of faculty appointments), and the “bad” positively correlations with the “good”, then, hmm, .. useful info for prospective grad students to gauge for themselves the “badness” and “goodness” of these metrics.
    But relatedly, why can’t grad student stipends increase with # years in a program? That’s not done at the institutions I’ve encountered, by why not? This is particularly relevant if longer PhDs do benefit students for academic advancement.


  39. Grumpy Says:

    Here are the questions I would suggest to ask:

    1. How many semesters do students in X sub-field typically do as a TA before switching to RA?

    2. What is median time to completion of prelims/quals?

    3. Are there departmental funds for student conference travel, how much and how many get them?

    4. Tell me about any programs you have for preparing students for “alt” careers. How about academic careers?


  40. qaz Says:

    What less-than-awesome success rates? Do you mean the rates of people who either don’t graduate (extremely rare) or don’t go on to a job they want (very rare)? Or do you mean the rates of people who don’t go on to R1 faculty jobs with multiple NIH R01s? As I’ve been saying all along, that’s not my definition of success.

    We do present all of our outcomes. Obviously, we tout our successes, but we present all the percentages.

    My point was that if you recognize that there are successful people with PhDs who are not faculty, who are happy that they spent X years doing graduate school (at the decent salary we pay them – which is very liveable in our city), then our success rates are pretty high. “Low faculty attainment” is not a failure. (Note: It’s not a goal either. A pretty typical percentage of our students go on to R1 schools and an even larger percentage go on to small liberal arts colleges (where some of them have R01s doing research with undergrads), but it’s not the relevant statistic.) Being successful post-grad school is about one’s contribution to the world, not about becoming a faculty member.

    And for those people who don’t go on to what we would consider a career that required a PhD (or one for which a PhD is particularly useful), do they regret the time they spent in grad school? Not in my experience.


  41. Grumble Says:

    Here we go again with DM’s “grad students are exploited” theme. That perspective is misinformed because it focuses solely on how much money the student is making, leading to the conclusion that students are being exploited for their labor. What is missing from the analysis:

    a) Most students are not very productive in their first 2-4 years, because they are taking classes and learning how to do research. Yet they are being paid just as much in years 1-4 as in years 5-7, when they are finally getting things done efficiently and publishing.

    b) Grad students are getting paid to get an education and a degree, which will benefit them (economically and in other ways) tremendously later on, whether they remain in academia or not. Other than biomedical science, there is simply no other field in which it is common for students to not have to pay a single penny for their degree, and in fact to be compensated for their efforts. This is the OPPOSITE of exploitation.

    c) Masters programs always charge a lot of money for tuition. The first 2 years (or so) of most PhD programs’ curriculum is equivalent to a masters program (and in fact many will actually award a masters degree after the qualifying exam and coursework are passed). Yet that is completely gratis. So the choice for the student is: buy a masters for $50k, or buy a PhD with a few extra years of work that “pays for” that masters-level education received in the first couple of years (and, not incidentally, for even more than that – the work pays for a PhD-level education). The conclusion is that PhD programs are actually less exploitative than masters programs, and in fact because they result in far more benefit to the successful student while costing the student $0 (or negative $200,000, if you count the stipend she receives over ~6 years) I find the argument that they are exploitative at all to be laughable.

    d) Let’s not forget that the “extra” year or two as a graduate student can actually be very productive – for the student and her education. That’s when she’s finally putting together a bunch of results into a coherent story, learning to write good papers, etc. While it’s certainly possible that some PIs “exploit” students at this stage, what I’ve seen is that most students *want* to put in the time it takes to learn all aspects of their craft, and it is often the faculty who try to speed up the process and push them out.


  42. drugmonkey Says:

    Try saying that they “want” to do what it takes to get the job they desire. And you have thoroughly convinced the lambs by this point that this is all normal, okay and “what it takes”.

    Your point a) is the complete reveal, of course. It is not the defense you seem to think it is. You think the extra 2-3 years is to compensate the PI with productivity. I.e. cut rate labor. Your defensive logic is actually your confession.

    Your point b) is the argument that was rejected soundly in a case of interns versus Fox Searchlight Pictures. Nebulous future career advantages are not compensation for a fair wage. Thus the logic is invalid.


  43. AcademicLurker Says:

    While it’s true that an extra year or 2 can be beneficial in some cases, I still think that making average time-to-degree a question that gets asked (especially in program reviews by funding agencies) is important. Absent some downward pressure, the length of the PhD will tend to grow unchecked. I think we can all agree that people shouldn’t be hanging around as grad students for 9 years.


  44. LincolnX Says:

    It’s also important to consider the prospective career path. In our program, which is in an academic medical center, industry outcomes are more and more accepted by our faculty. Internships are part of the expectation of students seeking that path, and we’ve established a course as a repository for these. With over 75% of PhDs ending up in industry, programs that do not nod to these paths are being exploitative and are not serving their students well, IMO.


  45. xykademiqz Says:

    @Grumble: “Other than biomedical science, there is simply no other field in which it is common for students to not have to pay a single penny for their degree, and in fact to be compensated for their efforts. ”

    This is actually common in the physical sciences, as well.

    I am in the physical sciences. I am not sure what the problem is in saying up front how long a PhD in one’s group is likely to last. I say that a PhD in my group lasts 4-6 years; depending on whether the student comes in with a MS, how strong their background is, how quickly we zoom in on a topic that the student is really interested in and that is also doable and I have funding for, and of course the unforeseen technical roadblocks; the 2-year uncertainty should be able to catch all these variables. I have a minimum number of papers I require for graduation in my group (first author original papers, of which some number can be replaced by an appropriate number of middle authorships or first-author book chapters, review papers, or full-length conference papers). This minimum is neither outrageously high nor low; it is such that I get sufficient productivity return from students to look great on grant renewals yet nobody has ever had to stay over 6 years to meet the minimum. The key is to have a group that is not too gigantic to advise, so I can make sure everyone moves along at the appropriate pace. Get the minimum number of papers and I certainly won’t stop you from graduating. If you want to be competitive for a good postdoc and a faculty job down the road, you need more papers than that and should consider staying longer to get the additional papers out. Typically, the people who want this career path produce the minimum if far less time than 6 years and actually graduate in no more than 6 years anyway but with more papers.


  46. Yizmo Gizmo Says:

    After 5 years of Grad School, you don’t get better.
    You get bitter.

    Regarding paying Grad Students, dumbest idea ever. That’s what led to this whole mess.
    Make ’em pay for their education like other disciplines…


  47. EPJ Says:

    One way to interpret low success/low faculty appointment is by making it similar to an investment in the many forms it is used today (those experts on the subject can inform everyone else).

    So that at some point you’ll find a progressive increase in faculty positions, then it peaks then it decays. A bubble or a wave. Because some people invest to get more money back than the one seeded in. In that process some get a degree, some sold equipment or reagents, some got good ideas, and some even get high recognition for that. And some get payed for that in “tangible money”. Remember that every year there are graduates and every year a part of the population reproduces and an increase in expenses happen. It does look like inflation, no?

    Well, people can increase effort, as in numbers to yield more hrs worked, more papers, more students and workers, more buildings and labs, more reagents used, etc, which alleviates many things, but the main issue causing the drag is there. I think it has a lot to do with currency and its stability, which I hear is dependent on several parameters.

    So sometimes you even find ‘bartering’ so that research and labs can go on. So that the fixing I really think is not in increasing number of hrs worked, or services, or papers, or student/worker numbers, or IF metrics, or the many metrics tested over time. Most of that likely had good results/success.

    But we somehow have metrics for people’s performance in one direction but for what makes that movement forward we have the opposite, deflation/loss of value/decay, and out of the investments only quite a few succeed with plenty return.

    Think of the DNA structure, think of other organization in nature that is self regulating in a way that works and is a force of good and of progress. Think of the existing variety and its rules, and all of that is controlled by a single large umbrella, the money. So that ought to be worked on to favor the efforts of the population.

    It makes sense to me, I don’t think it is a matter of more attrition, because it will shred more what is actually needed.

    (excuse my poor poetic attempt to say a hard truth)


  48. drugmonkey Says:

    Absent some downward pressure, the length of the PhD will tend to grow unchecked.

    and why is that?


  49. drugmonkey Says:


    Do you mean the rates of people who either don’t graduate (extremely rare) or don’t go on to a job they want (very rare)? Or do you mean the rates of people who don’t go on to R1 faculty jobs with multiple NIH R01s? As I’ve been saying all along, that’s not my definition of success.

    Those not-finishing (zero, consolation MS distinguished). Those without the job they wanted at the moment they started graduate school. Those without a job they wanted at the moment they defended. and importantly, those without the job that the current class of new prospects wants when you are describing your stats.


  50. Grumble Says:

    “It is not the defense you seem to think it is. You think the extra 2-3 years is to compensate the PI with productivity. I.e. cut rate labor.”

    Actually, I think students’ rate of pay is simply fair for what they produce, given the market economy set up by grant funding amounts. They earn less per year than post-docs because post-docs don’t have the coursework and learning curve. That is not “cut rate labor”. It’s fair rate labor.

    “Your point b) is the argument that was rejected soundly in a case of interns versus Fox Searchlight Pictures. Nebulous future career advantages are not compensation for a fair wage. Thus the logic is invalid.”

    Nonsense. A promise of “maybe we’ll give you a job after you work for free for us” is far more nebulous than a degree from an accredited university. If it weren’t, then no one would bother to get a PhD. In fact, no one would bother to go to college, either.

    I note you’ve forgotten to address the crux of my argument, which is that the students ARE getting paid in real money, unlike most other students (of anything, anywhere, ever). Yet somehow you seem to think that they are being exploited more than students who pay cash for their education, sometimes ending up heavily in debt. It sure is a topsy-turvy world you live in, DM.


  51. qaz Says:

    Yes, of course, we present ALL the data. But the truth is that there are very very few in those “failure” categories.


  52. Joe Says:

    If it takes more than 6 yrs, someone is not doing their job (meaning PI or maybe student). Where I work, their is an expectation of 5 yrs, and if the student gets to 7, they have to get permission to keep going or retake their qualifying exam. So, no one wants to go that long. Where I got my degree, there was an occasional 9 yr student, and after I was gone, I heard about an 11 yr. student. So, yes, prospective students should ask about average time to degree and what happens when it’s lasting more than 5 yrs.


  53. jmz4 Says:

    “Your point b) is the argument that was rejected soundly in a case of interns versus Fox Searchlight Pictures. Nebulous future career advantages are not compensation for a fair wage. Thus the logic is invalid.”
    -That was a ruling against the legality of uncompensated labor. Grad students are compensated at better than minimum wage (theoretically) in most situations.

    I think what Grumble says is accurate, but *very* few institutions frame it that way during the admissions process. They should, perhaps, be more upfront about the transactional nature of the education, in that it is really a sort of work/study program.

    I also think the universities need to start lessening the stigma of quitting the program and taking a masters. When I was in grad school, this was highly discouraged and there were even rumors about the university trying to claw back salary and tuition from the student. Now that I know more about grant administration, I realize that’s pretty ridiculous, but the fact that it was used as a tool to keep the PhD’s in line is disheartening and speaks to the exploitative impulses of some programs.

    If someone wants to bail, and they’ve completed coursework and a year of labwork, the only reason you would pressure them in to continuing the PhD is, as DM notes, because you view them as a laborer and not a student.


  54. EPJ Says:

    Around 5 years is more of the normal, and some variability should be expected when research is required. But really short or long would be unusual. I’ve heard of a 3 year record but that student was also at a good spot (in terms of project, advice, and his effort that included living quarters).

    So I think these examples make the basis for asking for more dedication and breaking those records.

    I say that the drive toward innovation is fine, but if at some point it becomes a burden to society, particularly when decay is evident, fair changes should be worked out into the system. You should be able to notice when the problems are obvious and try to do something about them. But unrealistic expectations lead to day dreaming and maybe some unusual ideas.

    I don’t believe in the propagated idea that the science community is or looks crazy or ferocious in behavior.


  55. JL Says:

    “If someone wants to bail, and they’ve completed coursework and a year of labwork, the only reason you would pressure them in to continuing the PhD is, as DM notes, because you view them as a laborer and not a student.”

    jmz4, you pulled that “a year of labwork ” from where the sun don’t shine.

    Who said that it should be a year, and not six months or two years?

    I think that xykademiqz put the finger in an important point: we need work in exchange for the money. Students who think that working hard, or just being there a given length of time, is enough, are naive. If the students want to receive stipends, then they have to produce things that are of value to others. Many times that’s papers for the PI to convert into grants.

    All those arguing for the value of keeping PhD length low, why aren’t you asking for maximum length? Or 90th percentile? Averages are resistant to outliers, and those 9 year and 11 year examples are unlikely to move it much.


  56. Grumble Says:

    @jmz4: “*very* few institutions frame it that way during the admissions process. They should, perhaps, be more upfront about the transactional nature of the education, in that it is really a sort of work/study program.”

    Oh, give me a break. You are telling me that incoming grad students – some of the brightest people of their generation – can’t figure out that there is a “transactional nature” to education? After YEARS of figuring out how to get into college; hearing from their parents and others about how college is going to be paid for; actually paying for college with savings, loans and/or scholarships; and finally, experiencing research in an academic setting (a prerequisite for acceptance to grad school), talking to grad students, post-docs and PIs, and observing how it’s all paid for?

    I’m all in favor of faculty being very honest with prospective grad students about what they face both at a particular college and in their future. I’m not in favor of treating intelligent adults like children.


  57. lee Says:

    I’d like to add another caveat. My school has a limited number of slots that cover the first 2 years of coursework and training prior to the students transitioning to a PI’s grant. As such my department has been under-recruiting full-time Ph.D. students for the last couple of years. However, we currently have several (~50%) of our Ph.D. students that are part-time with their tuition, fees, and research expenses covered by their employer. Pretty good deal for the students, but it skews our “start to finish” numbers to the right.


  58. drugmonkey Says:

    If you can’t pay for them, how is it “under” recruiting?


  59. “Regarding paying Grad Students, dumbest idea ever. That’s what led to this whole mess.
    Make ’em pay for their education like other disciplines…”

    Yeah, like lawyers, librarians, and archivists who … oh yeah… those degrees have been over-produced as well. Yey!


  60. Yessir2 Says:

    Wow, this is way above my pay grade but here is my take as a prof
    There are 3 reasons students select a particular grad school
    (1) it was the best they could get into-this is most frequent
    (2) they are tied to the area for some reason-fairly common
    (3) the lost and confused group-they are many reasons like didn’t like the work style as undergrad (fine), just going with the flow and staying in academic setting…to name 2

    Many of these don’t require above advise because for 1 you maxed opportunity and just need to find a lab that is both good and livable. For 2 there is no other choice. Though for some above is good advise you mileage will vary


  61. Artnscience Says:

    The solution is to provide PhD students with 5 year fellowships – giving the student control over their rate of progress and pay, rather than their lab mentor. PhD students are very bright and they are not children. They are fully capable of understanding that they need a focused project that pays off with publications 5 years before graduating. This is sometimes mutually beneficial if a project is really humming and yielding papers. By this time the student is well-trained and the lab mentor is getting a good deal. In contrast, 6th year PhD students whom the lab mentor is not willing to pay to work in their lab are probably never going to graduate anyway and are probably better off leaving the program with a terminal masters.


  62. AnotherEstablishedPI Says:

    Great solution Artnscience. I don’t know who DM hangs with but my experience has been that grad students are anything but cheap labor. Once I made full professor I stopped taking students because my one-R01 lab couldn’t handle the cost per productivity ratio. I trained a lot of students in my day, most going on to non-academic biomedical jobs. But it was a losing proposition. Without students (one tech and 2 postdocs) my lab’s productivity is actually at an all time high. Go figgure. DM might accuse me of abusing postdocs as cheap labor but they have a LOT more invested than students – they need training, a body of work to call their own and jobs – ASAP. We should focus on helping them before pulling in more students to the grinder. Another key point, which I think all PI’s should think about, is that I still work in the lab and collect about 25% of my data myself. All PI’s should do this over the lifetime of your career – and I know your department will make that difficult but I suggest you resist. It keeps you fresh, it properly aligns your priorities, it saves time and money, and most importantly, it allows you to keep your lab running if your funding wanes. Young PIs don’t have a choice because promotions are dependent on training students but older PIs (like me) should do it. It also prevents you from training too many students at one time and contributing to the glut of PhDs. You can’t work effectively in the lab and train a cadre of students – its self regulating.


  63. drugmonkey Says:

    6 years and it is totes ok that lots of them are exiting at that point with a MS?

    ….man you people are dismal human beings. What a terrible way to treat someone. The “terminal MS” route should be effected by the end of Year 2 at the latest. I’m ok with a higher exit rate but ffs do it quickly.

    Honestly. PIs are smart people. How can you not grasp that it is entirely possible to get a PhD person out in 4 years? Make it a goal and you will figure it out. I assure you. The historical evidence is very clear on this.


  64. AcademicLurker Says:

    Has anyone here been involved in reviewing T32s? My impression was that, both initially and for renewals, time-to-degree was scrutinized and that the NIH takes a dim view of programs that don’t graduate people in a reasonably timely manner.


  65. Established PI Says:

    @AL Our very long-standing T32 was not renewed a while because of overly long time to degree (TTD), coupled with a few egregious outliers and no sound policy to deal with it. That shot across the bow sure got our attention and caused major changes in policies regarding thesis committees and the like. Students are now better protected from PIs who are either not paying attention or won’t let students finish before they produce CNS-worthy data. Students also get the message early on that they should stay on track. We don’t enforce a strict cutoff but have brought down our TTD and eliminated outliers. And our last T32 renewal sailed though.


  66. Established PI Says:

    Correction above: I meant “a while back” – there was no lapse in funding. (


  67. lee Says:

    DM: Under-recruiting in this context means, a PI is not going to cover the ~$50K/year for a student to take classes for two years with minimal lab/field work. We have grant mechanisms that can cover the years that encompass their dissertation research; hence, we’re under-recruiting.


  68. drugmonkey Says:

    That shot across the bow sure got our attention and caused major changes in policies regarding thesis committees and the like. …have brought down our TTD and eliminated outliers.

    Well, there you go. Make departments have a reason to do it and, que milagro!, TTD comes down.

    lee- I am still not following you at all. To me “under-recruiting” means that your program is not enrolling enough PhD students based on some (?) idea of how many it should be enrolling. no?


  69. qaz Says:

    The real exploitation is not in graduate school, where people are trained and provided reasonable salary support. (You can argue that it’s too low, but in most places, it’s a liveable salary and often good training.) The real exploitation is that students are required to have “real research experience” in order to be viable candidates for graduate school. While some students (particularly scions of scientists) know how to get that for free (or for already paid tuition) as undergrads, and there are some summer programs to accommodate that (REU programs from NSF for example, post-bacs at NIH). I’ve seen a *lot* of students showing up *after* graduation saying “I need research experience” so I can *apply* to graduate school.

    Some of these examples are kids who actually have research experience and have gotten bad advice and are ready but were told they weren’t or are scared to go to graduate school for some reason or other. Other examples are kids who have not had opportunities yet. In any case, a kid who hasn’t had a good research experience yet is going to be a poor candidate for the admissions committee. (In part because they won’t get that research-based rec-letter.)

    The exploitation is that these kids often volunteer. Very few people pay these no-longer students. The “pay” is the rec letter for admission to grad school.

    If you want to sound your trumpet against exploitation – solve that problem. Once they’re in grad school, grad school’s fine.

    Personally, I think the problem is (1) that grad schools are punished for kicking kids out after two years when they aren’t going to make it and (2) that graduate students are very expensive propositions. A failed student who doesn’t produce (*) is a very expensive loss to a lab and a grant.

    * Yes, graduate students are supposed to work. That’s why they get paid. They get paid less than they might because they are also supposed to get trained.


  70. Jmz4 Says:

    I pulled it from what the actual MS requirements are at many places. I don’t think you should punish students that want to leave the program early by leaving them with nothing to show for it. A year or more of advanced coursework and some amount of time in a lab is perfectly adequate to confer a masters on someone (with a final summary or masters thesis).

    “experiencing research in an academic setting (a prerequisite for acceptance to grad school), ”
    I think YMMV. Maybe this is an ilaf problem, but I would say about 40-50% of my incoming class had extremely limited research experience (e.g. did not tech in a lab). Then, whwn you have admission committees bragging about their training grants, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume that is how everyone is supported.
    Even if you’re vaguely aware your salary is paid off grants at some point, many PIs go out of their way to hide the reality of how stretched thin those grants can get.
    It isn’t unreasonable to not realize that the grad school views you as a source of labor until you’re already well into the program For a variety of reasons, it is definitely not a 1:1 correlation with undergraduate.


  71. Jmz4 Says:

    I remember in my roommate’s economics cohort, the qualifying exams culled between 40-60 % of the incomingredients class. The rest left with free masters degrees. Still a pretty good deal.


  72. qaz Says:

    @Jmz4 – this used to be the standard in many fields. (Physics and math, for example, which used to use first and second year students as TAs for the big intro classes, and then weed them out with the qualifying exams. [I don’t know if this is still true – maybe xykademiqz or someone else active in teaching grad students in those fields can comment.]) In fact, many schools still have a major tuition decrease after 2 years, which is a remnant of the “masters to PhD candidate” transition.

    But in biomedical fields with NIH training grants, this would be a kiss of death. There are three things training grant study sections care about: (1) number of students ending up in R1 faculty jobs, (2) number of non-graduating students, and (3) time to degree. Many biomedical grad programs are absolutely dependent on those training grants, which means they are stuck with these poor measures.

    On the other hand, the weed-them-out-in-year-2 process was a stressful nightmare for many students, and the students hated it. Programs that did not have this weed-out process were far more popular. (And we’ve found that saying “we would never have accepted you if we didn’t think you could do this” has been very important for many students who struggle along the way. And very helpful in teaching students grit.)

    The problem is that this pressure to not lose any, like trying to force a limited time-to-degree, hurts those special cases that need to either drop out (2) or take longer to graduate (3).


  73. Roberta Says:

    I know a young , bright science student at a reputable university who has been granted pre-admittance to a Master’s program and is being pursued aggressively by profs who want him to let them supervise his work, have him join their research groups.

    In my opinion, they are very aggressive, and have been having funding wars to get him a summer intern placement, I think so he will continue on with them into the fall.

    He doesn’t know the social rules around all this and, although he wants to accept the position he has now been told he will be offered for the summer, he is not sure that he wants to continue in that direction (hence, with that prof) for the Master’s itself.

    What are the rules? These profs are letting him know of admissions and awards prior to formal announcements (they have all come through thus far) because they want to send him a private message and get him on board. He is starting to feel as though HE is doing something wrong not committing in one direction or another, but I think this aggression by profs is uncalled-for and inappropriate to do to a shy, young, scientist who has not even started grad school yet – he is trying to respect these guys and is daunted by their positions of authority. Moreover, he is now in the position of letting some that he is interested in working know that he is not committed to working past the summer with the prof who secured him summer research money. It’s upsetting.

    What are the rules?


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