Taking the scenic route

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on the choices I’ve made during grad school and how long it has taken me to finish.  When I first started, I learned that the average amount of time to get a PhD (at least in this field) is 5 years, although it can be done as quickly as 3 years.  So of course, I thought I could get it done in 4.  Why not?  I’ve always been above average – good grades, prior research experience, and everyone says how smart I am.

But here I am, 5.5 years later,  planning to graduate in May.  6 years for a PhD.  Not the 4 I had planned, not the 5 that is average, but 6.  And ever since year 4 rolled around, I’ve been convinced that I could graduate in the next 6 months.

I’ve been beating myself up about it for awhile:  How can it take me so much longer to finish than I thought?  What’s holding me back?  Why can’t I work hard enough to get this done?

I still haven’t figured out the answers to those questions.  Now I think that maybe it is because they are the wrong questions.  So I started challenging my original assumption instead.  What makes it so bad to take longer to get a PhD?

The answer, it turns out, is quite complex.  There is nothing inherently wrong with taking longer to get a PhD, at least in the US where there is no set time limit.  Employers, whether in academia or industry, don’t look to see how long it took, but look at your list of accomplishments (i.e., papers) and your skill set.  Sometimes, taking longer means you start the post-PhD stage as a better candidate.  Other times, though, taking longer means you are incapable of wrapping up a project, of finishing.

The same is true for completing a PhD quickly. It could mean that you are driven and focused – you know what you want and you accomplish it.  Or it could mean that you did the bare minimum to graduate and don’t actually know enough or have enough experience to proceed.

Now, I’m trying to focus less on the actual amount of time I’ve spent in graduate school, and more on what I’ve done with my time.  Considering the matter this way makes me feel better about myself – all that “extra” time was spent working on side projects that, in the end, give me more experience.  Of course, the rate at which I learn new skills or become involved in other research must increase with each extra year I spend in graduate school, or it will quickly become not worth the money I’m not making by sticking around longer.  So, don’t worry *insert concerned family member here*, I’m definitely motivated to finish up and move on.

I still dislike the questions you often get from those not in the know about how this whole graduate school system works.  Maybe we need a new metric, at least for casual conversation:  “No, I am not just a fifth year PhD student, I actually have a great productivity to research credits ratio.”  But someone else can come up with that.

I’ve got a dissertation to write.