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I am working on a PhD in chemical engineering, and my advisor mentioned to me today that I'm on track to finish in about half a year. I only have one class left to fulfill the course requirements and I have a few papers published, with a couple more almost finished.

Personally, I'm in no hurry. I love grad school and working on research. However, from the perspective of a getting a good job, would a PhD at 23-24 years of age or additional research publications in high quality journals look better? Once I graduate I plan on either doing research in industry or working at a startup. I don't plan on going into academia.

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Since you asked the question, surely you must have at least one or two reasons why you personally think that finishing your Ph.D. at 23-24 years of age would help you get a better job. Care to elaborate on what those are? –  Mad Jack May 8 at 1:49
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Contrary to the answers provided here, I don't think anyone in the Industry really cares how old you are. They don't care if you are 23 or 28 when starting your first real job - Why should it? They care that you are able to do your job well and age is not a factor in that - experience, on the other hand, is. Research experiences might not help you there, but I doubt that anyone will care how old exactly you are. –  dirkk May 8 at 9:09
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Europe/US/other? 2.5 years in some countries can be short but normal (e.g. Germany) in others - extremely short (e.g. US). –  Piotr Migdal May 8 at 11:45
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@dirkk, for women in industry it matters quite a lot whether you are 23 or 28... Not only for the first job. –  Antiohia May 8 at 15:58
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@dirkk "does X matter" and "should X matter" are orthogonal, weakly related questions, especially in matters such as this - a strong positive answer to one is no evidence whatsoever for the other question, and it's misleading to mix them up. –  Peteris May 8 at 18:23

5 Answers 5

In my field (computer science, broadly), my impression is as follows. It is of course an over-generalization.

  • If you want to go into academia or industrial research, then what you do during your Ph.D. matters much much more than how long you took, though if you take more than 6 years to finish it starts to look bad.

  • On the other hand, if you want to go into non-academic industry, you might impress people with a fast Ph.D. because you'd show yourself to be the sort of person who can finish big things fast.

If you're only 2.5 years in, unless you have an offer from someplace and need to finish ASAP, and especially if you're enjoying your Ph.D., I wouldn't rush to graduate that quickly.

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My overall impression is that prodigies and Wunderkinder are not all that eagerly sought after in industry—particularly in fields associated with chemical engineering (my discipline). Twenty-three or twenty-four, however, is not too young, but it's probably right on the cusp.

However, if your work has reached the point of maturity, and you and your advisor feel that there isn't much for you to gain by remaining in graduate school longer, then it's time to move on and find a job. Of course, in the current economic climate, job searches can last many months, so even if you were ready to defend in six months, you might not have anywhere to go to afterward! (Unless, of course, you start your job search now, which may delay the time it takes you to finish, and so on.)

One final possibility that does cross my mind is the possibility that the funding being used to support your work is running out, and there isn't a follow-up source available—hence the notion of being able to finish soon being introduced.

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Another (similar) opinion from the computer science field:

  • If you want to continue with research, then it doesn't matter whether you have done your PhD in 2 or in 5 years. If you have still interesting things to do on your topic, why not doing them? However, think about your motivation. Now you have the goal to finish your PhD. After an year you will no longer have a goal and continue researching. Will it still be interesting for you?
  • If you want to go in the industry (especially in startup), then you really don't need to do more research. In some cases it is even seen bad when you have done research, as this is quite different from the kind of (simple, imperfect, fast) work that is mostly needed in industry.

I would take my decision depending on my interests and not depending on what looks good. Both alternatives look fine, it is much more important whether continuing research on the topic is interesting enough for you or you want to have it behind you.

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I think in research there is a huge lack of people. Essentially, each researcher is the whole programming team available to any task, because every other colleague of course wants to follow their own PhD projects and cannot invest any time in contributing to someone else's development work. (Of course, some projects are done by several people at a time, but then, the effort required to do them grows proportionally, leading to the same situation.) The only people who might be available to do some of the tasks are students, but they are hardly experienced with development, nor is there any ... –  O. R. Mapper May 8 at 15:06
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... safety for planning ahead, as students could be gone from one day to the other. So, I can absolutely recognize the statement "So, it is quite often that you have to work a lot, to work fast, to work with people that have no idea what is to be done or how to do it." to be true for research. Certainly, test programmes are necessary. They are what I was referring to by mentioning the "practical" part of research. They are usually extremely prototypical, as they have to work just for the tasks presented in a user study and nothing else. Their overall functionality tends to be very limited, ... –  O. R. Mapper May 8 at 15:09
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... just comprising of the very exemplary functions required for the user study tasks, and the same can be said about the example data processed by the test program. As opposed to the industry where (presumeably?) at some point a marketable product has to be created beyond the prototype, development in research stops once a half-baked prototype is running in the limited extent that is required in the user study or demonstration. There is simply no time to do anything beyond that, let alone any people willing or able to spend any additional resources on further development. –  O. R. Mapper May 8 at 15:11
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True, where I am, there too are as many people as there is money for. But each of them works on their own projects, so there is still only (at most!) a single person available for each project - way too little workforce to do anything properly. Of course, I do not dispute that in research, people can often choose what they want to do, and that this is different in the industry. I would just argue that exactly because people in research can pick what they do, many of the "practical" aspects of their work are done in an extremely simple, imperfect and fast fashion, simply because no-one ... –  O. R. Mapper May 8 at 15:49
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... asked them for e.g. a particular program, and because no-one will ever use the program without their direct influence. Even if test users conclude that the program crashes constantly, that doesn't matter because the goal is not selling anything, or developing anything that can be sold later on. –  O. R. Mapper May 8 at 15:50

Ask yourself what your PhD will mean in your career. For some people, it's simply a "certificate of competence" - it shows they are a good researcher, they can think independently, create original thought, test hypotheses, write coherently...

For others, it is a sign that they have mastered a specific field.

If you fall in the first category, then by all means finish and move on. I work "in industry" and have hired a number of people like this. The first thing I tell them is "your PhD is a license to learn". Once that message sinks in, they realize that our particular field has so much more to learn, and they can become quite effective.

If you fall in the second category, then ask yourself if your current environment is the place to continue honing your specific skills. If it is, and you are enjoying yourself - stick around. Finish your PhD and stay on as a post-doc, maybe. It's not wrong to finish fast; it depends on who you are, and who you want to become.

Either way - you are in the enviable position of having choices. Make sure you realize how lucky you are.

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If you don't want to stay in academia and want to further your career as much as possible, get the PhD as fast as possible and start working. No one will care about how many years you spent in grad school and they also won't care very much about your number of publications. They will care about work experience which is what you would be building over the next few years.

If you really enjoy grad school, don't mind missing about on money and want to spend a lot more time learning, then you may want to stay.

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