Never ask a grad student how long until they graduate. It’s one of those unspoken rules that are at the heart of many XKCD comics* that hit too close to home… Especially for those of us coming from outside of academia, this unspoken rule can be broken many many times by family and friends who honestly mean well. But, the thing is, grad school (at least the research part) has no set timeline. Instead it depends on your project, your collaborators, your editors, etc. – basically a LOT of it is outside of the student’s control and therefore grad school can last a range of ~4-7 years.
It’s definitely NOT like high school – or even college for the most part – where you have a set timeframe for graduating. Instead, it really just depends. Have to wait on mice to age? That inherently will take a while. “Just” mining already-available data? That can go quicker – definitely NOT trying to diss computer science folks – they work wonders and definitely earn their diplomas – but they also tend to graduate sooner because they usually don’t have to wait on data generation as much. Even if you aren’t having to wait on data, there’s also the issue of potentially needing to wait on people. Whether it’s collaborators on a project, co-authors on a paper, or editors on a manuscript. And, when you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy, you don’t have much power to speed things up on this front. Some schools require you to have a first-author** paper to graduate, some don’t (though typically they want to see you’ve done presentations, have a paper in preparation, maybe a preprint, etc.).
When you’re nearing what you feel is the end of your PhD it can feel like the end is so close but so far… So when people (meaning well) ask when you’ll be done it can hurt. I was in this boat for a while, and I would find myself getting internally upset with them but stopping myself (usually) from being terse by remembering that, before I started my grad school quest, I wouldn’t know not to ask either! Or that, if I did ask, they probably wouldn’t be able answer with an actual timeline.
Speaking of timelines – one of the things you quickly realize once you start doing science research is that science research doesn’t like to follow your nicely-set timelines. Whether it’s anticipating how long it will take to run an experiment; to anticipating how long it will take to get edits back; to anticipating how long the “question” that’s really a long statement-asker will go uninterrupted after a seminar talk.. it’s really hard to predict how long things will take. And, even if you correctly anticipate the initial time, you then have to re-calibrate if you have to troubleshoot the experiment or if the experiment gives you results you have to follow up on with more experiments… Or if the editors request more experiments…
Or if a pandemic strikes… I am sooooooo incredibly fortunate to have not experienced the loss of any one loved ones to COVID. Fortunate to have been able to ride out most of lockdown from the comfort of my bedroom while others had to risk their lives to keep society going. But the pandemic did interrupt my and my fellow classmates’ graduate journeys. So I think there was an extra sense of accomplishment and disbelief among the CHSL School of Biological Sciences Class of 2022 as we gathered for the school’s first in-person graduation ceremony in 3 years (last year would have gone on if it weren’t for a hurricane).
So yes, last weekend I did it. I graduated. Officially. Hood and diploma to prove it! That’s another weird thing about grad school… Everyone graduates at different times but then attends one graduation ceremony (commencement/convocation). In order to graduate, you have to successfully write and defend your thesis – more on this in other posts but you write a long report on what you did in grad school (this is your written thesis/dissertation) and then you give a public presentation of it followed by a grilling (hopefully in private) from your thesis committee (the examiners). If you pass that part you might need to make some (hopefully minor) edits to the written part to satisfy their requests and then, as long as you’ve met all the program requirements (taken all the required courses, etc.) you’re done!
But… since everyone reaches this point at different times (due to all those variable time things I mentioned above) if they had to do a graduation ceremony each time someone graduated there’d be tons of ceremonies for individual graduates. So, even though I completed my requirements last October, and even moved onto my postdoc at UCSF (a research position in a new lab), I didn’t “walk” until last weekend. Speaking as someone who hates attention on me, even in a crowd of 10 graduates, this would be a nightmare! So we have a single graduation ceremony, once a year, in May (at least at our school).
Although graduation timeframes vary by project, they can also vary by lab, program, and school. So, when you’re looking into PhD programs I highly recommend you looking into their stats on average time to graduation (and distributions of times – make sure it’s not mainly outliers skewing the mean in stats-y terms). Also, be sure to make sure that your entire time will be covered $-wise. Sometimes the stipend is only guaranteed for a certain number of years so you want to make sure your lab or program will guarantee you funding for as long as you need.
On a final, important, note: because the “end” of grad school can be so wishy-washy it can be hard to plan for what’s next and when. I ended up looking for postdoc positions on the early side timeframe-wise (~1 yr before I ended up actually leaving) because I underestimated how long it would take to get things finished (for some of those outside-of-your-control, nature of science academia, factors). I found my postdoc by some internet searching for labs and locations that interested me. I ended up having a virtual interview with Danica Fujimori and her lab last year and I fell in love at first Zoom. She was so nice and sent a gift basket since she couldn’t offer a campus visit and all that entails due to the pandemic. I’ve kept the note that came with the gift basket all this time. I kept having to look at it to remind myself it was real. And, now that I’m in her lab, I still can’t believe my luck!
I am incredibly grateful for my time at CSHL – the school, the teachers, my thesis committee, all the staff – especially the facilities staff who worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep us safe, and of course Leemor Joshua-Tor and the entire Joshua-Tor laboratory. It was nice to see them last weekend and thank them once again for helping prepare me for my new position. And I hope I don’t let them down!
*note: if you haven’t heard of XKCD comics I highly recommend you check them out. There are some HILARIOUS ones but they probably make the most sense if you’re in academia because there’s a lot of biting sarcasm about it
**more on paper authorship in my paper post, but first author(s) & last/corresponding author(s) are the key ones. The first author(s) is who did most of the work – for example, the grad student whose project it was in the lab. And the last/corresponding author(s) is the person whose lab they did it in and whom emails should be sent to. https://bit.ly/readingsciencearticlesadvice
posts on grad school (from applying to writing a thesis), postdoc-ing (choosing a lab, getting up to speed, etc.), and tips and advice for navigating the world of science (lab meetings, literature reading, etc.). You can find it here: https://bit.ly/gradpostdocetc