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114: Grad School Should Have a Time Limit

Here’s a controversial idea: what if graduate school finished on a predictable schedule the way (checks notes) every other academic training program does!

Since kindergarten, your education has had fixed milestones. You knew it would take 12 years to graduate from high school, 4 for college, and 2 for a masters or an associates degree.

Even medical school takes a predictable 4 years, with an additional 3-6 for residency and fellowship, depending on the field.

So why does graduate school take between 4 and 10 years, with a lot of discretion, uncertainty, and mental anguish in between?

Start the Clock

This week on the show, we explore the strange, but sticky, notion that graduate training should be open-ended with no fixed program of development.

If we could sacrifice that sacred cow, we might be able to design some requirements and milestones that feel less arbitrary and can consistently churn out bright, capable scientists.

Imagine a world in which your PhD program was limited to 5 years.  What type of training would build your research skills and make you ready for the workplace?

The fact is, our current system is extremely variable – each student has a unique project with individual successes and failures.  One student might sail through in 3 years, while another is forced to change labs and stays through year 9.

Is the first student smarter? Better equipped to succeed?  

Or is the second student better trained by the additional time?

The reality is that ‘time to PhD’ is not synonymous with skill or training.  And if time isn’t correlated with success, then there’s an opportunity to tighten up the training schedule without sacrificing pedagogical quality.

We share a handful of ideas and concerns about a fixed-term PhD, but we’d love to hear what you think!  Is it worth standardizing scientific training, and where should we start?

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Breakfast of Champions

Fry up some bacon, pull down a coffee mug, and pour yourself a glass of breakfast. It’s the Morning Smack Imperial Milk Stout from Three Taverns Craft Brewery in Decatur, GA.

With maple-notes and a solid sweetness, this stout drinks like a dessert. And at 8% ABV, it’s probably wiser to save it for after dinner.

You can still sip it from a mug, though!

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3 thoughts to “114: Grad School Should Have a Time Limit”

  1. While listening to this episode, I was reminded of a pedagogy workshop I attended at my university that suggested a couple alternatives to the traditional cumulative final exam for a class. The questions that launched this workshop were: What is the purpose of a final? What do we expect finals to measure or show? and do traditional finals actually accomplish what we want them to accomplish? You could turn this on the PhD process quite easily and frame in terms of backward design:
    What are the goals of a PhD? How do you know if you have achieved those goals? How do you measure achievement/progress? How do you design the instruction/activities to achieve the goals?
    I think it is absolutely conceivable to have a PhD take a fixed amount of time, but you first need professors and departments to figure out answers to some of the above questions. Too often I think advisers and instructors just fall back on the way *they* learned things, and (either out of bitterness or clueless-ness) continue using the same broken methods.

    By the way, I really liked the comparison to medical school, but your conclusion that it’s too different doesn’t seem fair. What has been brought up time and again on your show is that a PhD teaches you a multitude of hard and soft *skills*. Skills can be measured and evaluated. In fact, I think the most important difference between the two types of programs is that the process to become an M.D. is very good at measuring skills, which is a necessity due to the high stakes involved.

    1. PhD should be time boxed, because of the power dynamic. A students apprenticeship work is expert at far under an appropriate income. The duration doesn’t matter but should be publicly negotiated and dependent on future schooling and professional goals. If an advisor cannot deliver a graduating environment to a hard working student in a fixed negotiated amount of time, then they are bad at that part of their job. They should not be allowed to work with students.

      Additionally y’all talked about little oversight on the process, like missing meetings. If meetings are regularly dismissed, then the school needs to reprioritize. A few missed meetings is highly disrespectful and should be grounds to fire your advisor from carrying out your PhD.

  2. In my opinion the PhD should have a time limit; the main reason for certainty. I know tenths of PhD students in my field striving to find a relative clear ending to their work. Uncertainty creates lot of stress. Some of them I know are left stray by their supervisors. It’s shameless how supervisors manage time and public resources. If managers cannot stick to the time plan, they should be removed from the project.
    We cannot let supervisors disrupting the graduates future because of selfish interests.

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