How Long?

A perspective student e-mailed me and asked me the age old question of how long will it take her to get a Ph.D.  This is a legitimate question that has a wide variety of answers.  Here are a couple standard answers:

1. Rackham Graduate School works on a point system.  You get a maximum of 9 points a semester that you are enrolled in classes.  The number of points that you get is equal to the number of credit hours that you take, up until 9.  In order to graduate, you need 72 points.  Do a little math, and you get that the absolute minimum number of semesters that it takes to graduate is 8.  That is four years.  Technically, you start school in September, and you can finish in April, so that is about 3 years and 9 months.  Now, if you REALLY want to finish faster, you can “buy” points from Rackham, and finish as fast as you want.  If you have the cash.  Needless to say, I have never heard of anyone who has done this, so it is pretty much moot.  Three years, 9 months.  That is the minimum.

2. There is no real maximum.  There are technical rules and such, but anyone can claim extenuating circumstances, which allows you to stay longer and longer.  Some people really like graduate school and want to stay forever.  I have yet to meet many of these people.  Most are pretty motivated to get out into the “real world” and start earning sometime close to a livable wage.

3. Personally, my students are finished in about four years.  I have had some students take five years.  I don’t think that I have had any students take longer than five years.  So, the rule of thumb in my group is four years.  If you have developed something new that takes a really long time to perfect, or if you want to stay longer, then five.

Now, putting a time-frame, such as four to five years, is sweeping a lot under the rug.  I don’t think that I let people graduate before they are ready.  This means that the students have to transition from being students to researchers in that time frame.

How do we do this (I could say – how do I do this, but really, it is the student who does this, with me just sitting on the side lines telling them to turn left or right or go straight)?  Well, I encourage students to write constantly.  This focuses their minds always on the research.  It also shows them how to do a study.  Once they have done a couple studies with me directing the research, they are typically ready to do their own research, which is the key to finishing a Ph.D (I will discuss this in another post).

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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