I am not going to give details about the situation (for obvious reasons) but here it is: I got accepted for PhD to a very good American university, in experimental particle physics and I met a famous professor here who is willing to be my mentor.

I talked to some of his old students and they all said good things about him (both personality related and research related).

The thing is that his students usually finish the PhD in about 3 years (this includes taking classes, written and oral exams), while the average here is about 6. I am not sure if I should go for it or not.

I really like the work that he is doing and a recommendation letter from him would definitely mean a lot and I am totally willing to put as much effort as necessary into the projects he gives me. I am just not sure if a 3 years PhD would be good for my future career.

Will I get to learn enough? Will the post-doc or professor positions I will apply to might view such a short PhD as a bad thing (the students I talked to graduated quite recently so I am not sure about the long term impact of this)?

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    Have you asked any of those students why they were able to finish so fast? Did they feel ready or did they feel rushed out? Was there any reason to think they couldn't have taken longer if they'd felt it would have been helpful? – Nate Eldredge Sep 11 at 23:16
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    Voting to reopen because I don't see why this is too personal to answer. – Allure Sep 12 at 21:08
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    Voting to reopen. Part of a good answer is to explain how and why this "depends on individual factors". – Thomas Sep 12 at 21:48
  • Answers in comments and the resulting replies have been moved to chat (this is one of the main reasons why answers in comments are bad); please repost them as answers. Also, please edit additional information into the question. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Sep 14 at 10:12

12 Answers 12

One of the questions is why his students finish so fast. That's likely at the core of whether or not things are "Good" or "Bad".

For example, some potential good reasons:

  1. His lab has stable funding, which means his students need to take fewer TA positions to fund themselves, and can work on research instead. Note that this might also be a bad thing if you want to accumulate teaching experience.
  2. His lab has a productive experiment and data generation pipeline, meaning his students might have clear experimental setups, there's a lot of institutional knowledge, etc. that prevents them from going down unproductive rabbit holes.

In both cases, a "Good" lab might have removed some of the waste time from doing a PhD that many people experience, which will cut down on the time it takes, potentially by quite a bit.

Some potentially bad reasons:

  1. The course of study for his students is expressly just what's useful for their work in his lab, discouraging picking up depth or exploring interests.
  2. The projects are "gift wrapped" and don't involve much thought on the part of the student as to how to conduct them - all they have to do is pull the trigger. This seems like a good thing, but can leave you with a lack of skills in articulating an independent research agenda later.

Just knowing the time it takes can't tell you which of those things (and others) is actually in play.

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    I think the answer could benefit from some more balance: You consider not teaching as good or bad – depending on your goal. But doesn't that hold for all 4 reasons, the "good" and the "bad" ones? Yes, it is nice and less frustrating to start with a working experimental setup, however, the experience to have to create it (including the frustration) can also be very valuable. Yes, lerning only what you need in the lab is kind of narrow, but can also be considered as an experience in strong focus on the outcome. Point: It is important to understand the reasons – but their value depends on you. – Daniel Sep 13 at 7:19

I received my PhD in statistics (US University) in three years. I came in with a master's degree, which sometimes makes a difference. I obtained a very desirable post-doc afterwards. No one has ever questioned me on why it "only" took three years.

Three years is probably the lower bound. If you go below that, some people may raise an eyebrow. But if your dissertation is quality and you can get out in three years, all the better. There are a number of people who only take three years.

Also note that it is not that uncommon to not even list on your CV the years you obtained your degrees. (Although this is more the case for established researchers).


Added: A few comments have mentioned the fact that you do not want to shortchange yourself from the learning experiences found in obtaining a PhD by rushing through a PhD. While many good learning experiences can be found in obtaining a PhD, it is not as if you defend your dissertation and are then commanded to terminate any further learning. For me personally, I much preferred growing as a researcher while getting paid a real salary with health insurance over growing as a researcher and earning a small stipend and eating instant noodles everyday.

In all, there is no single one-size-fits all answer. Taking six years to finish is not a guarantee that you will be prepared to do independent research; taking three years is no guarantee either.

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    The key point is the Master's degree. That being the norm in some countries, three years is quite common for a PhD. However, without it, three years would appear very short, too short in my opinion. – Roland Sep 12 at 6:12
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    @Roland in which sense too short? Not enough time to get the proper amount of information? Or not enough time to get yourself known in the field well enough? Or both? – Alex Marshall Sep 12 at 6:21
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    During my PhD I grew as a researcher. You always experience some growing pains but the faster you grow the more severe they are. And if the three years include courses I believe the time is too short to actually make all relevant experiences (which should include some failures). – Roland Sep 12 at 7:10
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    @Roland Three years is pretty normal, even without a Master's degree. In the UK it's pretty typical for a PhD to run three years. Many students start right from undergrad - their first year would start in the Master's stream, but with the option to transfer to the PhD programme at the end of that year, taking two more years to complete the PhD. – J... Sep 12 at 11:34
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    Where did you get your PhD? 3-4 years is normal in the UK; fast in the US. Just saying how long it took you isn't enough information. – David Richerby Sep 12 at 12:43

The issue isn't specifically the time it takes for your PhD, but rather what you get out of it.

Will your CV after 3 years get you the jobs you want? Are others in your country/field spending 6 years publishing and strengthening their CV?

Personally, I didn't feel ready until my 6th year and there is no way I would have had a competitive CV if I graduated much sooner.

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    Thank you for your reply! But does it make a big difference if I start now, finish in 3 years and do 3 years of post-doc compared to someone who does 6 year of PhD? Will he learn more than me or get more papers published in 6 years? Also for your personal situation, do you consider that doing 3 years of post-doc instead of 3 of PhD, wouldn't have given you a good enough CV? – Alex Marshall Sep 12 at 6:25
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    I wouldn't have been successful in a postdoc after a 3 year PhD, assuming that a postdoc receives less mentorship and is expected to be fairly independent. I also would have been far less competitive for good postdoc positions. I could have certainly trimmed a year or a bit more off and done a postdoc though. – Austin Henley Sep 12 at 13:30

In the following I am speaking from personal experience and what I hear from others. I don't claim objectivity.

I had a Master's degree when I started by PhD in AI and two years of industry experience. My goal is to finish as fast as possible - especially for financial reasons, because I am also supporting a wife and little son. I think there should be requirements when you are eligible for your PhD title - the faster you can get those, the smarter (or luckier for a big part) you must have been. That would be my reasoning. That much for the CV - at least from a business perspective if you want to go back into industry later.

Regarding the fun aspect: Doing a PhD can also be a fun experience that you would like to have a little longer. However, don't expect it to be the "best time of your life". I know many people who said it was the hardest time in their life. I love research and feel I was born to do it, but I have to say: It is no picnic, especially in the context of a PhD, where the pressure can be pretty high (publish or perish).

Regarding your professor: Having a good supervisor trumps nearly everything, I think. I know so many PhD students who have serious issues with their professors. Luckily I am not one of them, but that seems to be the exception from what I hear.

I think I would go for it and opt for a post-doc if you want to lengthen your time at university. You would have your PhD in the bag (pressure should be lower) and get higher salary.

Long PhDs are a way for researchers to have cheap labor. Provided your research is up to scratch, as evidenced by publication in peer-reviewed journals, the length does not signify.

In Australia, research institutions are penalized once PhD students start taking longer than four years.

I did my PhD in 27 months; I had a research masters before starting, though.

The time that you should take is the time needed to complete the required coursework and to complete the requested research. In the physical sciences, the latter involves validating hypotheses in an otherwise open-ended project, publishing a core part of your findings, and having them accepted in a peer-reviewed journal. The time that you will take is the time until your committee approves your work.

Whether the time is three years or six is not relevant. What you accomplish in that time is exceptionally relevant.

Ask for the publications from the previous students. Read them and judge for yourself whether the work they have done has merit and is what you want to do.

I'll add additional points of reference.

I am aware of cases where PhD degrees took anywhere from three to six years even in the same department. The differences were advisor and sub-field. In the physical sciences, the caution when I might review a PhD that took only three years is that I will look to certify whether the work was original and thorough enough despite the perception of being a short time. An off-the-cuff example of a low impact PhD completed in short time is one that is nothing more than a new twist on a data analysis method applied to a collection of "big data". I count this as a tick mark toward "degree inflation". At the opposite extreme, I have to wonder after six years where the heck a student is spending his/her time (if not also why he/she allows the advisor a hold on what amounts to slave wages). This is the point where a dissertation committee should be called for leverage to set a foreseeable end point.

In summary, a PhD in the physical sciences should be awarded based on the recognition of success in the development of an idea or approach that can be uniquely identified as original to the student. A story I heard about a rejection goes as "Your dissertation presents much that is original and groundbreaking. Unfortunately, what is original is not groundbreaking, and what is groundbreaking is not original". Does this take three years or six? You decide for yourself.

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    Thank you for reply! Actually I looked at one of his last students, who graduated in 2 years. He had 5 publications (it was part of a bigger collaboration, however) and the professor said he did a lot of work. Also the papers were published as editor suggestion in a really important journal. I assume you end up doing a lot of stuff even it is 2-3 years. I am more wondering if I should give myself more time to enjoy the graduate experience or not (and the impact on my future career). – Alex Marshall Sep 12 at 1:09
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    My recommendation is, do what you gives you the most enjoyment. I might also add one caution. A lot of work can be done churning through a big data set to publish a lot of papers on technical results. The technical results can be published in a really important journal. That should however not be the true intent of working toward a PhD. – Jeffrey J Weimer Sep 12 at 2:22

if I start now, finish in 3 years and do 3 years of post-doc compared to someone who does 6 year of PhD

3 years is standard for most PhD programs in the EU, including the very top ones as in ETH, Oxbridge etc.

Regarding 3 years PhD + 3 years postdoc vs 6 years PhD

Pros:

  • Finacial. I earned more than 3 times as a postdoc ($80,000 vs £15,600 tax free).
  • Broaden research areas. After 3 years, you may get bored with a very narrow topic. It's good to explore something else. Note that for PhD, you often need to work on the same topic, in particular when your thesis is a monograph.
  • Broaden your network: new collaborators (of new advisor)
  • Learn to manage a team. You are considered more senior than PhD students in new group.

Cons:

  • This did not happen to me, but I heard that in many cases, first authorship was given to PhD students even when the postdoc did most of the work.
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    OP is not in the EU. – Bryan Krause Sep 12 at 18:51
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    @BryanKrause neither is oxbridge (soon). – mathreadler Sep 13 at 21:19

Yes. It is very good.

I completed a Ph.D. (also in EPP, funnily enough) in 2 years and 11 months. I started in October 1988 and made a particular point of having the timestamp of September 1991 on the front cover. I used this as a USP when applying for post-doc jobs and made sure always to slip the phrase on-time Ph.D. into the interview. This always raised an eyebrow and generated a hmmm or even a really? from at least one of the interviewers. As regards to how successful the strategy was, I have managed to stay in work ever since.

For background, I did this Ph.D. in the U.K. and was funded by a rather munificent Government Research Council that only paid for three years. Since I had no other means of support, I was heavily incentivised to finish on time. Also, I had a five-year break working in industry between my first degree and embarking on my doctorate so I had grown up a bit and gotten a bit more focused. This helped me to avoid the usual student traps of faffing about endlessly.

Let me throw in a slightly alternative view. It is best to finish a PhD smoothly, without unnecessary obstacles, and move on with your life and career.

That said, you will never be more protected in your academic career as when you're a PhD student. There's very little grant pressure. Mistakes are unlikely to be career enders. There's no "up or out" clock ticking.

There are things that should be accomplished while you are a student that have nothing to do with finishing your research. You should be taking every opportunity to network. You should be voraciously reading everything in your field. You should be starting to write your first grant. You shouldn't just be working very hard to finish up your research, you should be laying a framework to hit the ground running when you start your next endeavor.

So, if you can work very hard, and finish your PhD research a year early, but it's at the expense of not doing all that other stuff, I would think long and hard about it.

I think it comes down to these two main factors: if you take a long time, you would also have more time to do research, which should translate into more publications, more conference presentations, and so on. You'll also have more time to pick up expertise in other areas, i.e. be less specialized on your thesis topic. If you finish quickly, you will have less of these things - but you will also be able to move on to your next job sooner.

With fewer publications, conference presentations, etc, you would be less competitive for fellowships or postdoc positions. However these may not matter depending on what jobs you're looking to do afterwards. Further, PhD student positions in the US tend not to be well paid, so getting a PhD sooner enables you to move on to a higher-paying + more stable job quicker.

Ultimately, the choice is yours.

This is a very open ended question. Is it good to drive a car fast? It totally depends on what your objective is. In the big picture, there are many other factors in addition to speed of finishing that influence how much you learnt, the quality of your work etc. However, in my experience of having done a 'short PhD', it is not a handicap when applying for other institutions. The quality of the work speaks far louder.

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    The thing is that he is a Nobel prize winner, and I really like his research so I want a lot to work with him. But I know he will make in such a way for me to finish the PhD fast. So I have no doubt about wanting to work with him, I just hope it won't have any negative influence on me later – Alex Marshall Sep 12 at 15:54
  • Sounds enough like a trap to me, alright... – mathreadler Sep 13 at 21:20
  • @mathreadler what do you mean? – Alex Marshall Sep 13 at 23:45
  • @AlexMarshall it sounds like an efficient trap for young, ambitious and reasonably naiive researchers. – mathreadler Sep 14 at 3:33

It took me six total years (and 3 months) after my bachelor's to finish my Ph. D. which included the Master's degree [USA]. My Ph.D. was in Electrical Engineering (Signal Processing, specifically array processing). I now work in software-engineering exclusively, so one never knows what the future holds!

It is definitely good to finish the Ph.D. as speedily as reasonable if you are up for the work, it is a good idea.

A lot, of course, depends on your personal, not academic/career considerations; of course, the latter affect the former.

protected by Alexandros Sep 13 at 19:42

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