Skip to main content

114. Grad School Should Have a Time Limit (R)

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 Master’s or an Associate’s 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?

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!

One thought to “114. Grad School Should Have a Time Limit (R)”

  1. Dear ‘Hello PhD’ Podcast,

    My name is Mindle Shavy Paneth and I have been a listener for about a year now. I enjoy your podcast! I am emailing you as a response to your last episode: ‘114. Grad School Should Have a Time Limit (R)’. I am currently a rising second year PhD candidate at Columbia University. I am in the Chemistry Department where we have a fixed PhD Grad School limit of 5 years. It is very unlikely that grad students stay beyond five years (during covid there were some exceptions). Our program follows some of the ideas that were mentioned in this podcast such as fixed timelines and such.

    I thought you would enjoy to know that there is a program like this in the US! It has its pros and cons such as, rather strict timelines, no rotations, and some additional pressure to accomplish all. I just finished my first year where I took 4 our of my five graduate classes. During the upcoming year I will finish my last graduate class as well as complete the remaining of the 2/3 teaching (TA) requirements our department has for graduate school. At the end of this year (April) I will defend my work in what we cal: ‘Second Year Defense’. (In short: This is the point at which it will be decided if I have what it takes to be continue on in the department as a. PhD.) Most student receive their masters degree during the conclusion of the second year as well as an MPhil after successful completion of their fourth year Oral Research Presentation.

    While we do not have rotations, incoming students can choose to TA or do Research at a lab they choose the summer before their first semester of grad school. That gives some the opportunity to earn some money as well as understand how a lab operates better.

    I hope this message amplifies your case and while I am sure there are more nuances to our program than I described above, this should give a pretty good idea of what a fixed five year program may look like.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.