Question: How long would your Ph.D. have taken if everything worked?

When I meet other scientist types, this can be one of the most interesting questions to throw out there.

We can use mine as an example. I did my grad studies in Microbiology and Immunology, but basically I was doing biochemistry type work (cancer research with a lot of molecular stuff). It took me just over five years to finish this sucker which is pretty typical in North America. Of course, when I take a critical look at my thesis and calculate: "What if this thesis literally shows all of my work, because everything I did, worked? What if I had magic fingers throughout my research and never had a failed experiment!?"

Using this rubric, I calculate that my Ph.D. in biochemistry/molecular biology type work could've taken about, DUM-DUM-DUM...

 Dnghub Wp-Content Uploads 2010 08 6Months

Note that this figure also includes the 3 months needed to write the damn thesis itself! This means that technically my thesis is reflective of only 3 months of successful experiments: or as I like to think of it -- four and a half years of failed experiments!

This, of course, is how the scientific method works. It's slow, very slow. Most of the time, your marvelous ideas and experiments don't work out, and even if they do, there's almost always someone smarter than you telling you what's wrong with it. Even though it may not seem like it (especially when you read the headlines in newspapers and watch the stories on televisions), the reality is that scientists go about their discoveries in very very gradual increments.

Those doing the science know this already, but sometimes, I get the impression that this reality is lost to other folks. I'm assuming others in research have experienced this, but a classic example, are the many bright high school students coming to a lab, outlining a brilliant science fair project, and then telling you that they only have 6 weeks to do it, and oh-by-the-way "I can only come in after school on mondays, wednesdays, and thursdays!" Of course, this is when you tell them, that the experiments they're suggesting might actually take the better part of a decade, and probably a few dollars here and there.

Anyway, I'm also curious to see what other numbers people will come up with and especially in other fields, science or otherwise. So ask yourself: How long would your Ph.D. have taken if everything worked?


  1. I think your estimate is pretty accurate. It took me longer to do mine but there was also developing, adapting and learning new techniques and “growing up” time. The whole Ph.D. is not just about the science results, but the maturation of a scientist. If the first, then 6 months should do it, if the 2nd …


  2. My degree is in clinical psychology. If everything had gone right the first time with out all the quirks and hassles along the way, I think it would have taken me no longer than 4 months (including writing time).

  3. The question misunderstands the role and purpose of the PhD. The PhD’s outcome is not the thesis – that’s just a byproduct, an artefact, a recording- but the critical thinking, understanding and knowledge of the person who earns the PhD. You’re not the person who started the PhD; you’re someone else.

    So, time for reading, understanding, and developing skills, thought processes and judgement usually needs to be factored in.

    The PhD is not just doing the experiments and getting the results; it’s formulating the experiments and understanding why you want to run them, and what the results mean in a broader context.

    My PhD took just over five years. Even if all the experiments and programming had worked without error, and other human factors had not occurred to slow things up, a decent number of years would still be needed for developing an understanding the field and formulating the right questions. Less than three years seems unlikely, given my starting point.

    In much the same way, undergraduate courses take a number of years, and the person who graduates successfully is very different from the younger person who entered the course.

    Often, gaining the necessary maturity can’t be rushed.

    1. Awesome. We put too much emphasis on the product than the process it took to create it. We view education as means to increase GDP.

    2. That’s an excellent point (about the time to “mature” as a scientist). It’s also a point that is near and dear to me, in that the aspects of growth and the experiences during it, are very much of what I consider to be science culture (i.e. this is what it’s like to be a scientist, and more people should know that).

      Still, hopefully, the question in the title of the post still merits an interesting thought exercise.

    3. Another “Yes Indeedy” for Compilicity.

      Mine is a medical degree.
      During the first week of the first year one of the Clinical Professors said;
      :I’m going to tell you the same thing I was told at the beginning of First Year, about one half of what you are going to be taught will eventually be proven to be wrong. Can’t tell you which half though. Sorry about that”.

      None-the-less, even if the amount of time had not been able to be cut in half, a sadly high number of my classmates would not have obtained the maturity or sensibilities to become adequate physicians.

      And sadly this is still the case with a few of them fifteen years later.

  4. I work with technology that’s decades old and exhaustively documented. Nothing like original research or pushing out into unexplored territory. Even given all the background work behind me, developing a new implementation takes many many hours of frustrating experiments. It’s basically a process of finding everything that doesn’t work and one or two hints at usable stuff.
    Science and technology are badly misunderstood by the public, who see only the results – the pony – and not the mountain of manure that was shoveled to find it.

  5. My PhD took 10 years (in the field of music theory, at an ivy institution). I haven’t got any laboratory mishaps to blame, but those 10 years include two years of coursework and one year of studying for comprehensive exams; then my first dissertation project didn’t end up working out and I changed topics; my advisor died a year or so into what became my final project; and so I basically developed the tools and did the research and writing alone and unsupervised. There was one year in the middle when I had an instructorship at another university; three other years that I worked as a teaching assistant; and the last three years of my “dissertation work” I had started in my current tenure-track job in a different country, which meant things basically ground to a halt on my dissertation until my current institution was about to fire me for not completing the diss as promised when I started. So I have kind of good excuses, but at the same time it was a project that, looking at it now, should have taken no more than a year of proper work. I didn’t have the sort of narrow, focused existence that many grad students seem to lead, I had a full rich life while I was in grad school which also contributed to everything taking so long. The only thing I would do differently, and the advice I have for anyone else, is: if you get a tenure-track job, do everything to finish your dissertation before September, because it will be IMPOSSIBLE once your teaching and committee work starts, and you have all the responsibilities that junior profs get saddled with these days.

  6. I realize this post is more about the pace of scientific discovery than about the process of getting a PhD, but there’s a big difference between the work that goes into a dissertation (among the first significant output in a researcher’s career) and the work that goes into a paper ten or fifteen years into a research career.

    Those extra 4.5 years in your PhD probably consisted of more than just failed experiments. If you were to go back now and repeat all the experiments you performed—those that failed as well as those that didn’t—you probably would not take 5 years to do them all; my bet is it’d be more like 1.5 or 2. If this is true, what explains the discrepancy?

    You were probably taking classes during some of those years. You probably also work more efficiently now than you did then. But in addition, the point of grad school is to learn how to do research, and that learning is a slow, time-consuming, error-prone process.

    My observation has been that if you took a graduating PhD and somehow erased their memory of all their research, experiments, results, conclusions, and writing, but were able to preserve in their minds the lessons about *how* to do all those things that they’d learned over the course of their PhD experience, they’d be able to re-do all the work in about two years.

    Of course, in a research career there’s also the ramp-up time for a long-term research agenda, grant-writing, etc., and the apparent time to produce any given result or publication doesn’t necessarily take that into account.

  7. Totally agree; my thesis would have taken 1 year maximum. But I learn not to underestimate the value of the incubation process. This process is when the thesis idea is a burr more than anything else but stays in the background of your mind while doing other things… then, one day, it just clicks, it comes to fruition. then, one does the experiments or runs the models and ready to write…. but it is during the incubation process that slowly and latently we become true researchers.

    Conclusions: I would have never become a researcher in 1 year, but the final thesis numbers took 1 year to produce.

  8. “what other numbers people will come up with and especially in other fields”… well, it’s still biochemistry, but it’s protein crystallography… but had the crystals crystallized on my first attempt, and they weren’t mosaic, and the synchrotron schedule wasn’t backed up for almost a year, and refinement package hadn’t had a egregious bug in it that my space group ‘found’… *then* i’ll wildly estimate: 1.5 years instead of 6.3 i burned for an luck-lost factor of 0.76, (1.0 – (years_needed / years_required))

  9. If you’ll excuse me, this post is hardly generalisable outside laboratory science, even if it is even generalisable in that limited sphere, which I am not sure of. As someone also remarked already, the time in a PhD also includes significant training, and also just the time to read more widely than you ever get the chance to again. The question of whether your experiments work or not really only relates to one particular part of the process of doing a particular kind of PhD.

  10. is this supposed to be insightful? what one learns is really how to design “good” experiments from “bad” ones and how to productively use time. those are longer-term skill building exercises most productively learned in grad school before taking a position of larger responsibility. sure, once you know the correct experiments to do, in retrospect, doing them takes 3 months. but the insight gained does take a number of years of getting it wrong. you might as well have asked how long it took to learn bicycle riding? da da…10 seconds, once you do it correctly.

  11. Wow, when I started writing that wordtastic post, there were no comments. Looks like all the PhDs here are ganging up on the same ideas. David, I think your original point about the pace of scientific discovery (or academic progress overall, to embrace our friends in the humanities) could be made with fewer confounding variables by talking about the time to publication vs. actual work time on successful experiments for a paper that comes much later in a researcher’s career. It is an excellent point to make, but talking about how long a PhD takes obviously introduces lots of other issues and distracts from the central idea you seem to have meant to discuss.

  12. While not the same thing, my Master’s thesis took about 20 times longer than necessary.

    Essentially, my thesis revolved around the results of a number of finite-element analysis (FEA) models. I theorized, completed the models, ran some pretty simple calculations, and wrote the section my thesis regarding the models in about 3 weeks. These were the actual results of the thesis.

    The rest of the 18 months spent on the thesis was spent planning the lab experiments that would substantiate the FEA results. This included scheduling time in the lab, suckering a manufacturer to donate test equipment, and custom-fabricating some of my own equipment. Performing, analyzing, and writing on the experiments took all of two weeks.

    Certainly the verification of my models is a necessary component of the scientific process, but it feels somewhat futile to spend a year-and-a-half confirming results that were correct all along.

  13. There’s a difference between PhDs in the US and most other countries. In the USA most students will take 2 years of coursework and pass some sort of comprehensive exam before starting on a dissertation. It’s probably 6 months after that that a thesis proposal is approved. That’s part of the reason 6 years is typical in science.

    Also, in some fields the lag time between getting an experiment funded and actually doing the experiment can be significant. Think of building equipment or field experiments, not to mention truly big science like space telescope observations or particle accelerators. Not everyone’s science can be done on a benchtop (and even most of that takes a lot of prep time, funding, and building/obtaining the right facilities).

  14. My PhD in Communication took 6 years. It was a long-term ethnography of “geek cultures” (see the blog for more info on it). Breaking it down, that’s…

    3.5 years of (generally quite useful) classes
    1 semester of proposal writing
    2+ years of field research (overlapping with classes/proposal)
    1ish year to write it (overlapping with the field research)

    There weren’t any experiments, so the only thing that had to “work” better was my dedication to writing every day. I could’ve done it in 5 years if I did less research and wrote more quickly, but I think it would’ve been a less complete dissertation if I’d done it that way. I could’ve done it in 3-4 years if I skipped any courses unrelated to my dissertation, but I think that would have left me questioning whether I was really using the best methodology available to me, and wouldn’t have prepared me as well to actually go out into the world as a teacher and researcher, so I don’t regret that.

  15. The title should have been “How long would your PhD RESEARCH have taken if everything worked the first time you tried it?” In my case, 6 months is probably about right. The full PhD experience takes a while longer: Discounting the “maturation period” (which is a way of saying that you start as someone’s bitch, you enter the cocoon you’ve created, you work hard, then emerge gloriously as that same bitch, but now you understand whose bitch you are and begin the coping process), you still have to account for creating your human networks by attending conferences (want a job? do it), learning how to write unambiguous prose (or the lions will eat you), waiting for reviewers to respond (could be months), waiting for the next deadline to come around (could be up to a year), preparing for the various formal exams that come along the way, and then there’s the “I’m not graduating until I have secured a job” holding pattern (could take years). Now we’re talking PhD.

  16. I don’t have a PhD, but I have seen this effect in my industry (electronics design)…

    You quote out a project, you’re convinced it can’t take more than 40 hours, and then a month later you realize that your effective bandwidth is only 4 project hours a week…

    I think time delays are symptomatic of large projects in general… I’m sure there are some PhD’s on that topic right there!

  17. As some have indicated, it’s the journey.

    Don’t discount the benefits of failed experiments, such are the beginnings of many a process or even entire branches on the tree of knowledge. The key to failures is to learn WHY and HOW.

    Every failure should tell you something even if it’s just paying more attention to the details.

  18. I’m only half way through mine. I’ve finished one half of it and am starting the next half.

    If I knew at the start of my first project what I know now. I could have done it in a few months (I do numerical work, running models takes time).

    The thing is, as other people have pointed out, at the beginning I was inexperienced and had a lot of silly ideas. The value I got out of the two years I spent on it was an improved ability recognise my own silly ideas.

  19. I’m a structural biologist using X-rays and crystals to determine the structure (shape) of proteins.

    Mine would have taken about 1 year, plus 3 months writing up. It took 3 1/2y + 3 months write up. Not too bad, I guess…

  20. I’m in the last year of my PhD…and I agree completely. When I look back at what I’ve done, the last round of an experiment or analysis usually only takes a few weeks, but many months up to that point in mistakes to get there…all of which is never written about or barely documented.

  21. Don’t think this is entirely out of your control.

    I worked for a post-doc one time who was quite remarkable. He was an MD simultaneously working on his endocrinology specialization while also doing a post doc in molecular biology and had a young child… he wasn’t made of time. However he had a skill I think most other scientists should try harder to develop: A large majority of the experiments he did generated publishing quality data.

    Now things didn’t always work (though his experiments worked more often than those of most), but when they did he tended to be either done or need to repeat once or twice so he could publish 2-3 independent runs. What was remarkable was that he very rarely generated a result that was not of publishable quality. The first gel he ran would look good, be nice and even, etc. Ready to be a figure. He was methodical and never rushed to get a quicker but dirtier result. If he screwed up early in the process he would usually just start over, not continue knowing he would get unpublishable results. I think the time pressure he was under was making him a better scientist. He was working about half time but putting out as much finished work as those going at it 50 hours a week.

    Of course phd students will start without this skill/habit and need to develop it, but I am confident it will be time well spent.

    You also need your project to go somewhere in the first place which has a huge chunk of luck to it.

    Also quit wasting time fiddling with figures and unimportant minutia of wording. Computer publishing tech should be making it faster to write papers not slower as you all worry endlessly about line weights, pip sizes, perfect alignment of everything, etc. Once clarity is achieved and you meet the journal guidelines you are done.

    Also use source control for your papers.

  22. How many graduate students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    One, but it takes him 10 years to do it.

    1. How long would it take if I actually did the damned thing, instead of procrastinating, playing Civ-IV (now #5 is coming!) and generally screwing off?

      My wife can never know…

  23. I’m just wrapping up the final version of my thesis for committee today, and this topic strikes a chord.

    If I had done everything correctly from the start it probably would have taken a 18-24 months. Maybe a little less if I’d narrowed the topic a little and not done all the extra aspects which provided breadth. That’s a lot less than the six years I’ve been at it, but i’ve also learned a lot along the way.

    I’ve definitely been more productive in my last year than I was in the first five, but I’ve heard that’s quite common.

    To establish context I’m in electrical engineering (computer vision and computational photography).

  24. Humanities PhD here (in the making) – along with a year of coursework, people in my field are required to learn two ancient and two modern languages, write comprehensive exams in two subject areas, teach, and defend the proposal for the dissertation before the writing part even begins. I’m not sure how you could really cut that down from the 5+ years it usually takes.

  25. Experimental design >> data collection, timewise.

    I’ll have an answer to this in a few years, hopefully.

  26. I agree with flying_monkey and complicity upthread – it might be the case that a flawless, run-on-rails laboratory science PhD could potentially only take 6 months, but each subject will differ. As a social anthropologist, my fieldwork alone lasted 18 months and the time for the data and ideas to ‘settle’ and percolate into concepts I could write up was about another year and a half. From the beginning of my Masters to completing my thesis was about five and a half years (including fieldwork). I probably could have taken less time writing up but even so it would have taken a minimum of 18 months to get a decent monograph together, giving a total of 4 years.

    And as complicity says, a PhD isn’t so much about the research produced by the researcher as the researcher produced by the research. The approach taken by the Economic and Social Research Council, one of the major funding bodies in the UK, is to invest in PhD students who will go on to have sound research skills. They give you five years max and that’s considered by many to be too short. You might be able to write a great thesis in 6 months if you do everything write (and probably take a lot of uppers to get it written that fast) but there’s no way you can learn how to be a diligent, experienced researcher in that time. You learn by mistakes and being around others doing the same thing.

  27. For my masters thesis, I was told not to worry about being right, just get the machine working.

    I did a little more than that and 18 months later, hundreds of structural samples tested, millions of data points, 130 pages of thesis with pages of differential equations boiled down to “Divide by 4”.

    One week later I started a job and haven’t used any of the research one bit in 15 years.

  28. My dissertation is ethnography-based so it pretty much takes as long as it takes. I’ve been in my phd program since 2003 and I’m just about done with the first draft of my diss. Take away 2 years for classes (but I was doing research back then that I’ve used in my diss) and compress all the participant/observation and interviews and research and thinking I’ve done and it would probably be a couple years worth, I guess?

  29. 6 months sounds about right. It took me SIX YEARS, not counting the pot smoking, in-lab Call of Duty Multiplayer, and general laziness which accompanies the frustration of failed experiments. Or was the pot smoking the cause of the failed experiments? Chicken and the egg, really. Ultimately I had to perform everything TWICE because I worked on some competition sensitive material which couldn’t be published. That was a complete clusterf*ck. In the last two years, I really cleaned up my act and busted it out. I’m loving every minute of my post-dissertation life. For those stuck in perpetual Ph.D. limbo, HANG IN THERE!!! IT’S WORTH IT!

  30. My PhD thesis was on avian behavioral ecology of the mating system of a migratory bird. Because the birds only breed May to August and there are a limited number of them each year everything working perfectly still would’ve taken about 6 years. I think there are some things that could have gone more smoothly, especially in the lab, and that maybe could have shaved off a year or maybe two but that’s it. Any research dealing with non-model organisms in the field will always by necessity take much longer than a project that takes place only at the bench.

  31. I’m doing a PhD in biosensing right now and there are some people in my group who spent about 8 years on this project before getting their PhDs. There are a LOT of failed experiments, but as others have said before me, the failed experiments are where you learn what works and what doesn’t. That information is remarkably valuable. If everything you do works then you don’t learn what doesn’t and you miss out on some great experiences.

    That being said, I sincerely hope my PhD doesn’t take me 8 years…

  32. In my department [fancy school, linguistics] back in the early ’90s there was a guy who had been a grad student for 22 YEARS!

    Yale has, I believe, a seven-year limit on [arts & sciences] graduate studies before one must either “diss or get off the pot.” One can, of course, finish earlier.

    Also, in the postings above I note very little consideration of the political factors that go into choosing a time to defend: departmental politicking, committee membership, being available for the fewer and fewer open positions in the field, etc., etc. Postponement can be an effective strategy…

  33. My PhD is in planetary physics: scattering of light in Jupiter’s atmosphere. This involved computer modeling and comparing my models to measurements of polarized light taken by the Pioneer spacecraft as it flew by Jupiter.

    If I’d known how to properly model a multiple-scattering atmosphere, and understood the nature of scattering in Jupiter’s clouds, well, the dissertation would have taken a few months.

    But the *reason* I did the PhD was to understand the nature of scattering in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Secondarily, I wanted to figure out how to model multiple scattering. The dissertation was simply a byproduct of my learning.

    I don’t begrudge a minute that I spent with my advisor (Marty Tomasko) at the Lunar & Planetary Labs. He was inspiring, hard working, insightful, and always encouraging.

    Nor do I complain about the 2 to 3 years of effort in researching & writing the dissertation. Sure – I made plenty of mistakes. That’s why I was in grad school.

    The capper for me: Just as I was finishing my dissertation, I was invited to help operate the Pioneer 11 spacecraft at Saturn Encounter. Yippee!

    1. I believe you stopped a hacker ring at the same time you did your diss too. Overall, how long did your PhD take? And how long did chasing hackers extend it? :-)

      1. Smiles back to you Aaron…

        My PhD dates back to 1980, at the Lunar & Planetary labs in Tucson. Classwork at the Department of Planetary Sciences took about 3 years, then came prelim exams, followed by the dissertation, which was about 3 years.

        6 years later, I was an astronomer at Lawrence Berkeley Labs – it was there that I chased down the hackers.

        Astronomers, like most academics, move around quite a bit, chasing interesting projects, grants, tenure, and (of course) relationships. For me, this meant Buffalo, Tucson, Nanjing, Cambridge, Baltimore, and Berkeley.

  34. Your “failed experiments” aren’t wasted time. The scientific method is built on negative evidence…i.e. “failed experiments” which prove ideas to be false.

    Future researchers will now be able to look at your work and know what doesn’t work, and what *not* to do. That seems like time well spent to me.

  35. My PhD in social psych took 6 years. There were two years of coursework, a master’s thesis, comprehensive project (in lieu of comp. exam), and dissertation. During that time I worked under an NSF grant and was an instructor for 2 years. The only think that honestly didn’t go according to plan was with my MS research, as it involved children as participants and I ended up having to collect some in the spring of one school year and then waiting until fall to collect the rest.

    But if you’re considering squishing everything together, then I guess 4 years. Maybe 2 if I would have had unlimited financial resources to allow me 40 computers to collect participant data vs. 2, since the one person at a time process slowed things down quite a bit.

  36. Maybe 9 months (rather than 5 years of research). Of course, I had a professor leave for another university, started over on another project, had a fire in the lab, and other setbacks unrelated to my research “working”. But even so, yeah, lots of setbacks.

  37. But then I would not have been able to enjoy the other 4 and a half years of wasting tax-payer’s money on things such as:

    Hallway dry ice hockey,
    laboratory arts and crafts,
    all the beer hidden in our walk in refrigerator,
    among other things

    On the other hand, all of what I learned from my work was from all the troubleshooting I had to go through

  38. I like your point- that to people who don’t do this for a living, it’s often hard for them to understand just how much time goes to things that don’t wind up produced, or in the final anything– they’re just notes and scraps of things built that never get used.

    Sure, the PhD is in the journey, but trying to get my mother to understand that there are few tangible benchmarks is hard. She asks about progress and I never have a good answer. I might send her here.

    Thus far, I’ve been in my current PhD program 2 years, and I think I’ve gotten done less than a month of *tangible* work, most of which has been VERY recent (and still could not work in the end). We’ll see how long this takes.

  39. I’m about to finish mine at a grand total of 3.5 years, straight out of undergrad. I don’t think I could have done it any faster, nor should I have.

  40. Well I’ve still got six months to go on my PhD – one month of participant recruitment and then it’s results of the final study and writing (I’ve already handed in one thesis chapter and had two papers published!). So far it’s been 3.5 years, and the first two years were completed part time as I did my clinical psychology papers and placements. So if I could have done it full time, and if my third study hadn’t taken so long to get ethics approval, and if recruitment hadn’t taken an extra 10 months for this final study I’d say about 3.0 years including write-up time. One of my studies was a two year prospective study, so it has to be at least two years!

    I expect that PhD’s that include recruiting and testing actual people take longer than those that don’t require people/ethics approvals.

  41. Anon #42: There’s an important distinction between experiments that don’t work and experiments that work but give unexpected or negative answers. If you dropped a key sample on the floor, or if some of the controls didn’t turn out the way they should have, the experiment didn’t work.

    I tell all prospective students that most scientists (not just grad students) spend most of their time figuring out why their experiments won’t work.

    1. Agreed. I love it when you get a really pretty result, but it turns out you didn’t control for a few critical things that mean the statistically-gorgeous positive result you got can’t be defended.

    2. Thank you. I lost track of how many people I secretly wanted to punch in the face while trying to calmly explain the distinction between “negative result” and “the experiment (i.e. controls) didn’t work” during a particularly long and frustrating period during which non-scientific people parroted the sentiment that I could just publish my failures and then other people could learn from them.

      In real life, my PhD in pharmacology took 5.5 years. If I could delete the multiple failures (including having to rewrite my entire thesis proposal because the hypothesis was based on something that turned out to be a tissue culture artifact, and the aforementioned 6-month period where controls refused to come out right) and a year-long period of depression where I had trouble dragging myself out of bed due to aforementioned failures, I could have completed my dissertation research in about 6-8 months. Tack on another 3 months to write and two years of coursework, and I put the entire thing at about 3 years.

      I’m not in laboratory research anymore.

  42. Ph.D. in literature averages about seven years. A law degree takes 3 yrs, and an MD about five. And why so long? There’s a huge reading list . . .

    1. …an MD about five.

      Four years of premed, four years of med school, at least two of residency and more likely four to eight, and possibly another year or two of fellowship. If doctors are so damn smart, how come it takes them fourteen years to learn how to take out an appendix?

  43. Setting aside all the preliminary and extraneous stuff (languages, coursework, teaching, etc.) my dissertation in the humanities probably took 2.5 years to research and write.

    Now that’s actually far more than was necessary; if I’d condensed all the time I took into the time I actually WORKED on it, allowing for 8-hour days, weekends off for my brain to recover, etc., we might be talking about 8 months, with at least half of that for research travel. If we ignore most of THAT as the humanities equivalent of failed experiments, then maybe 5 months total.

    However, of course, this was impossible. My BB comment record alone will indicate that this was happening during a period of massive and pervasive WRONGNESS on the internet. So obviously that had to be fixed first.

    (You guys are welcome, by the way. Jeez.)

  44. Hard to predict with mine – my first delay came when I scaled up my testing from the easy to kill eggs of relatively abundant but tiny parasitic nematodes to the hard to kill eggs of rare but massive (therefore larger egg yields) Ascaris. The toughest part was finding piggeries that would admit their pigs had Ascaris (doesn’t get into the meat and is not a danger to humans from eating the pork) and would let me sort through the entrails for them. I would say if I had all the eggs at ones, the ovicide trials would have taken me 6 months to perform, with another 12 months to develop the electron microscopy techniques needed for the rest of it.

    The biggest thing that distracted me towards the end was finding out that I liked teaching better than research, and side projects like some marine parasitology, setting up a trichinosis testing lab for wild boar and pretending I was an expert on tiger parasites. In the end, however, it was these things that gave me more depth and flexibility as a scientist. It also made it easier when I made the inevitable shift to high school teaching.

    Experiences in parasitology give you the best stories to tell the kids.

  45. Mine took 8 years total, 4 of which were spent just writing the dissertation and working as a research assistant, after I’d already finished up all my coursework.

    When writing the dissertation, I found that the 80/20 rule definitely applies: The first 80% of the work (doing my original research and writing up the results) took only about 20% of the time, while the final 20% of the work (doing the lit review and making revisions to my draft) took up the remaining 80% of the time. It certainly took a lot longer than I thought it would. I now tell my students to estimate the maximum amount of time they think it will take them to finish their dissertation, then triple it.

  46. The question would have been more relevant for me if it were rephrased as…
    “How long would your PhD have taken if you had worked?”

    (My epic procrastination skills made it 5 years…)

  47. Like David Ng, my doctorate was in Microbiology/Immunology (cellular immunology). The first 5 years were spent on an important but one-tailed project (hypothesis correct: adviser maybe gets Nobel, student gets PhD; hypothesis fails: oops!) — the kind of project which even an arrogant student, like me, shouldn’t ever be permitted to undertake, even by an ambitious PI. Some days the experiments worked but some days they didn’t. Ultimately, I changed advisers, attacked a trivial but two-tailed project in an area whose literature and methodology I knew intimately and completed it all — start to finish, including dissertation — in a year. Despite the trivial nature of the project at the start, we made major and important discoveries. But the process depressed and soured me so much that I changed fields completely. (To be fair, my wife says this is all revisionist BS — secretly, she says, I always wanted to be a doctor.) In retrospect, some of the first 5 years surely primed me for the successfully concluded final year, but the cost was high because I really did love research and was good at it. Even in an entirely different profession now, however, that early and painful process contributed powerfully to my development. In addition, internalizing the fundamental attitude of PhD training (skepticism) was enormously beneficial juxtaposed against the fundamental attitude of MD training (certainty).

  48. Mine’s taken nearly 5 years (in deeply theoretical stuff – the thermodynamics of complex systems). If everything I’d tried had worked it would have taken 3 years, but more to the point it would have been the most amazing thesis ever and would have changed the way we think about pretty much everything…

  49. Much longer! Learning from my failures was a valuable experience – the most important part of my PhD.

  50. The whole process of my PhD (research+writing+defense) took over 7 years. That includes one year in the middle when I lost my funding and didn’t advance much. And I always dedicated a lot of time to teaching, which I love.
    But I can’t calculate a “what if” time like you did, David, because in my field (morphofunctional analysis of the skeleton in some rodents) it’s not about experiments that can be successful or fail: it’s about seeing anatomical features and understanding what I see.
    Being able to *see* this way took me several years of looking, describing, measuring, dissecting and comparing many specimens, time and again. It could have taken maybe 4 years, but not much less.

  51. Mine (in psychology) took about 6.5 years. 2 years was working on my adviser’s research; 2.5 years was resisting my adviser’s attempt to control the rest of my graduate school experience, i.e. squirming until she let me do my own research; 1 year was screwing up my own research. Then I did about 6 months of good research, and took a few months to stubbornly write up. So I think the 6 months estimate is pretty accurate, if a person has their $h!t together. Obviously the massive bureaucracy of large (American) institutions makes that unlikely, even in the best of circumstances.

  52. I’m mid-PhD, in Library and Information Science. I did a year of residency, then went back to work at my job full time. I’ve just begun year 4; I hope to finish in the next year and a half. I think if I had stayed in school full-time, I would have finished last year.

    1. I did an LIS PhD in 4 years. wouldn’t recommend it. take your time…get your methods classes in, find some theory classes, and marinate in the relative freedom of graduate school.

      Tenure track is hard enough.

  53. Mine took long enough that I quit.

    All the coursework was done, all the cumulative exams were done, it was down only to the work.

    I came to conclusion that the area had actually been played out, and I got tired of the academic games. The work I did actually led me to believe the underlying mechanism was not what my prof. believed it was, but I couldn’t take it that direction. In some labs, it’s not about the science, it’s about products and hype unfortunately.

    Eventually, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t consider it time wasted in my life, and I really don’t regret anything.

    I could have copped out and wrote a crap dissertation like so many others and I would have ended up in a completely different place than I am now (a completely different field), and where I am now isn’t bad at all.

    It’d be nice to lay claim to the doctorate to have letters after my name, I have to admit.

  54. I only have a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree, but I had a professor in grad school who said that he set some kind of speed record for finishing his PhD at Rutgers, doing the whole thing in 18 months.

    He said that what he did was choose a project for which the data was readily available (I think it was a demographics thing using Census data, not really sure). Also important was that he was motivated by the fact that he was paying for the whole thing himself (his family was poor and living in Puerto Rico).

    Obviously this is an extreme outlier… it took me four years just to get my Master’s.

    Pretty interesting professor… his lectures frequently went off on tangents, and I learned more about Puerto Rican cockfighting than I ever thought I’d learn in my life.

  55. And then there is the effect of a major shift in technology. In the late 1960’s my colleagues and I were well on our way to Ph.D.s involving time series analysis of atmospheric turbulence and ocean waves. Our data, collected on analog tape, was being analyzed on analog computers. Time series analysis using Fast Fourier Transforms on digital computers suddenly became both practical and better than the analog method. Average setback was probably about 2 years, including the time for one of us to write the FFT routines to work on the IBM mainframe with its 128 kilobyte storage (this was a LONG time ago) and the other to write a set of programs using the FFT’s for various purposes. I expect that people in other fields have had similar experiences with technology shifts.

  56. Just finished Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemistry in 4 years at UC Berkeley. First year probably could have been done in like 1 month.
    The trouble was trying to make sense of another person’s nonsense.

    So I think: 3 years 1 month.

  57. neurobiology, using rodent behavioral models. had every experiment worked the first time, it would have taken me about 2 years. instead it took 6. but i agree with all the points made above.

  58. Nothing from the first two years made it into the thesis, apart from two pages of background technique description from a first year report. I reckon about eight months of work went into the thesis; the other time was either failure (analysis of samples that turned out to be flawed for reasons beyond my control), but the process of analysing these samples meant when I did get ones worth doing I was able to do the work much quicker.

    I reckon I could do the entire thesis in about eight weeks now, but that’s partially due to the equipment improving.

  59. It took me pretty close to ten years to get my Ph.D. in a linguistic field, but if I deduct the time I spent working full-time elsewhere or waiting for the actions of others (like resubmitting the original thesis proposal that got lost twice, having the finished thesis reviewed, setting up the date to defend it, or getting the diploma afterwards), there were about four years of active work involved. During that time I also produced most of the articles I later submitted for my post-doc qualifications (what the Germans call Habilitation), so the net result of those four years was closer to two Ph.D.’s worth of published research. Still, I do not believe I could have managed the Ph.D. itself in a shorter time.

    I wouldn’t discount failed experiments (or the equivalent) as something one could skip if lucky or smart enough. The dead ends and various meanders along the way are an integral part of the process, and one gains insight from them so that sometimes a really good failure is even more useful than a success. Some of the meanders that didn’t end up in the final thesis were still parts of the same work, and some were diversions necessary to keep me sane, or close to. Also, one needs to spend some time doing these things to get the hang of how universities work. That, too, is something people expect of anyone with a doctorate.

  60. Pushing into the unknown is extremely time consuming.
    4 years ago I had an idea for a new kind of folding kayak, and I was able to make a pretty promising 2/3rds scale model in less than a day. I thought I would be ready for production in a couple of months. 4 years of 40+ hour weeks of 2 people working later I think I am pretty close to a final version. If I had known how long this was going to take I never would have had the courage to start.

  61. I’m starting my 3rd year in molecular biology, and just had a long talk with my advisor about this very subject.
    He says the first two years in lab (discounting year 1, which for us is course work and rotations) involve both learning enough about your system to ask a good question and learning how to do science enough to do the right experiment. Hopefully, these two things dovetail at the same time (beginning of year 4), so that by the time you know the right question to ask you have the skills to design the right experiments.
    THEN you do the aforementioned 6 months or so worth of “good” experiments and knock out a dissertation, but you can’t do that unless you’ve spent a couple years face-palming the fact that your Western didn’t work or you forgot a control or you only started one culture and it didn’t grow.
    Speaking of which, I’m killing time on BB because one of my cultures didn’t grow.

  62. Answer to #9: Yes, you can buy any piece of paper you want that says “degree-of-this” or that since there is freedom of printing in this country. But it does NOT mean that you can actually use it to get a job etc! :-) If you do you’ll be prosecuted. But there is no law against buying expensive paper with images and text on it.

  63. My degree is in human/computer communication, so experiments are not important at all. It’s still going to take me 2 years.

  64. The median length of time to acquire a history PhD in the US is 9.3 years, and at my institution it’s 7. This includes years of coursework, preliminary exams, the dissertation, and also a factor that other humanities PhD’s often are not so demanding about: languages. Focusing on medieval Europe, for example, requires at a very minimum French and German to read secondary sources and then at least one target language for your primary sources, often Latin or a very unfamiliar and specialized medieval dialect/ancestor of a modern language (e.g., Occitan). Those are just the bare minimums, although lamentably languages are being sidelined more and more (yes, we are training medievalists who don’t know Latin!)

    Coming in with an MA and advanced language skills, as is increasingly common in today’s hyper-competitive environment, the breakdown for someone going at absolute full tilt might look something like this:

    1.5 years coursework
    0.5 years preliminary exam/preparation
    2.0 years dissertation

    More typical is this:

    3.0 years coursework with picking up languages along the way
    1.0 year prelims
    3.0 years dissertation

    My opinion: some people just need to get their act together! On the other hand, it’s also true that many many more humanities PhD students are coming from outside “the leisure class” than ever before and have other large time commitments (families, jobs), and also with decreasing fellowship opportunities there is less free time to focus on research. Yet the demands made of them are greater than ever before. Long gone are the days when scholars would get tenure without publishing and solely on the basis of their erudition!

  65. To add my $0.02 worth: My PhD was in social sciences and my research is in organization theory, specifically a new fundamental theory of organization called, “Valence Theory of Organization. It took me a total of 5 years – 1.5 years of coursework, comprehensive and getting my proposal approved, 6 months at the end to sew together the final thesis (I did an awful lot of writing along the way during the research process itself), and the rest was interviews, transcriptions, and detailed analysis (about a year and a half on analysis of 500+ single-spaced pages of transcripts).

    During that time, I also had a “hobby research” project on online distance education (2 conference presentations and a book chapter out of that one), and was very active in student advocacy and support. I probably could have completed a year or so sooner, but would have missed out on many of the important experiences and learning, and certainly missed out on many of the deep friendships and relationships.

    A PhD is a transformative process if you allow it so. It can be so much more so than an instrumentalist, qualifying paper chase as many people in the STEM disciplines seem to construct it.

    But then again, I DID mention that I’m in the social sciences, right? :)

  66. My graduate degree took nearly 6 years. Started in the MSc program but was allowed to convert to a PhD after 2 years based on satisfactory coursework grades and promising research. My supervisor Richard very generously paid me an RA throughout, meaning I didn’t have to mark papers for 20 hours a week. (On top of this, he let me supplement this income with a few hours of high-value teaching stints.). This let me focus on our theoretical/computational physics research. To be honest, not much went wrong. Most of my time was spent building the software tools to compute and visualize results. Each set of results pretty obviously suggested the next set of “experiments”. We were in a race with some Russians working in the same area – this forced me to publish yearly. If someone had told me exactly what to do, I probably could have cut the time in half … but I wouldn’t have been worthy of calling myself a researcher.

    15 years later I own a company that does some software and engineering R&D. The Canadian government provides tax credits for this work through the SRED program. It is worth noting that SRED pays for failures rather than successes. They understand the nature of research.

  67. I’ll bet someone could get a BS in a few weeks if all they did was take all the exams and write all the papers, and passing them with flying colors, of course.

  68. James Mason, you know what time it is.

    I’m a protein crystallographer in my final year. Things only started working a few months ago and now I have to write up. The total time it took to do all the successful experiments in my PhD is probably about 6 months too. Bump that up to 1-1.5 years to include the time taken to learn the techniques.

    However my boss would have just made me do another 2.5 years of experiments to use all the funding efficiently. In my field, time isn’t a measure of success, publications are. Reading the horror stories above, I think I’m better off. My PhD was never going to take more than four years, regardless of what happened, and that is a blessing! I was fortunate to squeeze out a publication too.

  69. Sorry to burst your bubble, but if everything you did in graduate school worked it would take ten years to get a PhD. Your PI would never let you go.

    You have to find that middle ground where you are productive enough to get the degree signed. It is in between that place where you such are a clear danger to everyone that you are asked to get the heck out immediately (I would presume that grinding 100g of high explosive with a mortar and pestle qualifies) and that other place where you are so competent that your boss shackles you to your bench and loses the key.

    The good news is that S. A. Scoggin’s tale of the above and more is now free for download:

  70. Computer science. 4 years of classes and quals. 3+ years of reading papers and writing code, and of my advisor responding to everything I submitted to him by marking grammatical errors in red and telling me to do “a little more”. 75% of code abandoned because I couldn’t get it to work. Switched to a different advisor, who looked at what I’d done and told me to write it up. Total: 8 years of grad school; maybe 1.5 years of work used in my dissertation. Worked about 70 hours a week for the entire duration. Partly my own fault for taking way too many classes.

    Result: A boring and significantly-delayed career writing code for other people, because there is no funding for computer science research in the real world.

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