Piled Higher and Deeper (also known as PhD Comics), is a newspaper and webcomic strip written and drawn by Jorge Cham that follows the lives of several grad students. First published in the fall of 1997 when Cham was a grad student himself at Stanford University, the strip deals with issues of life in graduate school, including the difficulties of scientific research, the perils of procrastination, the complex student–supervisor relationship and the perpetual search for free food. Cham continued the strip as an Instructor in mechanical engineering at Caltech, and now draws and gives talks about the strip full-time. Originally, the strip was drawn in crude black-and-white, eventually became grayscale, and finally became color in June 2004.
Piled Higher and Deeper introduced its main characters early in its run, and their personalities have remained fairly constant during the strip's several years of publication. In the strip's first few seasons, the characters were clearly Stanford University students, though the number of school-specific references and jokes has decreased since.
- The Nameless Grad Student (a.k.a., The Nameless Hero) – a graduate student in engineering, this bespectacled protagonist has procrastinated through the entire strip without receiving a name. He bears a striking resemblance to the comic strip author, Jorge Cham (at one point, his younger sister Dee remarks that her brother has dreams of quitting grad school and becoming a cartoonist). Little is known about the hero's background, although early on Mike Slackenerny states that he knew the hero's older brother (who quit his PhD and went on to work for a "Silicon Valley Company"). As he is seen playing with two children at home during his winter vacation, he probably has younger siblings, nieces and/or nephews, or cousins. He has been increasingly seen with a set group of friends (one is named Mikkel) and seems, at least marginally, to be the most favored graduate student of his advisor, Prof. Smith. At the conclusion of the film, the character states for the first time that his name is Winston, named after Jorge's father; in the films, Winston is a Biochemistry grad student.
- Cecilia – An engineering student born around May 1, 1980 Earlier strips have her born in 1973. Cecilia spent years refusing to admit that she was truly a geek at heart. However, in one strip she finally with hesitation admitted she is indeed a geek. She is also a programmer as well. Addicted to chocolate and cookies, she has long since taken enough classes and conducted enough research to graduate, but a mysterious psychological force keeps her in school. She stated in an interview for a project by her friend Tajel that her father was a professor, a "great teacher", something that may or may not be a motivation for her to go above and beyond (also, her choice of words indicates that her father may have died). During class, she deliberately wears frumpy clothes to discourage male interest, since the vast majority of her classmates are men. This strategy is not always successful – "Excuse me, female, will you marry me?" She has had two boyfriends in the course of the strip: David and Scott. Although she broke up with David relatively quickly, she seriously dated Scott, her crush in high school, for numerous strips; they had a long-distance relationship for a while after Scott was promoted and moved to London but broke up amicably in 2007. Cecilia sometimes accompanies Tajel to political rallies and such events. She was asked in 2006 by a professor to interview for a faculty position at a different institution because "it's the only position you're not overqualified for" and "we hired one of their grad students, so, diplomatically, they owe us."
- Michael Slackenerny – endlessly devious, remarkably clever and phenomenally lazy, Mike did his undergraduate at Berkeley yet had been in graduate school for longer than anyone can remember (during one of his interviews it was strongly implied that he started grad school in the 1980s), surviving on ramen and free food from various events on campus. He views grad school not as a place but as "a state of mind [...] preferably sleeping". In the spring of 1998, he drove to Las Vegas with a seemingly foolproof plan to beat the blackjack tables, thereby winning enough money to solve Stanford's housing crisis. Instead, he returned with a wife, Jen, who remained an unseen character for some time. Jen became pregnant with their daughter Sophy and stayed that way for several years, constantly urging Michael to finish his thesis and graduate. Michael finally completed his doctoral defense in 2005 – Jen went into labor just before his presentation began – but did not finish writing his thesis until 2007. After submitting his dissertation, Mike was seen walking home and asking himself, "Now what?" After a period of job-hunting, he was finally hired by Prof. Smith as a postdoc.
- Tajel – an anthropologist and the lone social scientist in the main cast. She was Cecilia's roommate before she got married. She is a dedicated activist who frequently attends or organizes rallies. Her frustration with U.S. politics is exacerbated by her not being a United States citizen. She is conversant in Spanish. Her mother is Indian and her father is Caucasian. She married Dr. Khumalo in February 2009.
- Gerard – the strip's newest "official" character, he is a major in Medieval Scandinavian Cultural Philosophy, who was personally introduced to readers by Tajel, supposedly in response to numerous letters from Humanities majors requesting their own character, and was meant to provide jokes on "obscure manuscripts, dead languages, and being the lowest paid grads on campus. Also, political correctness!" Despite this, Gerard has only been shown twice after his initial introduction, apart from a cameo as a guest at Tajel's wedding, in a joke on the obscurity and uselessness of his field. His first actual storyline within the comic occurs when he is informed that funding has been cut for humanities majors and to leave the strip or find a more useful major, subsequently forcing him to justify why the comic should retain a humanities character.
- Dee – the hero's younger sister. She is an undergraduate student who has been seen taking the GRE. She also talks on her cellular telephone, eats quite a bit, and naps during class when she isn't doing something even more inappropriate, such as chatting or eating a full meal during a test. Dee once phones her "sister dearest", so the main character may have more than one sibling. Dee has a good male friend who she often spends time with and at one point hints that he may have romantic feelings for her. Like the main character, he has not yet been named.
- Mariko – a Japanese student in the same research field as the hero, she visits Prof. Smith's lab in 1998. Smith assigns her to work with "whoever is lowest in the lab hierarchy", which turns out to be the hero. During her brief stay, she inspires in him a powerful unrequited affection, which he maintains for at least three years. She eventually quits her Ph.D. and starts her own company, at which the hero works briefly. She is still occasionally seen talking with the main character as he works, so her current status is somewhat murky. On a strip dated 28 April 2010, entitled "Lost no more..?", she was seen in an alternate timeline as possibly being the mother of the Nameless Hero's (supposed) baby, with the Nameless Hero asking "WHAT IF I HAD STAYED IN ACADEMIA?"
- Steve (aka. Golden Boy) – Remarkably clever, sincere and "good boy". Steve has been in graduate school for two years and has already completed his thesis. In the lab hierarchy he is given more consideration than any of the post docs or research associates by Prof. Smith. He is extremely good in getting positive results and is always consulted by Prof. Smith for his opinion. His "good boy" image in comparison to the nameless hero is a running joke in the series.
- Allison – The sole female PhD student in Professor Smith's lab, which Smith and the other PhDs often forget to Allison's frustration. Unlike her labmates, she is not distracted by sporting events like the World Cup and proves to have some measure of athletic ability during the students vs. professors baseball match.
- Professor Jones – Cecilia's research advisor; a typical graduate school professor, although seemingly older and kinder than Prof. Smith. He is clueless in giving Cecilia advice on non-research related topics such as her lovelife and future career and will ask for her help with small tasks, such as changing the font size of footnotes, while claiming it is urgent. Apparently the only reason he has time to see his wife is because he married his administrative assistant; before he received tenure, he had already been divorced three times. He has a daughter in 1st grade named Shelley, who is intelligent enough to fix Mike's work for him.
- Dr. Patrick Khumalo – An adjunct professor in the Anthropology Department's faculty, who Tajel eventually marries. Tajel mistakes him for a first-year grad student when they first meet, possibly because she is older than he is.
- Professor Rivera – Tajel's advisor. He apparently takes a laid-back approach to being an advisor, being entirely clueless as to Tajel's research interests, progress, and sometimes even her name. Once he praised a draft of a paper that Tajel had written, three months after Tajel had already submitted the final paper on due date. Additionally, he is extremely elusive when needed, such as when Cecilia needed to find him for documents to allow Tajel to renew her visa, appearing only when Cecilia tried imagining he was the last person she wanted to see. He is married to Professor Stein, the chair of the anthropology department. Despite being aware that he lacks any apparent interest in Tajel's work, she is still stunned when he leaves for a position at another university with only an offer of advising her remotely.
- Professor Galvez – The head of the anthropology department, who becomes Tajel's new advisor after discussion with the rest of the faculty. In contrast to Rivera, Galvez apparently has a surly personality and finds Tajel's emails to be too lengthy to bother reading.
- Professor Brian S. Smith – Mostly intimidating and unsympathetic but sometimes forgetful, Prof. Smith advises Mike Slackenerny and the Nameless Hero in their research, taking credit for any output his lab actually produces. Prof. Smith occasionally tries to "fit in" with his students (nearly all males and one female student, Allison ), to humorous and awkward results. He has a wife and two children, a daughter named Sadie, and a son, "Junior". However, as a grad student, Prof. Smith (then known simply as "Brian") fell in love with a fellow grad student in the same lab, Sangeeta Singh, whose work he greatly admired. Tragically, Brian ignored Sangeeta's advances in order to work overtime on his thesis, even turning down her invitation to a holiday party. Prof. Smith regretted it for the rest of his life, consoling himself many years later by saying to himself, "who cares, I've got tenure". The second PhD Movie elaborates on this further, showing Sangeeta's fate after young Brian stupidly missed the opportunity of a lifetime with her: decades later, Sangeeta is a professor herself and one of Prof. Smith's leading rivals in his field. But even then, it is clear that Prof. Smith never got over her. When she encounters him at a scientific conference, taunting his work, he has no wits to reply and can only stare longingly at her, until she finally snaps him out of his trance. It is unclear whether she still harbors a buried affection for him in return. Prof. Smith's current wife presumably hopes not. Prof. Smith was originally drawn so that his face was never seen, much like Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the early James Bond movies, Doctor Claw in Inspector Gadget, or any teacher/adult in Peanuts. According to his wife, Smith apparently "used to goof off all the time as a grad student"  and it has been suggested on occasion that he had been interested in becoming a circus performer rather than a professor. A brilliant academic who disproved all the theories of his advisor Professor Emeritus Zekowsky, Professor Smith is the Arthur C. and Caroline J. McCallister Distinguished Chair Professor and Anderson Faculty Scholar, and the Director of the Center for Computational Research and the National Institute of Dynamical Physics. He is the recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Prize of the Netherlands, the National Science Foundation Presidential Investigator Award, the Exceptional Achievement Medal from the International Society of Engineers, the Pi Gamma Tau Industry Excellence Professorship, the National Medal of Engineering, and the Medal of Honor from the Royal Academy of Scientists. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Advanced Dynamics, the Journal of Nano-Particle Computation, Physik-Publication and several other journals, and on the advisory boards of many industry consortia. He holds honorary doctorates from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Tsing-Chua Beijing University and the Universidade de São Paulo, among others.
- Professor Sangeeta Singh – Prof. Smith's ex-labmate when he was a grad student himself, and now his greatest rival, Prof. Singh is featured solely in "The PHD Movie 2", although she was seen in Prof. Smith's flashbacks during the "A Smithmas Carol" storyline.
The title of the comic comes from an old joke about becoming a Ph.D., which explains that if one knows what "B.S." stands for (in this context, "bullshit"), then "M.S." stands for "More of the Same" (or "More Shit"), and "Ph.D." stands for "Piled Higher and Deeper".
One of Cham's recurring themes is to re-cast an item of popular culture in the grad-school milieu. Upon several occasions, the strip has included spoofs of popular movies, like The Thesis (The Matrix),Raiders of the Lost Dissertation (Raiders of the Lost Ark),I, Grad Student (a mixture of the book and movieI, Robot), and Summer days ("Summer Nights"). In addition, Cham has parodied television programs like The Jerry Springer Show, among others.
Jorge Cham has also parodied Newton's laws of motion as Newton's 3 Laws of Graduation. According to the strip these laws of graduation were superseded by Einstein's Special Theory of Research Inactivity, much as Newton's actual laws were superseded by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.
Another series of strips takes up the modern debate about the proper use of the term "irony".
The strip has also included several adaptations of Shakespeare as well as several propaganda posters. Captions for the latter include "This man does research for you!", "When you procrastinate... Someone is watching!" and "Women in grad school... Support your local female geek."
Cham has also released two song parodies, purportedly sung by Tajel, in MP3 format: "Closer to fine" (cf. Indigo Girls) and "Who will grade your work" (Who Will Save Your Soul).
Five PhD comic books have been published so far. The first book, Piled Higher and Deeper: A Graduate Comic Strip Collection (2002), contains production sketches and an afterword by Prof. Smith in addition to the comic strips.
The second volume, Life is Tough and then You Graduate, was published in April 2005. It contains six strips not published online that explain what happened in Mike's thesis defense. It also has a foreword by Karl Marx, behind-the-scenes author notes and a graduate schoolboard game.
The third book, Scooped!, which was released in May 2007, also contains "Tales from the Road", a series of comics that detail Cham's experiences whilst giving his Power of Procrastination tour.
The fourth book, Academic Stimulus Package, was released March 2009. This volume is printed in full color.
The fifth book, Adventures in Thesisland, was released April 2012. This volume is also printed in full color. The introduction is an excerpt from the screenplay of the PHD Movie.
Piled Higher and Deeper: the Movie
In March 2011, Jorge Cham started filming a movie based on the comic series. The film production is a collaboration between Cham and a theater group at the California Institute of Technology. In fall 2011, the film was released on selected academic campuses. A trailer of the movie is available on the Piled Higher and Deeper website as of June 8, 2011. After about a year of various campus screenings around the world, the movie became available for purchase on DVD or streaming on April 15, 2012. The sequel to the movie was shot in the Caltech campus and was released later in 2015. For the first time in India, it was screened in IIT Madras on 8 April 2016 as part of their Research Scholars Day-2016.
Notes and references
- ^CHOE, JAYWON (22 July 2011). "The Joke Is on the Ph.D."The New York Times. Retrieved 5 October 2011.
- ^Jorge Cham (September 21, 2001), Lil' sister, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009
- ^Jorge Cham (February 11, 1998), Mike Slackenerny: A PhD student needs not such things, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009
- ^Jorge Cham (December 20, 2006), Taking the laptop with me, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Jorge Cham (2008), Scooped!: The Third Piled Higher & Deeper Comic Strip Collection, Los Angeles, Calif.: Piled Higher & Deeper, LLC, p. 110, ISBN 978-0-9721695-3-0
- ^Jorge Cham (November 22, 1997), Dead Week, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 )
- ^Cecilia turned 25 in 2005: Jorge Cham (May), Birthday 2005, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved October 28, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 12.
- ^Cecilia went to her 10 year high school reunion in 2001: Jorge Cham (November 14, 2001), High School Reunion, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved October 28, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 12.
- ^"Geeks Anonymous". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^Jorge Cham (November 23, 2000), The grad student of academia, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009
- ^Jorge Cham (June 6, 2005), Dress to repress, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 14.
- ^Jorge Cham (May 8, 2006), Friday night, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 67.
- ^Jorge Cham (May 18, 2006), Long distance, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 69.
- ^Jorge Cham (March 30, 2007), Is this it?, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 130.
- ^Jorge Cham (January 31, 2006), Faculty position, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 53.
- ^Jorge Cham (February 5, 2006), Faculty position, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 53.
- ^Jorge Cham (November 11, 1999), Go Cardinal!, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved November 26, 2015
- ^Jorge Cham (December 8, 2003), Coming back to grad school, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009
- ^Jorge Cham (May 22, 1998), Slackenerny – going to Vegas, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009
- ^Jorge Cham (January 23, 2006), Paternity leave, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 51.
- ^Jorge Cham (April 2, 2007), Now what?, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 131.
- ^"Drama!". PHD Comics.
- ^"Tajel got married". PHD Comics.
- ^"Humanities". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Tajel getting married, pt. 5". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Budget cuts". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Choosing grad schools". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-07-21.
- ^Jorge Cham (April 28, 2010), PHD Comics: Lost no more...?, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved May 15, 2010
- ^"Tech support". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^Jorge Cham (June 29, 2009), Bridge, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved September 27, 2009
- ^"Simpler". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^Jorge Cham (July 4, 2005), Cingradella, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 20.
- ^Jorge Cham (Oct 19, 2001), Kids! (Part 4), Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved Feb 9, 2011
- ^The Dictionary Definition of Adjunct
- ^"Permission". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Tajel got married". PHD Comics.
- ^"Social". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-07-21.
- ^Cham, Jorge (27 April 2007), "Terrific Job", Pile Higher and Deeper, retrieved 19 November 2008
- ^"Only when you don't need them". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"A very serious matter". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^It's Official
- ^Remote Advisor
- ^Close match
- ^Gotta Catch Them All
- ^The fact that his first name is Brian is reflected in Jorge Cham (June 20, 2001), Lil' sister, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 and Jorge Cham (December 20, 2005), A Smithmas carol, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 45.
- ^"Turf Wars, pt. 3". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Turf Wars, pt. 5". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Turf Wars Epilogue". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^Jorge Cham (August 2, 2006), Conference call, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 81.
- ^Jorge Cham (November 24, 2010), Smith Circus, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved February 9, 2011
- ^Jorge Cham (November 24, 2010), A Smithmas Carol, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved February 9, 2011
- ^Jorge Cham (November 24, 2010), The PhD Movie 2, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved February 9, 2011
- ^"Mrs. Smith, pt. 3". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^Jorge Cham (June 20, 2001), Lil' Sis (Part 5), Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved February 9, 2011
- ^Jorge Cham (November 24, 2010), Smith Circus, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved February 9, 2011
- ^Jorge Cham (December 8, 2005), A Smithmas carol, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 43.
- ^Jorge Cham (August 16, 2005), Author biographies, Piled Higher and Deeper, retrieved April 23, 2009 ; Cham, Scooped!, p. 85.
- ^"What is... The Thesis?". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Raiders of the lost dissertation". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"I, Grad Student". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Summer Days". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2012-07-19.
- ^"Newton`s Three Laws of Graduation". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Irony?". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Closer to Fine (Academic Version)". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"Who will grade your work?". PHD Comics. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
- ^"A Comic Strip That Skewers Academe Will Become a Live-Action Movie". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2011-04-12.
- Cham, Jorge (2002), Piled Higher and Deeper: A Graduate Comic Strip Collection, Palo Alto, Calif.: Piled Higher and Deeper Publishing, ISBN 978-0-9721695-0-9
Time As The Enemy for Ph.D. Students
Most Ph.D. students worry at some point about how long it’s going to take to finish their research, write a dissertation, and defend it successfully so they can finally move on. The majority will manage to get it all done within a reasonable amount of time (albeit usually longer than they were expecting at the outset), but many others will struggle for several months, or even years, only to finally finish after much, much too long. Many others will quit in frustration along the way.
The aim of this article is to help graduate students avoid some common pitfalls associated with long Ph.D. completion times, particularly those related to research. The most common hindrances to good progress through a Ph.D. program can be anticipated and avoided, and if not avoided, there are ways to diminish their impact once they are recognized. I will suggest some steps for maintaining good progress, and for those who may have already fallen off the rails, I’ll offer suggestions for getting back on track toward timely program completion. The advice applies most directly to doctoral programs in the various fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (referred to as STEM fields, in the U.S.), but much of it applies also to doctoral programs in the humanities and fine arts.
Doctoral students and their supervisors share the responsibility of ensuring completion within a reasonable time frame, so it’s essential that they work well together. Not surprisingly, conflicts sometimes arise, which can put at odds the interests of student and supervisor. Whether justified or not, some doctoral students actually see their supervisors as significant obstacles to timely completion!
When Dr. Ryan Raver invited my comments on this topic, he set the stage with the following questions:
Some grad students voice concern of being taken advantage of by their professors to squeeze that last bit of data out in attempt to get in a better journal. But what if those experiments don’t work and are the only thing standing between you (the grad student) and graduation? And what if you do all that extra work, submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal and the reviewers ask for something completely different (maybe in retrospect it was all in vain)?… To put it in perspective, how does it take someone 4.5 years vs. 6.5 years to graduate (if say you kept the workload constant and both were to hypothetically have similar research projects)? Since it is a symbiotic relationship between the student and the professor, how can both benefit without the balance tipping all to one direction?
There are at least two separate issues behind Dr. Raver’s questions. One issue concerns the timely completion of a doctoral program, while the other has more to do with navigating around an obstructive supervisor. Problems with the first issue can sometimes arise as a consequence of the second, of course. I will suggest a few things about coping with a difficult supervisor after first discussing the more general issue of finishing the Ph.D. in a timely manner.
The 3 Stages of a Ph.D.
To get an idea of how long a Ph.D. should take and how things should progress along the way, let’s divide a typical Ph.D. student’s program into three stages: early stage (roughly the first 12-18 months, or so), middlestage (the second, third, and in some cases, part of the fourth years), and finalstage (fourth or fifth year). Note that these time frames may vary across disciplines, and across individuals, depending on the nature of their research. The important distinction for now is between the early, middle, and final stages.
Research-related activities during the early stage may consist of reviewing the literature, discussing important research questions, and coming up with a proposal for the Ph.D. research. In many cases, a student will start collecting data during the early stage, at least from pilot experiments, some type of preliminary analysis, or feasibility assessment. If a doctoral student is given a research project that is part of an established and ongoing line of research, it is usually possible to begin collecting key data for the dissertation during the early stage.
Communication between supervisor and student must operate effectively from the outset. Students need to feel they are receiving proper direction from the supervisor, and that expectations are clear and consistent. It’s also important that students know throughout the early stage of their program how things are going. Normally, the supervisor establishes effective means for all this to happen, and the student gets off to a good start.
But some new doctoral students discover after a few months that their supervisors have been neglecting them, either because they are too busy, distracted, or just plain neglectful. Students in this situation must not wait too long before taking control of things themselves.
It is important to have a regular meeting time during which the student and supervisor discuss problems. By “regular” I mean something like every Wednesday at 2 pm. Having a fixed time makes it less likely that a busy professor will neglect meeting with grad students. An hour, once a week or every two weeks, is usually enough. The supervisor should normally be the one to request the regular meeting time, but a student should not wait for that to happen.
Don’t worry if these meetings are often cancelled because there is little or nothing to update since the last meeting. The important thing is to have the provision to meet at a fixed day and time, if needed. This way, the student is assured to have the supervisor’s attention when the need to discuss something arises. (It goes the other way, too — meeting regularly eases the professor’s task of monitoring the student’s progress).
The middle stage of the Ph.D. program is when the bulk of the data are collected. It tends to be a very busy period, lasting from several months up to a few years for most successful Ph.D. students. Many people fail to maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits during this busy period. This can become a significant problem for some, and it certainly has an adverse effect on the performance and general wellness of many. It’s not worth it, and increases the risk of burnout.
Regular meetings between student and supervisor should continue during the middle stage. To the extent that it is possible, specific milestones should be established to indicate the approximate dates by which various points in the overall project should be reached. These milestones set out a critical path for the student’s research. But since we are talking about original research, which by definition does not always go as expected, the critical path should be frequently revisited.
The time it takes to write a dissertation is usually much longer than anticipated, and the importance of getting an early start on a first draft cannot be overemphasized. As soon as possible during the middle stage, a draft of the introductory chapter should be written, even if it has some gaps, and a rough draft of each chapter should be written as each corresponding part of the overall project is completed.
In an ideal situation, a student enters the final stage of the Ph.D. having completed the actual research, or at least nearly so. The final stage is mostly about tying-off loose ends in terms of data production, and of course the major task of putting together a final version of the dissertation. If drafts of the introductory chapter and the other major chapters have already been written, this stage should last only a few months.
A common mistake is to wait until all the data are in and the results are clear before starting to write in a concerted way. Most of the writing can actually be done before the all the data have arrived, and understanding this is key to getting an early start on those initial drafts of the dissertation during the middle stage of the program. For example, one does not need to know the results of an experiment before writing most of the report, either for a manuscript to be published or for a chapter of the dissertation. After all, the rationale for having done the experiment doesn’t change with the results, so the introduction can be written without knowing the results. The methodology does not depend on the results, nor does the nature of the analyses that will be preformed on the data; so a framework for the results section can be written before the data are in. Much of the discussion can even be framed before knowing the final results.
Now, some experienced researchers might argue that the results must be known before one can put the proper spin on the introduction. That might be necessary (sadly) in order to get a paper published in a top journal, but spin is not needed for the dissertation — and it’s not how objective scientists and researchers are supposed to behave, anyway.
What are the reasons for your delays
There are no doubt a wide variety of reasons why people fail to complete a Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time. Here, we will only consider reasons related to the research and production of the dissertation. ‘Real-life’ reasons such as health problems, substance abuse, having children, or finding employment, should receive a dedicated and thorough discussion at another time and place.
One of the most common reasons for a long completion time is a slow start to the research. If a student does not become engaged early on with the intellectual issues, such as formulation of research ideas and experiments, many of the remaining activities are likely to be a mix of compromises and inefficiencies. The message here is simple: If you are in the beginning stages of your Ph.D. program, do not procrastinate about getting started with your research. And this doesn’t just mean reading the literature. You should be doing that already, anyway. You need to start collecting data, as soon as possible.
A second common reason for a long completion-time is a student or supervisor who is never satisfied, who can always think of a way to improve results, and who therefore has difficulty bringing projects to a conclusion. Perfectionism can be an asset for scientists and researchers, but not when it hampers progress. In most instances, if a student would just write up whatever he or she has already achieved, and discuss it with the supervisor, this would clarify whether any changes or refinements are necessary, what additional data may be needed, or whether it makes sense to attempt additional work in light of the time it would require.
Another major reason for delay is distraction from the primary line of investigation. Some students can’t resist the temptation to explore all the interesting byways or potential side-projects that come up during the course of any major research project. Curiosity and a willingness to work long hours are important attributes for any new scientist or engineer, but they need to be harnessed and channeled toward completion of the Ph.D., not just toward support of the supervisors’ research program.
Delays can also occur when students spend too much time on tasks that keep them in their comfort zone; for example, working in the lab, collecting data, or reading the literature — instead of writing. Don’t fool yourself into believing that if you’re always amassing more and more data, then you’re being productive and making good progress. You are only being productive and making progress if you are turning those data into peer-reviewed papers and chapters for your dissertation.
The same goes for reading. You need to be on top of the literature, both current and historical — but don’t read too much! You don’t need to read it all, and anyway, it’s counterproductive to try to make everything fit together. The literature in every field is full of discrepant findings and competing ideas. These are natural products of research, and it’s a mistake to expect that reading just a few more papers will bring greater clarity. Just get writing. The writing process will help your ideas become clearer and better organized.
Is your supervisor holding you back?
All professors are aware that doctoral students need to complete the program and move on. On the other hand, some will argue that anyone hoping for a career as an independent researcher should worry more about prudently disseminating the results of their Ph.D. research in good-quality journals, and less about the precise number of months it takes to write and defend the dissertation. I would generally agree with this sentiment, but only for students who are planning to find a postdoctoral research position and eventually apply for an academic job. To be competitive in the postdoc and academic job markets, and to get the most leverage possible from your doctoral training, it is better to finish strong than to finish fast. (If you’d like to read about an example of why this is so, check out The Sham Ph.D., a short article I posted on my blog a while back).
The foregoing arguments apply to only to a minority of doctoral students, however. Most will not end up with an academic position. It’s not because they aren’t qualified or capable — it’s because there simply aren’t enough academic jobs around for more than a small fraction of the students currently pursuing a PhD in a science or technology field. Besides, not everyone is interested in an academic research career following the Ph.D. (for a reality-check on the academic job market, check out this article from The Economist).
Although some professors might not care whether their grad students develop successful careers of their own, most professors do care a great deal. Problems can arise, however, because the needs of the doctoral student are not in complete concordance with those of the professor, and it is easy for a well-meaning professor to lose sight of the differences.
Students should not to assume too much about their supervisor’s motives. It is unlikely that the professor is intrinsically evil or sadistic, or has a pathologic desire to control and oppress graduate students. It’s more likely the professor has simply been overlooking the student’s need to complete the program and move on to the next stage of his or her career.
Students should generally give their supervisor the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps your professor is not as indifferent to your interests as you think, and they simply haven’t been informed of your long-term career plans. Unless informed otherwise, some professors assume that every doctoral student they supervise wants to pursue a research career, and probably in an academic setting. Maybe they aren’t aware of your concerns about the Ph.D. taking more than a reasonable amount of time. Maybe they are actually ready to help you try to complete by a particular target date.
You just might need to shake your supervisor a bit to momentarily get his or her attention away from your newest data, or the revisions to the manuscript you’ve been working on, or their need for a progress report on your next study, or the undergraduate projects you’ve been supervising… These issues are of shared interest to the graduate student and professor, and if the professor is allowed to take control of every serious discussion about the student’s progress, such things will naturally be the focus of nearly every conversation.
A frank discussion is needed to make the supervisor aware of the student’s concerns about timing the end of the Ph.D. research and the defense of the dissertation. One way to make sure the professor gets the message is for the student to request a special meeting for the express purpose of discussing the dissertation. This meeting should be in addition to the regular student-supervisor meetings, and if possible, it should take place in a different setting. Such measures might make it less likely the conversation will end up drifting to the same topics as usual.
No other issues should be mentioned when asking for this meeting — only the dissertation. If the meeting does eventually occur, make sure it begins with your issues, before it slides toward a discussion of those shared interests. You need to really control the direction of this discussion, because your supervisor may conflate your issues pertaining to completion of the Ph.D. with the interests you both share pertaining to the research.
Professor: “Sure, Mike. I agree…, we should talk about your timeline for finishing the Ph.D. and finally getting out of here. Okay, so I guess we should start by talking about those latest data and what we need to do next.”
Disconnect your writing projects
Sometimes a professor who feels pressure to publish some data will project that pressure onto the students involved in the work. The student and professor share interests in seeing the work through, but if doing so means the student’s dissertation will be on the backburner for a while, this will be a significant concern only for the student. Not a big deal for the professor.
Doctoral students on the academic career path should try to disconnect development of their research credentials from the compilation of their dissertation.
Here’s what I mean by that: Every Ph.D. student understands that a successful research project should culminate in at least two major writing tasks. One task is to write the manuscript for publication in a research journal or some other appropriate outlet. The other task is to write the relevant portion of the dissertation. Some of what is written will be used for both purposes, but that is beside the point.
It’s essential to think of these two objectives, the publications and the dissertation, as two distinct writing projects. What makes them distinct is not the comprehensiveness of the story or the format in which it is written — the important distinction is that one of these projects is of vital importance to the student only. The professor wants the publications as much as the student does, but only the student’s career is dependent on the production and defense of the dissertation.
An important truth for all Ph.D. students to remember is that those significant results your supervisor is waiting for may indeed be necessary for publication, but that does not mean they are necessary for the dissertation. Consider a situation in which the results of a key experiment point toward a particular conclusion, but the data overall do not make as convincing a case as would be needed in order to get published in a top journal. The corresponding chapter of the dissertation should be written up, regardless; if the reviewers of a journal manuscript has pointed to certain limitations in the data, those should become part of the discussion at appropriate points in the dissertation.
For the purposes of the dissertation, it is important that the student acknowledges limitations in the data and has ideas about how they could be improved by future work. As long as the student’s work was done properly and the data were analyzed thoroughly, there is no reason why additional work necessary for publication in a good journal cannot be completed after the dissertation has been defended.
If you are a doctoral student on the academic career path, you must understand that your career has already started. How far you go toward ultimately fulfilling your career goals will depend on how you come across as a researcher and scientist. No one will look to your dissertation for insight — they will look at your publications, they will want to know what ideas you have for future research, and what grants you will apply for.
This might not sit well with someone who is currently working on their Ph.D., but the truth is, no one will care about your dissertation once you have defended it. As Dr. Karen Kelsky, an academic career counselor, explains in an article for Chronicles of Higher Education, the more you discuss your dissertation, the less likely you are to land an academic job (at least in a STEM field, whereas this may be less so in the humanities or social sciences). And no one in a position to hire you for a postdoc, or as an assistant professor, will ever ask or even care how long it took you to finish your Ph.D.
Your ultimate goal should be publication of your findings in a good journal. Even if you’ve decided you won’t pursue an academic research career after your Ph.D., you owe it to yourself and to the other people you have worked with and who have supported you in some way (including your supervisor), and you owe it to the taxpayers who paid for it all.
But, publication of one’s findings is not a criterion for completing a Ph.D. program. If you feel under pressure to publish at least some of your data before finishing and defending your dissertation, you need to pause and figure out exactly why you feel that pressure. Is your supervisor really the direct source, or does it come from within?
Strategies for avoiding delays
Many problems related to student-supervisor conflicts and long completion times can be avoided with the following strategies:
1. Use your Ph.D. committee, not just your supervisor
Students often fail to make efficient use of their Ph.D. committee, choosing instead to deal with only with their supervisors when planning research and monitoring its progress. This has become the normal way of doing things in many doctoral programs today. Most professors are content to work closely with their own Ph.D. students, so they make little or no effort to draw their faculty colleagues into the process.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t be, because a student’s supervisor isn’t the only professor around who can be gleaned for knowledge, advice, and feedback.
Resourceful grad students create their Ph.D. dissertation committees as early as possible, usually after first establishing with the supervisor some general aims or scope for what will comprise the doctoral research. It is wise to get everyone involved at this point by putting together a written or oral proposal that is evaluated by at least one or two members of the committee, other thanthe supervisor.
Students need to keep on top of this process, and not expect someone else to take it over. It is a good idea to have a progress-report meeting with the Ph.D. committee, at least those members internal to the student’s program (i.e., from the same department) every 12 months, or so — with the option to have additional meetings if major problems arise with the work that’s agreed on, and if there are reasons to change the direction of the research. When many people are involved it is less likely the student will fall behind without anyone noticing.
2. Write every day — even if you don’t feel like it
This is probably the most important advice for nearly any graduate student. It really can’t be emphasized enough. It takes a lot of practice to get good at writing. And every grad student knows there is always something in need of being written up. Students who are having difficulty with the writing process often procrastinate on major projects, such as a manuscript or dissertation, resulting in feelings of guilt and anxiety, in addition to the delays.
Dr. Inger Mewburn manages The Thesis Whisperer, one of the most helpful websites I know for scientists and researchers who need advice on the writing process. Graduate students should check out the archives and the many helpful resources available. The blogs provide fresh insights into various facets of the early to mid-stages in an academic research career.
Getting into good writing habits will smooth much of the way through a doctoral program. Writing frequently will reveal gaps in one’s knowledge or understanding. Vague and disorganized writing often reflects vague and disorganized thinking. Writing about complex arguments or concepts helps most people understand them more deeply.
3. Don’t operate in passive mode
A salient difference between undergraduate and grad school is the degree of self-reliance required. New grad students need to realize that it will be largely up to them to teach and train themselves. The graduate supervisor’s primary role is to keep students on track and facilitate their self-education. The professor should also be a resource of knowledge and advice, but it’s up to the student to seek it.
Some students waste a lot of time in the early months of grad school, as they wait around for their supervisor to tell them what needs to be done. Most eventually figure out they need to take the initiative to make certain things happen. Meanwhile, time is lost due to the slow start.
Take the initiative for arranging the necessary meetings with your supervisor and other members of your Ph.D. committee. Taking matters into your own hands might even make a good impression on others that you didn’t anticipate, perhaps including professors from whom you will later need references.
4. Get to know your potential supervisors before you make a commitment.
This applies to prospective new grad students, of course, rather than those who are already in a Ph.D. program.
Interpersonal problems between student and supervisor are behind a large proportion of grad school dropouts. (I have written more about this in a previous commentary). If it becomes impossible for a particular grad student and supervising professor to continue working together with mutual respect, it may be possible to switch to a different supervisor part way through a program — if the student can actually find a professor in the department who is willing — but it is next to impossible to gracefully change supervisors. And there is no doubt that changing supervisors will add considerable time to a Ph.D. program.
You can’t ask people directly whether they are good graduate supervisors, but you can look for clues. Making a personal visit is the best way to find out in advance how a particular professor works with students. One should give at least as much attention to meeting with a professor’s graduate students as to meeting with the professor. Use your intuition, but also look for other warning signs that there may have been problems in the past, such as current students who have been working on their Ph.D. for an unusually long time, or stories of former grad students who either quit without finishing or changed to a different supervisor part way through their program.
Dealing with a difficult supervisor
Universities do not generally have much in the way of quality-control mechanisms to ensure that individual professors do a good job of supervising their graduate students. Luckily, relatively few professors truly abuse their authority over students. There are some bad apples, of course — professors who think of grad students and postdocs as research employees, without any regard for their career-development or personal needs. It’s not an all-or-nothing attribute; some professors are far worse than others.
A student who feels that he or she is in this kind of situation may need to clear a few potential impediments before taking steps to deal with it. One potential obstacle to resolving such conflicts concerns the emotional state of the student
Conflicts that arise between graduate student and supervisor tend to be emotionally charged. This can seriously impede attempts to resolve issues to the student’s satisfaction, because strong emotions can cloud a person’s judgment and bias his or her perception of a situation.
If you feel angry with your supervisor for letting you down, that may in fact be justified. But if you want to get through a predicament you absolutely must shed the anger and forget about the blame game. Remember that your goal is to finish the program — it’s not to take your supervisor to task for something you think is an injustice.
But there is no doubt that some professors spend more time managing their own career than looking out for the interests of their students. The effectiveness of a student’s efforts to work through a Ph.D. program with an unsupportive or abusive supervisor will depend on their perception of the student-supervisor relationship and expectations regarding how this relationship is intended to work for the benefit of both parties.
Many professors share the notion that giving doctoral students plenty of work to do in the lab is all that’s needed to train them to become good researchers. But all this does is train a student for a career as someone else’s research employee, and this is exactly the type of career that many doctoral students end up with after years of “training” — one postdoctoral position after another, never having long-term job security, and never becoming an independent researcher with grant money and facilities of their own.
Students should push back at being treated like an employee. The greatest danger is accepting that this is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s easy to get lulled into that belief over time, especially when other professors and grad students seem to have accepted that this is the right way. But it is not supposed to be that way. Students must fight the illusion that they are their supervisors’ employees. Those who assume the role of employee and behave accordingly are likely to continue being treated that way, and some of their needs as doctoral students may be neglected.
If it gets to the point that there is too much distrust or other bad feelings between you and your supervisor, or if you suspect you are being abused, it will be necessary to seek advice and support from the Graduate Program Director (GPD). The GPD probably knows your supervisor in ways that you don’t, and may know some things about this professor’s supervising history. The GPD is likely to at least understand your situation and offer perspectives you haven’t been able to see. Thus, at the very least, the GPD should provide hope that you’re not entirely under the thumb of your supervisor.
One should also keep the other members of the Ph.D. committee abreast of what’s going on. Since your supervisor doesn’t own you, you are free to seek advice or guidance from other professors. It might not seem that way, depending on the prevailing culture amongst students and professors in your program; but just because the majority of your peers tend to consult only with their supervisors, that does not mean you have to limit yourself in such a way. Most of your professors are extremely knowledgeable and willing to help. But they will not come to you, so you must go to them.
One or more of those other professors might even have some novel insights or useful suggestions for you. When asking a professor for advice or guidance on such a touchy subject, however, it is important to behave in a professional manner at all times. If seeking advice from another professor, do not speak disparagingly about your supervisor or blame them outright for any of the problems. This never helps, and it usually costs the student some credibility.
Remember that these other people will be watching how you deal with this difficult situation. You are likely to need letters of recommendation from them at some point in the future, either when applying for a postdoctoral position or for some other employment.
About The Author
Dave G. Mumby, PhD is a professor at a major University in Montreal, Canada. He is an academic advisor for undergraduate Psychology students, as well as a graduate supervisor for Master’s and Ph.D. students who share interests in behavioural neuroscience. Dr. Mumby is on many selection committees in his department, and is a regular contributer to MyGraduateSchool.com, which features advice from experts on applying to graduate or professional school.