Why a three-year PhD is not necessarily shite

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.

Earlier specialisation

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!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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44 Responses to Why a three-year PhD is not necessarily shite

  1. KJHaxton says:

    Well said!
    I was told as a British postdoc in North America that my PhD was merely a masters in a lab mates eyes, and also struggled with comments from (older) graduate students. Despite patiently pointing out the differences in the relative systems, it was very frustrating at times.
    I’m looking forward to reading about your writing up process – I also wrote very very quickly (about 6 weeks) because, as you’ve noted, 3 years of funding is 3 years of funding and not a day more. I couldn’t afford continuation and was moving to North America anyway!

  2. Eva says:

    The Dutch system is very similar to the British, with only these exceptions:

    -high school starts at age 12 (and so is a year shorter, because we also end at 18 for the “A-level” stream)
    -More than 3 A-levels. I took 8 in my final year when 7 was required, and I think it’s now 8 in the second-to-last year and 4 in the last year, or something like that.
    -The whole BSc part is identical (European regulation I think), but then you also have to do a MSc of 2 full years of lab work to be allowed into the PhD program.
    -PhDs are paid jobs and are FOUR years, or longer. See, it makes no sense. Even if you argue that we learned less in high school (more subjects) then the required MSc of 2 years should make up for that.

    So you’re about 27 when you finish, at the earliest, but many students will be older, because BSc/MSc don’t always neatly line up, or they did an international internship, and you need to apply for your PhD, which takes time. My sister (uh, I think she’s 25, but am too lazy to do maths) got her MSc degree over a year ago and is still looking for a PhD position. There are 50-100 applicants for every position, and she’s ending up in the top 2-5 (interview stage) repeatedly, but still hasn’t actually found a place.

  3. Bob O'H says:

    Europe now has the Bologna system, which means that bachelor’s degrees are 3 years, plus 2 for a masters. I’m not sure if the PhD is regulated, though.

    In Finland, the aim is that a student will complete a PhD in 4 years, including 1 year’s worth of credits (for courses, presenting posters etc.). My first student managed hers in 3 years, from a standing start of knowing almost nothing about ecology (she was a maths student). My second took about 4 years. Both got 5 papers out of their theses: I think it helps that the Finnish thesis is made up of an introduction plus papers bound together.

  4. Massimo says:

    Some random questions:

    1) A PhD in America lasts longer, on average, but how much of the time spent in graduate school goes to course work ?
    2) If American PhDs are on average better, then why is it that such a large fraction of postdoctoral and tenure-track positions in North America go to scientists educated outside North America ? Is it some kind of “vast anti-American conspiracy” ?
    3) Do the amount and quality of research work produced correlate with the duration of the PhD ?

    Having said that:
    1) In general I think that doctoral education in America is superior, although not because it takes longer.
    2)there is a lot of bullshit on the other side too, Cath, I am finding out more and more that there exists is a pretty snotty attitude among European PhDs as well.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      2) “If American PhDs are on average better, then why is it that such a large fraction of postdoctoral and tenure-track positions in North America go to scientists educated outside North America ? Is it some kind of “vast anti-American conspiracy” ?”

      This is somewhat off the point, and in no way saying that doctoral education is better or worse in the US than elsewhere, but the reason that such a large number of postdocs and TT positions (my own included) as well as Ph.D. stduents are trained outside the US is that there simply are not enough Americans interested in doing careers in science in this country. Perhaps it’s economic reasons (other careers are better paid with less effort), others say the stress of the scientist in academia is “turning off” younger researchers. Others still argue that education in the US doesn’t promote science enough. It’s probably all of these things and more.

      In any case, though, the reason for so many non-US-trained scientists in the US is because of the lack of Americans who want this career–I don’t believe it has anything to do with training (good or bad).

  5. Amelie says:

    Thanks for sharing, Cath, that was really interesting! I wrote my thesis in 6 weeks or so, but it also mainly consists of the papers I wrote during my PhD — and those mainly came out during the last year, so I can imagine this would be difficult to do in the British system.
    In Germany, school starts fairly late and lasts 13 years (they are cutting it down to 12 now), so you’re basically 20 when you start. The university system used to be “do whatever you like and come back when you’re ready for exams” — a friend of mine finished in 3 years, the regular time was 5 years and the average probably 6 or 7. Now with the Bachelor and Master system, as Bob said, it should be more regulated. From what I’ve heard, the PhD in Germany is much like the university system, plus many people have a part-time position as a TA or so. In Spain, PhD fellowships cover 4 years, and it is almost impossible to finish as long as there still is money to pay your position 😉 The average time-to-thesis in many groups is much higher though, but they are working on making the 4-year-PhD realistic.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    K – 6 weeks, wow!

    It is indeed very frustrating to continually be told that your qualifications are inferior. Did any of your labmates improve their attitudes when they saw your work (and saw you secure an independent position)?

    Eva, did you do the two-year Masters before you moved to Canada for your PhD, or did you go straight from undergrad?

    Four years isn’t too bad. I’ve seen some Canadians take six or even seven years. I can’t even imagine that – and I enjoyed my PhD! (mostly!)

    I had my 25th birthday a couple of weeks after starting work as a postdoc. I look(ed) young for my age, too, for added fun comments!

    Bob, five papers is very impressive! (Although of course what’s expected is highly dependent on the field as well as the nation!)

    I’ve heard of this “papers bound together with a unified introduction and discussion” format. Must make things much easier! Although – IME – students get MUCH more assistance from supervisors when writing papers than when writing a thesis, so I guess you could argue that a purpose-written thesis is more clearly marked as that student’s own individual work.

    Massimo, I’m not sure of the precise answer to your first question – although what I’ve noticed is that students taking courses lose more than just the hours they spend out of the lab, they also lose the continuity and momentum that you get from spending all your time in the lab and that are so important to build up in the first few months.

    Not sure about the answer to your second question, although I know there are some strong opinions out there!

    “Do the amount and quality of research work produced correlate with the duration of the PhD ?

    We could argue for weeks about how to measure that! I do know that Britain gets the most citations to its published research in the world, when corrected for the amount of money spent on research. But I’m sure every country will manage to find a calculation that puts them on top 🙂

    “In general I think that doctoral education in America is superior, although not because it takes longer.”

    So… why? What could other countries learn from the US system?

    I’m sure you’re right about the bullshit. Like I said, I’m not trying to claim that either system is superior. It’s just that in my only personal experiences with the bullshit and snootiness, they’ve been directed at me, not the other way around!

    Thanks, Amelie! Another six weeker, well done! How many papers went into your thesis?

    It’s great to hear about all these other systems, and interesting that the European nations are all trying to reach a 3-4 year consensus.

  7. ricardipus says:

    Here in Canuckistan the PhD is long, like the American version (Cath knows this but others might not). But I could *easily* have written up my thesis in three months. It took me about four in total but I was faffling around a bit. I’ve never understood why it takes anyone longer – honestly, working all day every day? Ok, I know people do tend to keep doing experiments when they’re writing up, but that’s no reason to whine about how long it takes.

    Regarding length of degrees, I believe the School of Graduate Studies here mandates a three year “residency” term for PhD students – i.e., it cannot possibly take shorter than that. Six is common, but a friend of mine did his in four (he had a very successful project supported by a star postdoc and a more-or-less dedicated technician – plus he was motivated as his girlfriend was living in a different city and he wanted to get finished and move there).

    I’m not a fan of the snobby attitude either – we’ve had European postdocs here who were superstars. On the other side of the coin, I’ve also worked with some who definitely did have no more training than an average MSc graduate from here (one in particular jumps to mind whose PhD essentially consisted of screening for disease mutations using a single technique. I will refrain from telling you what University she was from).

    Bottom line for me – show me what you can do. Yes, the publication record issue can be somewhat crippling, but generally I’ve found that the best postdocs are ones who were successful no matter where they did their PhD. Kind of obvious I guess, but worth reiterating.

  8. Mountainmums says:

    In France you enter mixed abilities Jr High at 11 for 4 years . High School lasts 3 years (15-18) and is tracked from the get go. If you are in the “going to university ” track, you get further tracked into literature/ language/ economics or math/science in the final two years. You then take a comprehensive exam (the baccalauréat) that dictates whether you graduate or not.
    Afterwards, as has been said, the European system rules with 3 years of undergrad and the 2 years of Master’s. One thing that does need to be said is that in maths for example, most of the courses that would be taken in freshman/sophomore year in the US have already been done in high school.
    In order to get into a PhD program, you need to get a Research Master’s degree, and admittance to that degree is competitive. Then you need to graduate in 1st or 2nd position of your Master’s in order to secure a 3 year doctoral funding.
    You are expected to graduate in three years. It is a bit flexible depending on your field. Some students may get a teaching position (ATER) for their 4th year in prder to finish. That means they’ll teach undergraduate labs and such, finish writing up and make a miserable wage.
    In my graduate program, you need one published paper in a proper journal in order to graduate, but it isn’t reasonable to expect people to have 3 or 4 papers.
    I should be defending in December and I must say that I worry when I look at postdoc offers and the published papers requirements that go along. . .

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Hi, welcome to the blog!

      I’ve always heard very good things about the French secondary education – at least for students who go on to university!

      Research-based Masters degrees were becoming more popular in the UK when I left. The student who joined the lab a year after me had done one, and raved about it!

      Man, I’m glad I’m not the person in charge of unifying all the different systems that exist in Europe!

  9. Jo Kelly says:

    I reckon four years for a PhD should be just about enough for anyone. It was plenty long enough for me!

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Oh really? And there was me thinking you were loving every minute!

      (Jo and I shared a flat with one other grad student for most of our PhDs!)

  10. Alyssa says:

    Really interesting! I wrote my thesis in a month, but two (of the 5) chapters were written and submitted as papers. Still though, I think that’s pretty good. A friend of ours took a YEAR to write up his masters!! Both DH and I finished our PhDs within 4 years, but we definitely were not the norm. You can see how we might have been attracted to each other 😉

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      WOW. OK, you win (so far)!

      A year is kinda ridiculous, unless there are major extenuating circumstances!

  11. antipodean says:

    I’d put my antipodean (Bristish Style) PhD up against anything from North America.

    My basic reply to the British PhDs aren’t worth the paper comment is this:
    The reason the Nth American PhD takes longer is not because they are doing more research or research training. It’s because they are pissing about doing courses to make up for the shitty undegraduate degrees that consist of courses in archery golf and watching cinema etc. Plus we have to do 400 level papers as part of a masters or honours course to even get into a PhD course. Everything ‘extra’ in the US PhD can be attributed to catching up.

    The point in amongst the grumbling is this. They are basically equivalent. There is far more variation in the quality of a PhD within any University than there is between countries. There are embarrasing ones and there are ones where somebody deserved to pass twice.

    Additing to the vote: It took me 6 months to write my thesis to submission standard. 3.5 years in total and 3 data papers and a review published out of it.

  12. I don’t see too many comments from Americans, so I’ll contribute. When I started graduate school at Berkeley (in 1983), we were told we should finish in four years. The best student in my class (who is now a Nobel prize winner), finished in 4 years 3 months. I took 5 years 9 months, and I was right in the middle.

    Our first year required intensive, full-time course work as well as laboratory rotations. Our second year required less course work, but then we had to fulfill our teaching requirement (a semester and a half of teaching in one course) and take our grueling qualifying exams (three essay questions in three weeks, about 20 pages each, plus an oral presentation to a committee of scientists).

    So it wasn’t until our third year that we could really focus full time on our research. After my third year, I didn’t have anything worth publishing. But my next two and a half years were extremely productive, and that was when I learned how to really do research.

    I wrote my dissertation in about ten weeks. I look forward to hearing about your experience. I wrote four hours first thing in the morning, then worked in the lab for awhile, and wrote another hour or two in the evening. It wasn’t especially difficult for me, but I’ve always found writing fairly easy to do.

  13. Massimo says:

    Florida State University, start out in Fall 1987. Defend my dissertation in October 1992.
    First year — Pass qualifying exam right upon entering program, a blessing because that way I can take graduate courses immediately, as opposed to remedial undergraduate ones. First year consists exclusively of graduate course work (3 courses a term) and teaching assistantship (paper grading for two courses), absolutely no time even to think of doing research until Summer 1988 (three months, not with the group with which I will eventually carry out my doctoral research).
    Second year — First half is exclusively course work (1 course) and preparation for the comprehensive exam, which I pass in December 1988. I am on a departmental fellowship that term, hence no paper grading. January 1989 is when I start working full time on my research. From that moment on, I am on a Research assistantship until the end of my studies.

    For the next three and a half year I largely (not exclusively) focus on my research but I continue to have to take courses, even though formal course requirements are finished, as my PhD advisor requires that I sit through more classes (6 more altogether). To this day, I am unable to assess whether these (very time-consuming) courses were useful or not.
    I write my PhD thesis in 2 months, essentially putting together my five articles.

  14. Mike says:

    Excellent post, Cath.

    The Scottish secondary education system was pretty much what the English system seems to have become (5 “Higher” courses in 5th year (age ~16), 3 “Sixth Year Studies” in 6th), although it’s probably changed since I went through it. My school offered A-level Biology instead of the SYS course, which I basically passed (just) based on the knowledge I had from the Higher course. One of the teachers pointed out that an SYS course is essentially a 12 month course squeezed into <9 months, while the A-level is an 18 month course taught over <2 years. The SYS chemistry course I did was essentially the same as the 1st year Chemistry class I took at Uni, which I still sucked at the 2nd time round.

    I completed my PhD in 3 years and defended 24 days later. My supervisor encouraged the "binding papers" approach, even though I was in Glasgow then, not Finland. I agree whole-heartedly that the systems (UK vs US vs Finland vs…) are best described as different, but the individuals doing the PhDs are the ones who vary in quality.

  15. I’m surprised that people were shocked that you took 3 months to write a thesis/dissertation. This seems completely normal to me. I wrote mine in about six weeks (thanks to my intense need to wait until the last possible minute to do any and everything). However, I DO NOT recommend this to anyone. It was hellacious and I barely made the deadline!

  16. rpg says:

    Mine was in 6 weeks too, but why is the matter for a blog post of my own…

  17. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks all for an awesome comment thread!

    Antipodean: “There is far more variation in the quality of a PhD within any University than there is between countries. There are embarrasing ones and there are ones where somebody deserved to pass twice”.

    and Mike: “I agree whole-heartedly that the systems (UK vs US vs Finland vs…) are best described as different, but the individuals doing the PhDs are the ones who vary in quality.”

    Yes. This. Exactly this.

    p.s. Antipodean – archery golf?! That sounds like awesome fun! 🙂

    Conrad, welcome to the blog! I wonder if there’s any difference between top-tier US universities and the rest in how long a PhD is expected to take? My gut feeling is that there’s more variability between departments, each of which has its unique culture that includes an expectation of how long a PhD should take, than between institutions, but I really don’t know.

    I not only found writing my PhD to be rather straightforward (as opposed to easy – it was easy to figure out what to do, but arduous to do it), I actually enjoyed it! It was at that point that I decided I’d rather make a career in writing about science than in actually doing it…

    p.s. I forgot to mention how long it takes North American students to prepare for comps. Crazy requirement – more like a hazing ritual than an assessment of whether a student is ready to progress. IMHO.

    Massimo, it sounds like you (and Conrad) actually didn’t spend that much more time on pure research activities during your PhD than I did!

    Mike, 24 days is impressive! Mine was more like a couple of months (although that time did include the Christmas and Hogmanay break, during which there wasn’t a PI in Scotland sober enough to read my thesis), but I did manage to correct, bind, and re-submit my thesis, and get my Canadian work permit, in the 2 weeks between my viva and getting on a plane!

    MXX, yeah, I thought it was fairly unremarkable. I was the second-fastest thesis writer in my year in my institute (out of maybe 15-20 students), though, so I knew I was somewhat speedy. (The fastest writer had the shortest viva/defense on record – less than an hour – and managed to pass literally 20 minutes before I submitted my thesis. I was so mad – he’d been way ahead of me in every possible way for three years, but I wanted to at least submit before he passed!)

    Richard, let me speculate wildly… plane ticket? Visa issues? Your PI took a loved one hostage until you submitted? Prison?

  18. I was lucky enough to be in a well-funded department with an NIH training grant, so my teaching was necessary just to fulfill a requirement. I had friends in other departments who were not on training grants, and they had to teach to earn money, which took time away from their research. Students in other departments could take six or even seven years to earn a Ph.D.

    The most extreme case I saw was at the University of Chicago, where one graduate student was finally kicked out after ten fairly unproductive years.

    In the United States, except for some truly exceptional people, earning a Ph.D. means you have only qualified for post-doctoral training, because a Ph.D. is no longer considered enough training to become an independent researcher.

    Still, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

  19. My PhD was also done within the British system, although not actually in Britain. I submitted my thesis about 3.5 years after I started and the last 2 months of that was spent writing … but a few chapters were already published by that stage.

    After coming to the US for my postdoc and then staying on for a TT position, there has NEVER been any question of my PhD being inferior in any way, shape or form to one from North America. This is partly because I had published 7 research papers (5 as first author) and 2 reviews while in grad school, taught a lot of classes, presented at a couple of conferences, won a bunch of awards, etc.

  20. I firmly believe its not the length of time, it’s what you do with it. I always find it hard to believe that it is really worthwhile spending 5+ years on a PhD project, as there are very few projects that should take that long. If you were working in industry three years would likely be a luxury. Of course in the US system student stake classes, apply for fellowships, TA etc but I think also the power of supervisors to say ‘just one more experiment, one more paper’ is very influential. And with funding sources often being available to enable this process students can sometimes seem either reluctant to leave, or just ‘locked in’ by their (often selfish) supervisors. In the UK, where I am based, the funding is usually fixed (increasingly now at 3.5 years, but previously at 3) and there is a strong emphasis on the student to get things done and get out of there.

    My thesis work took 3 years, and I had to go to start my new job and had no intention of writing up while finding my feet. So my write up was roughly 6 months all in, but I was still active in the lab during all of this. 6/7 papers in three years – why would I want to stay for more. Time to move on for more responsibility (and money) elsewhere. One of my recent students (admittedly very talented) has scored 12 papers so far from his PhD, completed in 3.5 years. If you can’t finish a decent project in that time I think something has gone wrong somewhere.

  21. A says:

    I always thought 3 months was a normal length of time to write up for a 3year phd. I wrote mine in the last 3 months and have always said to new students that although it may not be ideal or their way of working, if it all goes wrong you can do it (as long as you put your head down and tune facebook off). As for differences between countries, one of my supervisor’s was based in the US and was continually surprised at the differences between the systems but said they both offered a good basis for a research career.
    3 years can be tight if the project runs into difficulties but I loved every minute – even if I didn’t realise it at the time

  22. Amelie says:

    Cath — 5 papers, a fairly detailed introduction of the general topic/area, and then a discussion of the contribution of my work and how it all fits together. And while it’s true that my supervisor edited our papers more than my thesis (the latter: barely), I did write complete first drafts of all the papers myself, but I know labs here where the PI writes all the papers, even from post-docs… which makes me wonder, how does s/he expect them to learn how to write?

    Also: I was almost 25 when I started my PhD… so the differences in the educational systems start much earlier 😉

  23. ecogeofemme says:

    Great post, Cath! And good comment thread, too.

    My PhD took 6.5 years, but I didn’t have a masters. I did have work experience though. My thesis was 4 papers plus a brief introduction and very brief conclusions chapter. I’m not sure how long it took to write because I was writing as I went, and still collecting data for the last chapter very close to the end. The first chapter I wrote, which was in press when I defended, was heavily edited by my advisors, but I certainly wrote it. The other chapters got at least one read by at least one of them and that’s all.

    Ecogeoman went to school in a British-style system, including a masters. Even still, his US PhD is taking >7 years. He might be an exception, but is at least one data point that suggests that the early eduction does not necessarily predict how long the PhD will take. I suspect the expectations and funding are the most significant factor.

    EGM’s undergrad was much more specialized than mine, but he seems to think the breadth I got was better. On one hand I agree — I’m very glad for the English, math, history, economics, etc that I learned — but on the other I wish I had had the intensive training in my subject that he got. There’s trade-offs for everything!

    I’ve never thought that someone who finished the PhD quickly was inadequate. On the contrary, I’ve always been impressed by people who could get it done so fast. BUT: I do sorta resent the senior hire my department just made to someone from the British system–someone who is only 2 or 3 years older than me!

  24. ruchi says:

    I meant to comment on this ages ago. Having been through both the American style system for undergrad and the British style system for grad school, I think the British system is equally rigorous … it’s just differently rigorous.

    Most comparable Masters programs in the US are two years. Mine was one year, but it was one full year as opposed to nine months. I think a lot of the onus is on you in the British system to learn what you want … at least in the social sciences. Coming from America, I was used to lots of “required courses” and syllabuses with reading lists and the expectation is that you read them all. In Britain I found that there was no expectation that you would read the whole list or even half of it. You read what you wanted. It was much more self-directed and your degree was really what you made of it. As a grad student, I really appreciated that.

    HOWEVER. I personally would not have fared well with British style secondary school or university. I am one of those who went in to undergrad with a science major and came out with a theatre major. I had no idea what I wanted and had I been forced to stick with science I would have been miserable. Personally, I think life is long … why do a three year university degree and force kids to specialize so early? As a policy matter, is there a reason the British government wants to encourage 25-year old PhDs? I understand that a lot of Brits do a gap year, and there’s definitely value in a year off or a year of travel, but I really feel like traveling to Thailand wouldn’t have taught me that science wasn’t for me. I needed to take university-level science to realize that.

    And I also think the early specialization really hinders people given the fast changing world we’ve lived in. I’m in my early 30s and have had three careers so far. God knows how many I’ll have in the end. Antipodean may scorn the American style that requires all those “shitty undergraduate courses” but I can’t tell you how many of those breadth requirements have saved my arse in later years. I HATED economics at uni, but I use those classes to this day. Cath, you are a great writer, but I suspect that many biologists from the UK could do with a university level English course or two.

    So, do I think a British PhD is not as good as an American PhD? No. In fact, I think once you hit grad school, the British system is much better at encouraging independence of thought than the American system. But I think the American system for secondary school and undergrad makes more sense given today’s realities of long life-spans and multiple career transitions. Basically I think everyone should do high school and undergrad in America and then graduate work in Britain because that’s what I did and I’m always right about everything. 😉

  25. vrk says:

    Chiming in as another Finn… A very brief summary of the Finnish educational system between 1990 and 2002:

    Primary school, 6 years (ages 7 to 12)
    Secondary school, 3 years (ages 13 to 15)
    High school or vocational school, 3 years (ages 16 to 18)
    Military service (if you’re a man or female volunteer), 0.5-1 years (must start between ages 18 and 27)

    Your legal obligation to study ends when you turn 16, so high school and vocational school are actually optional. A couple percent actually drop out after secondary school. Since my time, primary and secondary have now merged to one 9-year system.

    You study all subjects (at least three languages, history, sciences, mathematics, …) until the first year of high school. You have a few choices to make in the last two years of secondary school (German or basic economics, say), but the second and third year of high school is spent on specialising in subjects of your choice (such as physics or Spanish). The final-year examination (“matriculation”) is a bit like the A-levels, I suppose.

    I don’t have experience with vocational school, but it usually lasts 2.5 years, and you learn a trade (e.g. chef or car mechanic).

    The real fun starts after high school, which is seen as preparatory education for university level studies. If you perform well in the matriculation exam, you might get a fast-track entry to a programme in one of your specialisms from high school. For instance, I did well in mathematics and physics, and was able to skip the entrance exams for a physics MSc programme.

    There once was an undergraduate degree in the sciences, but that was phased out in 1980s. It came back a few years ago as part of the Bologna process (which is religiously followed in Finland, as are most other EU directives…). I was among the last to graduate in the old style MSc, which usually lasts 5-6 years. I did it in five, but I also had to spend one year doing the military service, so I graduated six years after starting the programme.

    You also used to have quite a bit of choice even in the first year of undergraduate studies. There were certain core courses everyone had to pass, but beyond those you were free to take any relevant courses in mathematics and physics (in my case) or chemistry, or even study an unrelated subject from another faculty. That’s all stricter now after the Bologna process started: you’re supposed to lay out your study plan at the start of every year, and show that it progresses towards the degree you want, and especially how any extra subjects you take support your primary one.

    The last year or two of your MSc degree are spent on a research project, but you can keep studying higher level modules (what would be considered graduate level or “year 4” modules in the UK). I actually ended up changing subjects partway through my degree to computer science, and I could still include all of the modules I had completed as part of my degree.

    A PhD in the sciences may take anything from 3 to 8 years to finish, depending on your circumstances. The most common format is to publish peer-reviewed articles in a particular specialism, write an introduction to those, and defend the whole as a thesis, so you start your academic career with peer-reviewed articles under your belt. You can still take (and you’re expected to take!) post-graduate level modules during the first years of the PhD.

    I don’t have a PhD yet, but I do have a few observations to make about UK undergraduate courses. I switched countries a few years ago and have been studying at undergraduate level at the Open University in the UK. I was really surprised by the first exams I took.

    In Finnish universities, even a third-year undergraduate exam in physics will only contain 3-4 questions (or maybe a choice of 4 out of 8). You have 3 hours to write down answers to them, and in order to do that, you need to combine concepts and techniques from the whole course material.

    In UK universities (not just the OU), physics exams have 10-12 short questions and 2-3 long questions, and the only winning strategy is to do rote learning to master particular problem solving strategies, so that you can just plug in the numerical values and churn out the correct solution. I have yet to write down an answer to all questions in a physics exam, even though my pen never leaves the paper until the end of the exam. There’s very little time to think, which means you do have to answer by rote. The emphasis is not on measuring analytical thinking ability.

    Coming back to degree times, most people are between 23 and 25 when they graduate with a Master’s, and around 30 when they finally get a PhD. There is (or used to be) much more emphasis on a well-rounded education rather than starting specialisation too early. In that sense it’s more like the American system than the British one, but without the rigorous examinations after your undergraduate (and MSc) modules are over.

  26. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    This just keeps going and going! I love it!

    (But how will I ever choose my favourite comments of the week for Bragging Rights Central?!)

    Conrad, 10 years?! Wow. I think the longest PhD I’ve seen (in Canada) was 8 years.

    The situation you describe about a PhD qualifying you only to be a postdoc, not a PI, is the same in the UK – it was more or less expected that you’d do at least one 3-year postdoc, sometimes two of them, before seeking an independent position. I think it’s been a long time (at least in my field) since anyone went straight from a PhD to independence!

    PiT, wow! You were clearly a very busy bee for those three years!

    David, welcome to the blog!

    I totally agree that the US/Canadian system seems more open to abuse (if that’s not too strong a word) by PIs trying to milk their cheap labour dry. I don’t know any examples in real life, but the blogosphere is full of them.

    A, welcome to you too!

    I loved my PhD too, mostly, and did realise it at the time, which I think makes me a very rare and privileged being!

    Amelie, I understand the temptation to write papers for students if they’re not great writers (because I have to edit the damn things – see an earlier post!) But you’re right, if they don’t go through the process of drafts and (clearly explained) edits and more drafts and more edits, they’ll never learn. It was incredibly valuable to me, and I’m very grateful to have had such a kick-ass supervisor!

    Eco, thanks!

    I agree that it’s a trade-off. I’m sure I would have enjoyed taking a few classes in other areas, but then again it was more affordable for my parents to have me finish in 3 years! (I supported myself through my PhD, although this required living in a shit-hole of a flat and eating lots of meals consisting of rice, carrots, onions, and soy sauce).

    I’m sure the new hire in your department is acutely aware of the age discrepancy too! It’s really weird to be a good few years younger than people at an earlier stage of the training process than you!

    Ruchi, I totally agree that for some people, the UK system of early specialisation is completely inappropriate and that some people would do much better in the broader US system. (I am not one of those people, as described in my post! 🙂 )

    I like your suggestion 😀

    vrk, welcome! It’s great when a topic hits a nerve and brings in lots of new commenters.

    Interesting observations about exam formats. I wonder how much variation there is, in any country, between fields and universities? On my course, the first year used a lot of multiple choice and short answer questions (the classes were huge, because so many courses had a common first year), and the second year (with smaller classes) used a mix of short answers and some essay-style answers. In my final year, I think around a third of my grade came from the research project (written report and oral presentation / defense), a little more came from a self-directed module that involved writing two long (looooong) essays from a choice of 20 topics, and the rest was from exams. The exams all involved choosing 2 or 3 essay topics from a choice of 6-8 (I think), and writing on those topics for a total of 3 hours. The “writing bump” on my middle finger was massive by the time exams were over!

  27. catswym says:

    I got my PhD in the US and it took me 6 years almost exactly, with only three months dedicated to writing (I can’t believe all the folks were shocked by that for you!). And I totally agree that it should be shorter and NOT paper focused. My experience was similar to Conrad’s in that the first year was just course work (learning nothing new over undergrad work) and rotations. Second year was part time course work and teaching (requirement for degree, not funding) and a little time spent in the lab. Third year was when lab time really became my focus although I still had several classes that I had to finish over the next couple of years.

    I finished in six years with no first author papers because none of the projects I had worked on had panned out with positive results, although (luckily in the US) my committee let me go because I had learned to be a good researcher and none of it was my fault. I didn’t push to get a project published because I knew by that time that there was no way I wanted to stay in research. But the problem is that a lot of committees/ schools don’t care if you’ve learned to be a good scientist. If you don’t have those requisite three papers you aren’t going anywhere and even in my department the average time to finish was something like 7.5 yrs (AVERAGE TIME!!) because folks weren’t getting ‘enough’ published within the first five or six (could be because at least two full years of time was taken up by coursework and teaching).

    I think the PhD could easily be sheared down to four years with removal of a lot of the useless coursework and less emphasis on multiple first author publications.

  28. It is really difficult to generalize on what the optimum duration of a Ph.D. training program should be, because it is highly dependent on the individual, the training environment and the thesis research problem. However, if a graduate student has already completed a Master’s degree, then a 3 year Ph.D. program is feasible and probably desirable. However, in the absence of previous Master’s level training, nowadays this is not recommended if one is contemplating a serious research career. In this event, another 3 to 5 years of post-doctoral experience is highly advisable. It is so difficult to develop a solid base of knowledge around a scientific discipline and mastery of the appropriate technologies for undertaking leading edge research. It is highly competitive out there. Ultimately, the ability of a trainee to secure a permanent job in academia or industry will require clear demonstration of research ability through original scientific publications in which the trainee has played a major role. Long term success requires adequate preparation and a lot of hard work and dedication. Nearly 30 years ago, I was able to skip my Master’s and complete my Ph.D. degree in about 3 and a half years in Canada with about 20 publications from my graduate work. However, I also completed 5 years of post-doctoral training in Canada, the UK and the USA. With the growth of requisite knowledge in biochemistry and molecular biology, this would be much more challenging today.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      yeah – like I said above, Brits in my field expect to do at least one postdoc, usually two, before seeking an independent position.

  29. ecogeofemme says:

    I keep checking the “notify me of followup comments via email” box, but I haven’t been getting followup comments by email on any posts! Phooey!

    Also, my captcha is related to my research. Cool!

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Yeah, checking that box sometimes works, but not always. We don’t know why, the code is right there!. Entering your email in the “subscribe without commenting” box is much more reliable.


  30. Tim says:

    Well, I did a BA and MA in the US, now doing a PhD in New Zealand (British-style, I suppose), and I think that the major difference between the thesis-only PhD and the Humboldt-style North American PhD is that the North American degree trains broadly AND deeply. It isn’t intended to make up for “deficiencies” of “shitty” undergraduate training (it takes four years to do a US BA, not three).

    From what I’ve seen here, the “honours” 400-level coursework to which Antipodean alluded (which constitutes the first year of the MA) does not approach the rigor of MA and PhD-level coursework in the US. Mind you, I’m from the humanities, so I don’t know about the sciences, but in my mind, there’s a level of maturity of thought that comes with being older and studying high-level subjects. You just don’t have that at 21. I know I didn’t, and I’m pretty smart! 😉 I’ve studied in Germany and the UK, as well, and found the highest-level coursework to be equivalent to what I did in my final year as an undergraduate at a mid-level state university.

    The PhD in North America is on all counts an internationally qualified research degree, but it has a component which exposes students to original, [ideally] cutting-edge research, across the entire discipline, in an intensive and research-driven seminar format. This does not occur in New Zealand, and I imagine the same applies to the other thesis-only countries. That’s where the disadvantage comes from for thesis-only PhD’s on the North American job market. Hiring committees (I’ve sat on these, so I definitely know) are looking for people who can hit the ground running. They want people who could teach an entire undergraduate curriculum if they had to, which means having had exposure to a broad range of disciplinary topics at a high level.

    As for the PhD comprehensive exams (most MA’s/MS’s have these as well), those are intended to demonstrate PROOF that you have retained the disciplinary knowledge to be well-versed in the field at large, and therefore qualified to teach it. And the teaching components are considered professional training. Who would hire a regular full-time school teacher who had never been trained in a classroom?

    So is the thesis-only PhD inferior as a research credential? Absolutely not. It achieves the goals of a research credential in every way. But I think its scope is far too limited and leaves little room for all of the trappings of professional training for the academic (teaching & research) profession.

    • Tim says:

      Oh! I should add: In the humanities (and also the sciences and math), a lot of people in North American programs go straight from PhD graduation to their first full-time job. Although with dwindling full-time jobs, even those of us in the humanities are going to post-docs (which is actually pretty absurd). But I think that what the thesis-only PhD lacks in breadth, it makes up for in the post-doc phase. So in the end I would say the training for a lectureship/professorship is by and large the same, just packaged differently. Does that sound plausible?

  31. Really great to hear your perspective. My husband’s company has recently hired a gal from Ireland with a 3 year Ph.D., and he and I were just talking about how we “felt” about a 3-year Ph.D. I think the fact of the matter is that every Ph.D. is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all mold.

    The shortened length of the British-type Ph.D. releases the student into real life (what is that?) sooner, which is good. But at the same time, I have to say that one of the most valuable things I learned as a Ph.D. student was how to persevere through some seriously choppy waters. To muddle through it, I required time- and it doesn’t seem like the 3-yearers are going to have that kind of time for good old-fashioned struggling. They will, however, learn some great lessons in efficiency.

  32. I found this discussion fascinating. I took my PhD in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland in 4 years with 3 good publications in 1984 and was regarded as an oddity (even then!!). Most of my contemporaries took more than 5 years to complete and had few or no publications. I have now supervised 14 PhDs myself and externally examined 19 in Ireland, the UK, Spain, Portugal, France and Sweden so I have seen the examining process across lots of types of systems. I have concluded that, overall, there is more similarity in the standard of “final product” across the different structures than there is across disciplines or at undergraduate level. It’s amazing really how diverse and varied systems (in Europe anyway) produce such a similar level of training. As a result, in my own supervising practice, I gradually moved from the traditional UK style thesis to the more continental “published papers” type thesis over the years. I found the traditional thesis plays into the hands of the “seven year perpetual PhD student” and encourages too much time-wasting. Nowadays my students complete in the window 3-4 years (average 4 papers per thesis) and I think this is good training for the real world (meeting deadlines, time-management, planning) and is fairer on the student. That being said, I have seen colleagues try to squeeze just one more paper out of their students and refusing to read any thesis material until they do which is, in my opinion, grossly unfair. I am a great believer now in thesis committees and team supervision coupled with periodic progress reviews to ensure student progression.

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