A PhD Student’s Race Against Time – How To Win/Graduate Faster

Time As The Enemy for Ph.D. Students

Most Ph.D. students worry at some point about how long it’s going to take to finish their research, write a dissertation, and defend it successfully so they can finally move on. The majority will manage to get it all done within a reasonable amount of time (albeit usually longer than they were expecting at the outset), but many others will struggle for several months, or even years, only to finally finish after much, much too long. Many others will quit in frustration along the way.

The aim of this article is to help graduate students avoid some common pitfalls associated with long Ph.D. completion times, particularly those related to research. The most common hindrances to good progress through a Ph.D. program can be anticipated and avoided, and if not avoided, there are ways to diminish their impact once they are recognized. I will suggest some steps for maintaining good progress, and for those who may have already fallen off the rails, I’ll offer suggestions for getting back on track toward timely program completion. The advice applies most directly to doctoral programs in the various fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (referred to as STEM fields, in the U.S.), but much of it applies also to doctoral programs in the humanities and fine arts.

Doctoral students and their supervisors share the responsibility of ensuring completion within a reasonable time frame, so it’s essential that they work well together. Not surprisingly, conflicts sometimes arise, which can put at odds the interests of student and supervisor. Whether justified or not, some doctoral students actually see their supervisors as significant obstacles to timely completion!

When Dr. Ryan Raver invited my comments on this topic, he set the stage with the following questions:

Some grad students voice concern of being taken advantage of by their professors to squeeze that last bit of data out in attempt to get in a better journal. But what if those experiments don’t work and are the only thing standing between you (the grad student) and graduation? And what if you do all that extra work, submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal and the reviewers ask for something completely different (maybe in retrospect it was all in vain)?…  To put it in perspective, how does it take someone 4.5 years vs. 6.5 years to graduate (if say you kept the workload constant and both were to hypothetically have similar research projects)? Since it is a symbiotic relationship between the student and the professor, how can both benefit without the balance tipping all to one direction? 

There are at least two separate issues behind Dr. Raver’s questions. One issue concerns the timely completion of a doctoral program, while the other has more to do with navigating around an obstructive supervisor. Problems with the first issue can sometimes arise as a consequence of the second, of course. I will suggest a few things about coping with a difficult supervisor after first discussing the more general issue of finishing the Ph.D. in a timely manner.


The 3 Stages of a Ph.D.

To get an idea of how long a Ph.D. should take and how things should progress along the way, let’s divide a typical Ph.D. student’s program into three stages: early stage (roughly the first 12-18 months, or so), middle stage (the second, third, and in some cases, part of the fourth years), and final stage (fourth or fifth year). Note that these time frames may vary across disciplines, and across individuals, depending on the nature of their research. The important distinction for now is between the early, middle, and final stages.

Research-related activities during the early stage may consist of reviewing the literature, discussing important research questions, and coming up with a proposal for the Ph.D. research. In many cases, a student will start collecting data during the early stage, at least from pilot experiments, some type of preliminary analysis, or feasibility assessment. If a doctoral student is given a research project that is part of an established and ongoing line of research, it is usually possible to begin collecting key data for the dissertation during the early stage.

Communication between supervisor and student must operate effectively from the outset.  Students need to feel they are receiving proper direction from the supervisor, and that expectations are clear and consistent. It’s also important that students know throughout the early stage of their program how things are going. Normally, the supervisor establishes effective means for all this to happen, and the student gets off to a good start.

But some new doctoral students discover after a few months that their supervisors have been neglecting them, either because they are too busy, distracted, or just plain neglectful. Students in this situation must not wait too long before taking control of things themselves.

It is important to have a regular meeting time during which the student and supervisor discuss problems. By “regular” I mean something like every Wednesday at 2 pm. Having a fixed time makes it less likely that a busy professor will neglect meeting with grad students. An hour, once a week or every two weeks, is usually enough. The supervisor should normally be the one to request the regular meeting time, but a student should not wait for that to happen.

Don’t worry if these meetings are often cancelled because there is little or nothing to update since the last meeting. The important thing is to have the provision to meet at a fixed day and time, if needed. This way, the student is assured to have the supervisor’s attention when the need to discuss something arises. (It goes the other way, too — meeting regularly eases the professor’s task of monitoring the student’s progress).

The middle stage of the Ph.D. program is when the bulk of the data are collected. It tends to be a very busy period, lasting from several months up to a few years for most successful Ph.D. students. Many people fail to maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits during this busy period. This can become a significant problem for some, and it certainly has an adverse effect on the performance and general wellness of many. It’s not worth it, and increases the risk of burnout.

Regular meetings between student and supervisor should continue during the middle stage. To the extent that it is possible, specific milestones should be established to indicate the approximate dates by which various points in the overall project should be reached. These milestones set out a critical path for the student’s research. But since we are talking about original research, which by definition does not always go as expected, the critical path should be frequently revisited.

The time it takes to write a dissertation is usually much longer than anticipated, and the importance of getting an early start on a first draft cannot be overemphasized. As soon as possible during the middle stage, a draft of the introductory chapter should be written, even if it has some gaps, and a rough draft of each chapter should be written as each corresponding part of the overall project is completed.

In an ideal situation, a student enters the final stage of the Ph.D. having completed the actual research, or at least nearly so. The final stage is mostly about tying-off loose ends in terms of data production, and of course the major task of putting together a final version of the dissertation. If drafts of the introductory chapter and the other major chapters have already been written, this stage should last only a few months.

A common mistake is to wait until all the data are in and the results are clear before starting to write in a concerted way. Most of the writing can actually be done before the all the data have arrived, and understanding this is key to getting an early start on those initial drafts of the dissertation during the middle stage of the program. For example, one does not need to know the results of an experiment before writing most of the report, either for a manuscript to be published or for a chapter of the dissertation. After all, the rationale for having done the experiment doesn’t change with the results, so the introduction can be written without knowing the results. The methodology does not depend on the results, nor does the nature of the analyses that will be preformed on the data; so a framework for the results section can be written before the data are in. Much of the discussion can even be framed before knowing the final results.

Now, some experienced researchers might argue that the results must be known before one can put the proper spin on the introduction. That might be necessary (sadly) in order to get a paper published in a top journal, but spin is not needed for the dissertation — and it’s not how objective scientists and researchers are supposed to behave, anyway.

What are the reasons for your delays

There are no doubt a wide variety of reasons why people fail to complete a Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time. Here, we will only consider reasons related to the research and production of the dissertation. ‘Real-life’ reasons such as health problems, substance abuse, having children, or finding employment, should receive a dedicated and thorough discussion at another time and place.

One of the most common reasons for a long completion time is a slow start to the research. If a student does not become engaged early on with the intellectual issues, such as formulation of research ideas and experiments, many of the remaining activities are likely to be a mix of compromises and inefficiencies. The message here is simple: If you are in the beginning stages of your Ph.D. program, do not procrastinate about getting started with your research. And this doesn’t just mean reading the literature. You should be doing that already, anyway. You need to start collecting data, as soon as possible.

A second common reason for a long completion-time is a student or supervisor who is never satisfied, who can always think of a way to improve results, and who therefore has difficulty bringing projects to a conclusion. Perfectionism can be an asset for scientists and researchers, but not when it hampers progress. In most instances, if a student would just write up whatever he or she has already achieved, and discuss it with the supervisor, this would clarify whether any changes or refinements are necessary, what additional data may be needed, or whether it makes sense to attempt additional work in light of the time it would require.

Another major reason for delay is distraction from the primary line of investigation. Some students can’t resist the temptation to explore all the interesting byways or potential side-projects that come up during the course of any major research project. Curiosity and a willingness to work long hours are important attributes for any new scientist or engineer, but they need to be harnessed and channeled toward completion of the Ph.D., not just toward support of the supervisors’ research program.

Delays can also occur when students spend too much time on tasks that keep them in their comfort zone; for example, working in the lab, collecting data, or reading the literature — instead of writing. Don’t fool yourself into believing that if you’re always amassing more and more data, then you’re being productive and making good progress. You are only being productive and making progress if you are turning those data into peer-reviewed papers and chapters for your dissertation.

The same goes for reading. You need to be on top of the literature, both current and historical — but don’t read too much! You don’t need to read it all, and anyway, it’s counterproductive to try to make everything fit together. The literature in every field is full of discrepant findings and competing ideas. These are natural products of research, and it’s a mistake to expect that reading just a few more papers will bring greater clarity. Just get writing. The writing process will help your ideas become clearer and better organized.

Is your supervisor holding you back?

All professors are aware that doctoral students need to complete the program and move on. On the other hand, some will argue that anyone hoping for a career as an independent researcher should worry more about prudently disseminating the results of their Ph.D. research in good-quality journals, and less about the precise number of months it takes to write and defend the dissertation. I would generally agree with this sentiment, but only for students who are planning to find a postdoctoral research position and eventually apply for an academic job. To be competitive in the postdoc and academic job markets, and to get the most leverage possible from your doctoral training, it is better to finish strong than to finish fast. (If you’d like to read about an example of why this is so, check out The Sham Ph.D., a short article I posted on my blog a while back).

The foregoing arguments apply to only to a minority of doctoral students, however. Most will not end up with an academic position. It’s not because they aren’t qualified or capable — it’s because there simply aren’t enough academic jobs around for more than a small fraction of the students currently pursuing a PhD in a science or technology field. Besides, not everyone is interested in an academic research career following the Ph.D. (for a reality-check on the academic job market, check out this article from The Economist).

Although some professors might not care whether their grad students develop successful careers of their own, most professors do care a great deal. Problems can arise, however, because the needs of the doctoral student are not in complete concordance with those of the professor, and it is easy for a well-meaning professor to lose sight of the differences.

Students should not to assume too much about their supervisor’s motives. It is unlikely that the professor is intrinsically evil or sadistic, or has a pathologic desire to control and oppress graduate students. It’s more likely the professor has simply been overlooking the student’s need to complete the program and move on to the next stage of his or her career.

Students should generally give their supervisor the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps your professor is not as indifferent to your interests as you think, and they simply haven’t been informed of your long-term career plans. Unless informed otherwise, some professors assume that every doctoral student they supervise wants to pursue a research career, and probably in an academic setting. Maybe they aren’t aware of your concerns about the Ph.D. taking more than a reasonable amount of time. Maybe they are actually ready to help you try to complete by a particular target date.

You just might need to shake your supervisor a bit to momentarily get his or her attention away from your newest data, or the revisions to the manuscript you’ve been working on, or their need for a progress report on your next study, or the undergraduate projects you’ve been supervising…  These issues are of shared interest to the graduate student and professor, and if the professor is allowed to take control of every serious discussion about the student’s progress, such things will naturally be the focus of nearly every conversation.

A frank discussion is needed to make the supervisor aware of the student’s concerns about timing the end of the Ph.D. research and the defense of the dissertation. One way to make sure the professor gets the message is for the student to request a special meeting for the express purpose of discussing the dissertation. This meeting should be in addition to the regular student-supervisor meetings, and if possible, it should take place in a different setting. Such measures might make it less likely the conversation will end up drifting to the same topics as usual.

No other issues should be mentioned when asking for this meeting — only the dissertation. If the meeting does eventually occur, make sure it begins with your issues, before it slides toward a discussion of those shared interests. You need to really control the direction of this discussion, because your supervisor may conflate your issues pertaining to completion of the Ph.D. with the interests you both share pertaining to the research.

Professor: “Sure, Mike. I agree…, we should talk about your timeline for finishing the Ph.D. and finally getting out of here. Okay, so I guess we should start by talking about those latest data and what we need to do next.”

Mike: (sigh)…

Disconnect your writing projects

Sometimes a professor who feels pressure to publish some data will project that pressure onto the students involved in the work. The student and professor share interests in seeing the work through, but if doing so means the student’s dissertation will be on the backburner for a while, this will be a significant concern only for the student. Not a big deal for the professor.

Doctoral students on the academic career path should try to disconnect development of their research credentials from the compilation of their dissertation.

Here’s what I mean by that: Every Ph.D. student understands that a successful research project should culminate in at least two major writing tasks. One task is to write the manuscript for publication in a research journal or some other appropriate outlet. The other task is to write the relevant portion of the dissertation. Some of what is written will be used for both purposes, but that is beside the point.

It’s essential to think of these two objectives, the publications and the dissertation, as two distinct writing projects. What makes them distinct is not the comprehensiveness of the story or the format in which it is written — the important distinction is that one of these projects is of vital importance to the student only. The professor wants the publications as much as the student does, but only the student’s career is dependent on the production and defense of the dissertation.

An important truth for all Ph.D. students to remember is that those significant results your supervisor is waiting for may indeed be necessary for publication, but that does not mean they are necessary for the dissertation. Consider a situation in which the results of a key experiment point toward a particular conclusion, but the data overall do not make as convincing a case as would be needed in order to get published in a top journal. The corresponding chapter of the dissertation should be written up, regardless; if the reviewers of a journal manuscript has pointed to certain limitations in the data, those should become part of the discussion at appropriate points in the dissertation.

For the purposes of the dissertation, it is important that the student acknowledges limitations in the data and has ideas about how they could be improved by future work. As long as the student’s work was done properly and the data were analyzed thoroughly, there is no reason why additional work necessary for publication in a good journal cannot be completed after the dissertation has been defended.

If you are a doctoral student on the academic career path, you must understand that your career has already started. How far you go toward ultimately fulfilling your career goals will depend on how you come across as a researcher and scientist. No one will look to your dissertation for insight — they will look at your publications, they will want to know what ideas you have for future research, and what grants you will apply for.

This might not sit well with someone who is currently working on their Ph.D., but the truth is, no one will care about your dissertation once you have defended it. As Dr. Karen Kelsky, an academic career counselor, explains in an article for Chronicles of Higher Education, the more you discuss your dissertation, the less likely you are to land an academic job (at least in a STEM field, whereas this may be less so in the humanities or social sciences). And no one in a position to hire you for a postdoc, or as an assistant professor, will ever ask or even care how long it took you to finish your Ph.D.

Your ultimate goal should be publication of your findings in a good journal. Even if you’ve decided you won’t pursue an academic research career after your Ph.D., you owe it to yourself and to the other people you have worked with and who have supported you in some way (including your supervisor), and you owe it to the taxpayers who paid for it all.

But, publication of one’s findings is not a criterion for completing a Ph.D. program. If you feel under pressure to publish at least some of your data before finishing and defending your dissertation, you need to pause and figure out exactly why you feel that pressure. Is your supervisor really the direct source, or does it come from within?

Strategies for avoiding delays

Many problems related to student-supervisor conflicts and long completion times can be avoided with the following strategies:

1. Use your Ph.D. committee, not just your supervisor

Students often fail to make efficient use of their Ph.D. committee, choosing instead to deal with only with their supervisors when planning research and monitoring its progress. This has become the normal way of doing things in many doctoral programs today. Most professors are content to work closely with their own Ph.D. students, so they make little or no effort to draw their faculty colleagues into the process.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t be, because a student’s supervisor isn’t the only professor around who can be gleaned for knowledge, advice, and feedback.

Resourceful grad students create their Ph.D. dissertation committees as early as possible, usually after first establishing with the supervisor some general aims or scope for what will comprise the doctoral research. It is wise to get everyone involved at this point by putting together a written or oral proposal that is evaluated by at least one or two members of the committee, other than the supervisor.

Students need to keep on top of this process, and not expect someone else to take it over. It is a good idea to have a progress-report meeting with the Ph.D. committee, at least those members internal to the student’s program (i.e., from the same department) every 12 months, or so — with the option to have additional meetings if major problems arise with the work that’s agreed on, and if there are reasons to change the direction of the research. When many people are involved it is less likely the student will fall behind without anyone noticing.

2. Write every day — even if you don’t feel like it

This is probably the most important advice for nearly any graduate student. It really can’t be emphasized enough. It takes a lot of practice to get good at writing. And every grad student knows there is always something in need of being written up. Students who are having difficulty with the writing process often procrastinate on major projects, such as a manuscript or dissertation, resulting in feelings of guilt and anxiety, in addition to the delays.

Dr. Inger Mewburn manages The Thesis Whisperer, one of the most helpful websites I know for scientists and researchers who need advice on the writing process. Graduate students should check out the archives and the many helpful resources available. The blogs provide fresh insights into various facets of the early to mid-stages in an academic research career.

Getting into good writing habits will smooth much of the way through a doctoral program. Writing frequently will reveal gaps in one’s knowledge or understanding. Vague and disorganized writing often reflects vague and disorganized thinking. Writing about complex arguments or concepts helps most people understand them more deeply.

3. Don’t operate in passive mode

A salient difference between undergraduate and grad school is the degree of self-reliance required. New grad students need to realize that it will be largely up to them to teach and train themselves. The graduate supervisor’s primary role is to keep students on track and facilitate their self-education. The professor should also be a resource of knowledge and advice, but it’s up to the student to seek it.

Some students waste a lot of time in the early months of grad school, as they wait around for their supervisor to tell them what needs to be done. Most eventually figure out they need to take the initiative to make certain things happen. Meanwhile, time is lost due to the slow start.

Take the initiative for arranging the necessary meetings with your supervisor and other members of your Ph.D. committee. Taking matters into your own hands might even make a good impression on others that you didn’t anticipate, perhaps including professors from whom you will later need references.

4. Get to know your potential supervisors before you make a commitment.

This applies to prospective new grad students, of course, rather than those who are already in a Ph.D. program.

Interpersonal problems between student and supervisor are behind a large proportion of grad school dropouts. (I have written more about this in a previous commentary). If it becomes impossible for a particular grad student and supervising professor to continue working together with mutual respect, it may be possible to switch to a different supervisor part way through a program — if the student can actually find a professor in the department who is willing —  but it is next to impossible to gracefully change supervisors. And there is no doubt that changing supervisors will add considerable time to a Ph.D. program.

You can’t ask people directly whether they are good graduate supervisors, but you can look for clues. Making a personal visit is the best way to find out in advance how a particular professor works with students. One should give at least as much attention to meeting with a professor’s graduate students as to meeting with the professor. Use your intuition, but also look for other warning signs that there may have been problems in the past, such as current students who have been working on their Ph.D. for an unusually long time, or stories of former grad students who either quit without finishing or changed to a different supervisor part way through their program.

Dealing with a difficult supervisor

Universities do not generally have much in the way of quality-control mechanisms to ensure that individual professors do a good job of supervising their graduate students. Luckily, relatively few professors truly abuse their authority over students. There are some bad apples, of course — professors who think of grad students and postdocs as research employees, without any regard for their career-development or personal needs. It’s not an all-or-nothing attribute; some professors are far worse than others.

A student who feels that he or she is in this kind of situation may need to clear a few potential impediments before taking steps to deal with it. One potential obstacle to resolving such conflicts concerns the emotional state of the student

Conflicts that arise between graduate student and supervisor tend to be emotionally charged. This can seriously impede attempts to resolve issues to the student’s satisfaction, because strong emotions can cloud a person’s judgment and bias his or her perception of a situation.

If you feel angry with your supervisor for letting you down, that may in fact be justified. But if you want to get through a predicament you absolutely must shed the anger and forget about the blame game. Remember that your goal is to finish the program — it’s not to take your supervisor to task for something you think is an injustice.

But there is no doubt that some professors spend more time managing their own career than looking out for the interests of their students. The effectiveness of a student’s efforts to work through a Ph.D. program with an unsupportive or abusive supervisor will depend on their perception of the student-supervisor relationship and expectations regarding how this relationship is intended to work for the benefit of both parties.

Many professors share the notion that giving doctoral students plenty of work to do in the lab is all that’s needed to train them to become good researchers. But all this does is train a student for a career as someone else’s research employee, and this is exactly the type of career that many doctoral students end up with after years of “training” — one postdoctoral position after another, never having long-term job security, and never becoming an independent researcher with grant money and facilities of their own.

Students should push back at being treated like an employee. The greatest danger is accepting that this is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s easy to get lulled into that belief over time, especially when other professors and grad students seem to have accepted that this is the right way. But it is not supposed to be that way. Students must fight the illusion that they are their supervisors’ employees. Those who assume the role of employee and behave accordingly are likely to continue being treated that way, and some of their needs as doctoral students may be neglected.

If it gets to the point that there is too much distrust or other bad feelings between you and your supervisor, or if you suspect you are being abused, it will be necessary to seek advice and support from the Graduate Program Director (GPD). The GPD probably knows your supervisor in ways that you don’t, and may know some things about this professor’s supervising history. The GPD is likely to at least understand your situation and offer perspectives you haven’t been able to see. Thus, at the very least, the GPD should provide hope that you’re not entirely under the thumb of your supervisor.

One should also keep the other members of the Ph.D. committee abreast of what’s going on. Since your supervisor doesn’t own you, you are free to seek advice or guidance from other professors. It might not seem that way, depending on the prevailing culture amongst students and professors in your program; but just because the majority of your peers tend to consult only with their supervisors, that does not mean you have to limit yourself in such a way. Most of your professors are extremely knowledgeable and willing to help. But they will not come to you, so you must go to them.

One or more of those other professors might even have some novel insights or useful suggestions for you. When asking a professor for advice or guidance on such a touchy subject, however, it is important to behave in a professional manner at all times.  If seeking advice from another professor, do not speak disparagingly about your supervisor or blame them outright for any of the problems. This never helps, and it usually costs the student some credibility.

Remember that these other people will be watching how you deal with this difficult situation. You are likely to need letters of recommendation from them at some point in the future, either when applying for a postdoctoral position or for some other employment.

Further Reading


About The Author

Dave G. Mumby, PhD is a professor at a major University in Montreal, Canada. He is an academic advisor for undergraduate Psychology students, as well as a graduate supervisor for Master’s and Ph.D. students who share interests in behavioural neuroscience. Dr. Mumby is on many selection committees in his department, and is a regular contributer to MyGraduateSchool.com, which features advice from experts on applying to graduate or professional school.