37

I am currently working on my PhD in a Canadian university. I already had a master's degree before joining the PhD program. In my department (chemical engineering), the normal timeline for getting a PhD is 3.5-4.5 years (if joined with a prior master's degree). We take only 2 courseworks in the first semester. More are taken if the advisor or the committee instructs one to do so. Rest of the time is dedicated to research, TAship, etc...

However, due to my own mistakes (taking too much time initially to explore the research area and scope) and wrong decisions (investing too much time of a day in developing my hobby), I will be defending later this year with the total PhD duration equalling 5 years 4 months.

I will have 4 publications (in decent journals) by the time I graduate. I also have couple of other works that will eventually get published. I am not concerned about my publications record at the moment as that's something in my control and which is directly proportional to the hard work I put in the future.

My question is: Will my above average number of years spent on a PhD be considered a red flag in future academia or industry positions?

  • 4
    Perhaps it is a false notion that time spent on phd is indicative of ones future outlook, but i can see asking how often it is used for hiring,etc. – marshal craft Apr 14 at 4:09
  • 1
    Indeed, it hardly seems important. – mckenzm Apr 15 at 5:09
  • 8
    If it were, half of all Ph.D.s would be red flagged (pedant's note; assuming symmetrical distribution). – Oscar Bravo Apr 15 at 13:02
  • 3
    One particularly sluggish student started his Ph.D. in 1970 but only graduated in 2008! His excuse was that he got rather side-tracked while playing in a band. – Oscar Bravo Apr 15 at 13:08
  • I've protected this question since it's drawing a number of mini-answers that would likely do better as comments. – jakebeal Apr 15 at 14:02

14 Answers 14

55

It's well known that there is a significant amount of variability in the time that it takes for a student to finish a PhD, particularly in programs with more rigorous standards. My own graduate department, for example, preferred people to finish in 5-6 years, but was somewhat infamous for allowing some to take as long as 10 years.

In fact, I would venture to say that it is the opposite. I would typically consider it a red flag if somebody took a shorter than usual amount of time to obtain their Ph.D. Typically if you have a really good student, you don't graduate them faster, but instead you graduate them in the normal time but with a much stronger portfolio of results. Shorter-than-usual Ph.D. studies, on the other hand, are typically a sign of somebody rushing to depart the program by meeting the bare minimum of requirements.

Bottom line: if you've done good work and have good publications, the fact that you took one more year than is typical for your department will barely even be noticed, let alone held to be significant. This is even more true for most industry jobs.

If somebody does actually ask you, however, focus on the first of your reasons (time spent figuring out an appropriate area of focus) rather than the latter reason (time spent working on out-of-work projects), as the second may be of legitimate concern to future employers.

  • 3
    In fairness, if it is clear that is a student is falling behind, then I will tell them directly as soon as it is clear. I had one PhD who I had to sit down with in the first year and explain that they were falling significantly behind. I felt that this was the only fair thing to do so that they did not waste their time. – bremen_matt Apr 13 at 18:49
  • 39
    @bremen_matt I am glad that I was not your student. That seems to me a very rigid and punitive attitude, especially given the potential for research projects to run into problems that have nothing to do with the student. – jakebeal Apr 13 at 20:48
  • 32
    @bremen_matt I am a long-standing member and one-time chair of my (large flagship US public top-5) department's faculty hiring committee, with several former students of my own in faculty positions. I strongly concur with this answer. The quality of the work matters far far more than the time to finish. – JeffE Apr 13 at 22:34
  • 6
    @jakebeal I understand how this can feel too rigid and punitive. However, if there is no additional funding, then what do you propose I do? Tell the student to take their time? I make it clear from the beginning that I have procured them funding for X years. I can make no promises beyond that time frame. That is the truth, and telling them that they can take their time and everything will work out is just blowing sunshine – bremen_matt Apr 14 at 4:23
  • 4
    The buffer is built in. Try to finish in 3 years if you have funding for 4. I may come off as a pessimist, but my viewpoint is tainted by my experience. My PhD advisor, who was 50x more experienced and well respected than I, went through a funding dry spell of about 2 years, and during that time had to have some very difficult discussions with his students. I never want to be in that position. – bremen_matt Apr 14 at 4:38
30

I work at a large finance/technology company and have been on the hiring team for nine new members of our department in the past two years. Three of them have PhDs. I've interviewed dozens of candidates and lost track of how many PhDs were among them. I myself have a PhD, and generally look out for things like the field, subfield, years at school, etc, when I first get a resume.

I have never once brought up the amount of time anyone has done a PhD, and have never heard anyone else mention it. By the time a room of people are discussing a candidate, we are talking about their group interview, technical challenge submission, one-on-one Q&A performance, general team fit and other characteristics that would directly affect the job. We have a limited amount of time to discuss these things. If a coworker ever brought up such a detail without immediately leading into a point about something greater, like a potentially dishonest resume, I would straight up ask why we are spending time talking about it.

The only exception I could conceive of is if the opening is for some sort of academic-like research position, but I have no experience hiring for roles like that (or in academia at large).

Virtually nobody in industry cares about how long a candidate takes to do a PhD.

  • 6
    +1 "Time to complete Ph.D." is an irrelevant detail compared to metrics with which we measure candidates. – Pete Apr 14 at 18:23
7

In my department the normal time to finish is 4-6 years, but there were some cases with >6 years too. And they are all doing fine in academia as well as industry. As long as you have something concrete to show your output from a PhD then you should be good.

5

I recently hired several people for our company. If I saw that somebody took more than 5 years to get a PhD, a red flag would go off, and I would actually start looking at their dissertation to get a sense for whether the extended time was actually necessary. (5 years 4 months probably wouldn't trip my alarm though). In my view, a long period of time completing a PhD should only be warranted for an exceptional dissertation.

One way to mitigate this would be to indicate why the PhD took so long on your cover letter. For instance, one candidate took approximately 10 years, but had a severe medical issue for several of the intermittent years. That is valuable information to me as the one screening the applications.

I would just add one more point. And that is that typically, we will screen literally 100 candidates for 1 position, all with fairly similar backgrounds. So while it may seem unfair to just quickly judge a candidate based on how long it took to acquire a PhD, I will use every tool at my disposal to try to get that stack of 100 seemingly equal candidates on paper down to about 15 candidates that we can start calling for prescreening interviews.

  • 2
    If 5 years 4 months doesn't trip the alarm, doesn't that mean that the red flag only would go off if someone took more than 6 years? – sgf Apr 13 at 21:22
  • 2
    As long as the work is solid I don't think taking more that five years should be a problem. (P.S. I'm upvoting because "this answer is useful" and provides a different point of view.) – Daniel Apr 13 at 22:41
  • 2
    Also +1 for the different perspective. Not that I agree - in fact, it was my experience that advisors tried to hold onto their top-performing PhD students while they were quick to push through under-performing PhD students. But, regardless of whatever the truth may be, that different application-evaluators will see the same information differently seems like a good point worth demonstrating. – Nat Apr 13 at 22:47
  • Typically people would not actually list the fact that it is 5 + 4 months, but instead just list the months and years they started and finished. So just breezing through the applications, it would probably just look like 5 years. – bremen_matt Apr 14 at 4:26
5

As somebody who does a lot of technical interviews for consulting: In my experience up to 1.5 times the "normal" time is not a red flag under the following conditions:

  • Acceptable publications/results (patents, project participation) are proven
  • Potentially other circumstances (family, job etc)
  • Switch of topic/subtopic
  • Switch of advisor/difficult advisor
  • Failed approach to topic
  • Group moved
  • New field in group started (5 years in not a super-big amount of time for setting up a clean room for lithography to getting the first results)
  • Skills learned (Yes, in many reputable groups candidates usually are very focused on their central topic, good for academia, not so good for industry)

...and many other factors.

Most of them are to be explained/discussed in the interview, however the publication/patent/project record and skills is something which I typically check based on the CV only before deciding for an interview. Make sure that you are prepared to clarify your motivation during the interview for continuing the PHD)

  • 2
    I am glad you mentioned family circumstances. Many women in my program who had kids during the PhD took an “extra” year. Similarly those who were trying to time going on the market to handle a “two-body problem.” I don’t think we were penalized on the market for the time aspect. – Dawn Apr 14 at 15:00
3

"Red flag" is a definite exaggeration. There is probably some correlation of faster Ph.D.s being stronger, but it is weak. Even there, there is huge variability.

I find the variability being more with longer Ph.D.s having some very outstanding people than the converse. Disagree with the answer above that sees short Ph.D. as a red flag (or at least mild negative). I see it as mild positive.

As for your papers, that sounds fine. You've checked the boxes (stereotypical "three strikes and you're out"). At this point, I would not be wistful about your grad school career. Although it is natural human instinct to be so at this stage. It is not unusual to have some wheel spinning during this time. But you got the job done. Finish up and move on with a smile on your face and looking for next challenge.

3

I took seven years to finish my Ph.D. As far as I can tell it's never hurt me at all. If anything, staying longer helped a bit because CV looked better when measured in the standard unit of "years since Ph.D."

  • In what way? By since Ph.D. do you mean since starting or since finishing? If starting, that would mean it looked like you got your Ph.D. ages ago and so were more experienced. If since finishing, it would look like you'd just graduated and so were really up-to-date with research. I can't really figure out which you mean... – Oscar Bravo Apr 16 at 6:57
  • 1
    The standard measurement of "age" in academia is the number of years since you finished your Ph.D. So your CV is usually being compared against other people who graduated at the same time, not other people who started their Ph.D. at the same time. – Noah Snyder Apr 22 at 18:09
3

A PhD is a very individual experience -- most people hiring one will know this. Many people finish quickly because they have strong results, or finish late because they were doing valuable work and being well treated. Similarly, poor students might take short, ordinary, or long times as well. What matters is the quality of your academic output and the letters of reference / teaching reports etc. People will either hire you for specific things you have done or specific expertise, or they hire you for the kind of contribution you can make to their department or lab as a person, or some combination of both.

2

It might but indirectly, because you are a bit older. While I don't have a picture for industry, in academia I would say that is of minor impact. It can even don't show up in an interview or audit, when the activity of the candidate has been up, of quality, and constant.

2

Is above average number of years spent on PhD considered a red flag...?

Not a red flag, but it could make your potentional recruiter apprehensive if it took you a very long time. How many years are we talking about here?

... PhD duration equaling 5 years 4 months.

Oh, then no problem. I mean, you won't get "magical glory points" for being very fast with your PhD, but no. You said you got decent publications, so it should be ok.

Of course, that doesn't guarantee you'll get a tenure-track offer anywhere :-(

1

There are some legal limitations for mentioning the years during which you studied.

For instance, in the USA the period of the academic study is not mentioned on resumes. This is to prevent employers to estimate one’s age, which is also not mentioned during the job application.

For the reason mentioned above, at least in the USA, how long it took one to do their PhD is irrelevant when they solicit a position.

0

Hiring at the junior level in academic economics is based on the prediction of the person's future performance (at a senior level it may be partly "buying" publications for the department, thus past performance). The prediction is partly about whether the person will get tenure or not.

To predict future publication output in a specified timeframe (tenure clock), the time taken to produce the current output is helpful information. I would divide the current quality-adjusted papers by the number of years taken to produce them to estimate the output per year, then multiply that by the length of the tenure clock and compare to the tenure standard. The number of years for past output includes both the PhD and other research positions, for example research Master's, working in a research position at any institution, etc.

I do not exactly know what you mean by a "red flag", but a longer time to PhD conditional on the same output is a negative signal. The signal is continuous in the length of time, not a discrete cutoff in the style of ">6 years and you're disqualified".

A similar adjustment as for time can be made for the number of coauthors.

0

In Argentina for example PhD tend to last 6 to 8 years after master studies that take around 6 years. However if there are no max age requirements to apply for further positions I don´t see why taking 5 years would be a problem. 5 years spent on a PhD with no scientific production at all, well that could be a red flag. But with 4 publications in your portfolio..... you can know for sure that you have made a decent PhD!

-1

I would claim it is rather the opposite. A good student you want to spend much time working together with. A bad student just takes time and resources and gives nothing.

So it makes sense to get rid of them faster and hold on to the good ones.

protected by jakebeal Apr 15 at 14:01

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.