A couple of weeks ago I was chatting to a student in my department who’s just starting to write her thesis, and I mentioned that I wrote mine in three months, from start to finish. Several heads in the vicinity instantly whipped around to stare at me, as if I was a lion approaching a meerkat nest. Apparently, writing a thesis this quickly is unusual… and a flurry of tweets later agreed! A few people asked me to describe my writing process, which I will get to in a later post.
First, though, I think it’s probably a good idea to go back over some old ground. My planned post about thesis writing will, of necessity, include some explanations of the British PhD system, which is extremely likely to attract the usual arguments about how North American PhDs are better because they’re longer. I’d prefer to get that debate out of the way in this introductory post so that we can focus on the writing process later!
(I know this because it happens almost every time anyone mentions the length of doctoral degrees – online, at least (Erika Cule recently pulled off one of the few exceptions to this rule), and occasionally in real life, too. Yes, I’ve heard those mutterings from new labmates during the first few weeks of my postdoc. I’ve even been told by the person sitting next to me at a wedding – who knew I was a British postdoc – that (and I quote) “British PhDs aren’t worth the paper they’re written on”. If that guy hadn’t happened to be the bride’s brother, a shouting match would no doubt have ensued; as it was, I just tried to ignore him).
I know it must be tempting to be working towards, or have completed, a five, six, or seven-year PhD, and to look at a three-year degree and say “well it clearly must be inferior”. However, I think it might be instructive to take a look at the bigger picture of how different nations’ education systems operate as a whole. I’ll focus on the British and North American systems, since those are the two I’m most familiar with, but please feel free to chime in in the comments with examples from other countries!
More time in school
I started primary (elementary) school in England at the age of four, after spending two years in kindergarten when we lived in Germany. We all went to secondary (high) school at eleven. Nothing fancy, just my local, state-run (what North Americans would call public), comprehensive (mixed ability) school. From talking to Canadian friends and relatives, it seems that they started later, at five or six, and transferred to high school at thirteen or fourteen.
The British school holidays are also shorter. Our summer holidays were only five weeks long; my six nephews here in Canada (some in elementary school, some in high school) get ten or even twelve weeks.
The final two years of secondary school (age 16-18) are optional in the UK. In the English system, those who stay have to choose three (or four, tops) subjects to study exclusively for those two years (I think they’ve changed it now to five subjects in the first year, three in the second. The Scottish system is different and allows more variety). So I studied biology, chemistry, and maths – and nothing else – for the final two years of school.
More focused undergraduate degree programmes
My BSc was in genetics. Everyone on my course and several other related ones took exactly the same classes in the first year: biochemistry, genetics, physiology, microbiology, organic chemistry, and statistics. In the second and third years we had some limited choice of courses, but were only able to take courses run by our department, which covered only genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. The third (and final) year included a compulsory three month lab rotation.
All of this adds up to learning more about your chosen subject at an earlier stage. I’ve seen my Canadian niece’s final year of high school biology textbook; it was introducing concepts such as Mendelian inheritance that we learned at thirteen or fourteen (she confirmed that this was the first time she’d been taught it). I’ve seen Canadian second year undergraduate courses that introduced subjects I learned at sixteen or seventeen. And the post-graduate level courses my former student took in the first year of his PhD covered stuff we did during undergrad.
Fewer distractions for grad students
I was in the lab full time from the first day of my PhD. No classes, no TAing other than three two-hour lab sessions in my second year, and those were only because I volunteered. No need to write fellowships – the funding was in place for my specific project for three years AND NOT A MONTH MORE. No need to register for a Masters first. Here’s a set of Gilsons and a labcoat, now GO!
Swings and roundabouts
I’m by no means trying to say that the British system is superior, just that it’s different. It should be obvious that each system will work well for some kids, but not for others: the British system was perfect for me, because I knew I wanted to study genetics since my first lesson on Mendel’s peas when I was in my early teens; I loved getting into the nitty gritty details so early, and might have been bored and frustrated in the North American system. (I would have quite liked to study French and history for a little bit longer, though). On the flip side, I have a friend who studied economics, French and history during his final two years of secondary school, but who then decided when he was in his first year of undergrad that he wanted to be a doctor . BZZZZ, sorry, too late. He would have had a much better chance of switching in the North American system.
As for the PhD itself: the upside to the British system is that you graduate more quickly, and don’t get stuck in the (potentially) exploitative situation whereby some PIs demand yet more work from their cheap labour before they’re allowed to graduate. The downside is that you’re much less likely to publish well, if at all. (I got one solid but hardly exciting first-author paper and one first-author review, which was considered fairly average).
This latter point isn’t seen as a problem at all if you stay within the British system, where the PhD is seen as an apprenticeship in how to do research. If you can demonstrate that you can plan and execute properly designed and controlled experiments, and that you understand your project and can discuss its pitfalls and future directions intelligently, then having nothing but negative data is not a barrier to graduation. (I had a whole other project’s worth of unpublished data in my thesis, all negative, but done well!)
Grant reviewers and hiring committees in the UK understand all of this. However, a relative shortage of publications can really hurt people coming from the British (or similar) system into North America. I didn’t get either of the postdoc fellowships I applied for in Canada; the reviews of my proposals and training environment were very positive, but I was torn apart over my publication record. (I did much better during my three year postdoc – five research papers, four as first author, plus two review articles. So it’s not as if I don’t know how to do publishable work). My postdoc supervisor now goes out actively recruiting British postdocs after being so happy with me (I know because she put this in a letter of reference that she asked me to check over!), but tells them not to bother wasting their time writing fellowship applications trying to persuade Canadian reviewers that their publication record is actually just fine if you consider all of the above points.
The lack of fellowship writing experience could also be a problem in some departments, but my institute required a short “proposal” (as well as a written report, a presentation in front of the whole institute, and a private grilling) in order to move on after the first year of the PhD. I was also lucky enough to have an excellent supervisor who put a lot of time and effort into teaching his trainees how to write. When I handed my postdoc supervisor the first draft of my first paper from her lab, she said it was the first time she’d ever returned a first draft with zero edits – I have my PhD supervisor to thank for that!
(The other consequence of the differences between the two systems is that, as a postdoc, I was quite a bit younger than many of the grad students in the department, which meant that it took a while until I was taken seriously. My own lab came around after my first lab meeting, and the rest of them after my first departmental seminar!)
Please – PLEASE! – don’t look JUST at the length of a PhD and decide on that sole criterion that one doctorate is automatically better than another.
Expect the thesis writing post soon… not necessarily next, but soon!