Jan-Feb 2014 ASCB Newsletter - page 62-63

The Mystery of Variable PhD Thesis Kinetics
Dear Labby,
We recently had a five-year external review of our department, and there
was a session for the review committee to meet with us students. It went
along nicely until a member of the committee said they had been given
data by the dean of the graduate school showing that students in our
department take longer to finish their PhDs than those in any other basic
science department in our medical school. She then asked, more pointedly,
if we felt there was any systemic factor that was operating. We were all
surprised and said we had not been aware of this and that, at first thought,
we saw no factor that would be giving rise to this pattern. Then, the
committee member asked us each to state what year we were in. As we
went around the 10 of us the answers were four in the fifth year, five in the sixth year, and one in the
seventh year. We were then asked to estimate how much longer we would be taking and we all said
at least one more year, except for the seventh-year student, who is finishing this spring.
The committee didn’t push further for explanations, and the meeting turned to other topics.
Afterwards, we were all really upset. We hadn’t realized how bad our department looked relative
to others in this regard, and we all felt guilty that we hadn’t been “self-tracking” ourselves better.
As we were all standing around, one student said “Maybe we should ask Labby about this.” What
perspectives do you have?
—Lagging Strands
Dear Lagging Strands,
There are a host of issues here. Let’s first deal with the committee visit itself. It was appropriate for
them to probe this issue with you and it seems likely the dean had encouraged them to do so. Asking
each of you to specify what year you are in was probably unnecessary, however, since they could have
certainly gotten that data, student by student, from the chair or dean and it would have avoided your
collective uneasiness in the session. But the two most important issues are the factors underlying
these kinetics and the quality of oversight that is being provided.
We all know that each PhD odyssey is unique and that a great many factors are at play. Luck itself
is a huge factor in science, and there are many “fast-finishing” students who are no more scientifically
talented than others taking longer. A need to change labs, for whatever reason (today often due to a
PI’s loss of funding), can slow a student’s progress and, likewise, a well-funded lab can actually be
a more comfortable setting for a student than is ideal (although a properly ambitious student should
be self-aware of any such torpor). Another factor is the zeal some PIs and their students have for
publication in a so-called prestigious journal, and such pursuit can add substantial time to a project.
Indeed, this is one of the most insidious aspects of the journal impact factor insanity and is among
the many reasons that led to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (
What then is the proper oversight process? Herein rests a profound responsibility of the thesis
advisory committee, beyond their review of the student’s science itself. The committee must keep
tabs on a student’s progress and seek to mitigate any factors that are slowing it unduly. This can even
require the committee to engage the PI or, in certain cases, the chair or dean.
It would be good for you and a small group of two or three other students to arrange a meeting
with the dean to discuss this issue, not so much with reference to each of your own situations but in
regard to the collective PhD kinetics. The dean will be concerned (indeed appears already to be so),
and perhaps a more emphatic charging of the thesis committees can help. But all that said, the time
to complete a degree is determined by a complex set of equations, with many variables. It is doubtful
that the longer average time to completion in your department reflects some unique, single variable,
but the degree to which your chair and the faculty of the department emphasize the timetable for
students to finish is certainly of major importance.
Got Questions?
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