As someone who has just completed the PhD process, I can say I really relate to this piece. From Science Careers, a thoughtful analysis on the PhD timeline… or rather, the indefinite length of the timeline.
It’s hard for some to comprehend because most graduate and professional programs—especially master’s degrees but also medical school, law school, and business school—have a defined end date, just like colleges. Yet, in most Ph.D. programs, you graduate at some nebulous time in the future. You graduate when, in the opinion of your interest-conflicted adviser, “you’re ready.” You graduate when your adviser gets sick of you, needs the space, or has a whim. You graduate because you’ve been there 8 years, and your adviser now believes you don’t actually deserve a Ph.D., but it would look bad for him or her to admit it at this point.
You graduate because a grant is running out, or you don’t graduate because a grant isn’t running out. An experiment fails, and you stay another year. A journal accepts your paper, and you can leave a year sooner. Your lab relocates, and you’re kicked out early—or your lab relocates, and you join another lab, effectively starting over. Your graduation, in other words, like many aspects of life, is determined not by your accomplishments but by an inscrutable set of circumstances over which you have little control.
But you’re thwarted by the fact that, for a Ph.D. program, there are no graduation criteria. Yes, your department may require a certain amount of coursework, most of which you probably finished during your first few years (despite the university somehow still justifying continuing to charge you tuition). But it’s not just coursework. It’s coursework-plus-whatever, and “whatever” is subjective, hazy, arbitrary, capricious. A Ph.D. program, therefore, occurs on a theoretically infinite time scale
I can understand the rationale for many of grad school’s lamentable qualities. Long hours aren’t fun, but they’re productive. Low stipends aren’t something to celebrate, but if you say the words “finite resource” and cover my eyes when I walk past the beautiful new athletic center and the university president’s mansion, at least I know what you’re trying to convey.
But what’s the advantage of keeping graduation dates and requirements mysterious? I just don’t get it. And I don’t think it has to be that way.
The entire post is worth a read, and definitely something that resonates with all PhD students!