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I'm a physics PhD student at a top-tier university in the US and am about to start my 4th year. The norm in my group is to finish your PhD in 6 years. However, I'm not sure if I can meet that target for my own PhD for the following reasons:

  1. I carried over a large amount of residual burnout from undergrad, which resulted in a not-so-productive couple of years. I lacked motivation and discipline and really underperformed compared to those around me. I do feel much better now and feel much more motivated and disciplined, but I'm afraid I wasted the first half of my PhD. In hindsight, I would have taken a break between undergrad and my PhD, but it is what it is now.
  2. My advisor is extremely hands-off and my research does not align with their area of expertise. So, it's taken me much longer to become acquainted with my field and understand what research directions I need to pursue. I do feel quite independent now, but the first 3 years have really been tough given the lack of guidance.
  3. As a result of the two items above, I've only published one paper, which is honestly not even great and is something I'm not proud of.

I understand the PhD trajectory is not linear and most of the progress is usually made towards the end, but I'm really unsure if I can finish in 6 years given the circumstances above. I don't want to bring up the possibility of a 7 year trajectory with my advisor yet as I don't want to give a wrong impression, but I want to know if taking a year longer to finish my PhD will hurt my chances of finding good postdocs and, eventually, a tenure-track position?

Any insight would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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    6 vs 7 - almost nobody will notice. 14 or 15 years? Folks may notice.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 5, 2023 at 18:47
  • would be helpful to note what country you're doing the PhD in.
    – realkevlar
    Sep 5, 2023 at 20:09
  • @realkevlar I'm in the US. Edited the post to include that.
    – confusion
    Sep 5, 2023 at 20:47
  • I mean - if you're worried about it, just don't tell anyone. Employers will at some point be able to see the end date of your PhD from the certificate, but usually not until they're already committed to hiring you, and even then, you don't have to tell them the start date. Sep 6, 2023 at 8:30

3 Answers 3

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Suppose you plan to work x more years. Currently you are paid y per year and at the end of your career you will be paid z per year, adjusted for inflation. If you spend an extra year earning y because you are a PhD student for an extra year, then it will hurt you z-y dollars.

No future employer cares how long your PhD takes.

In physics, most PhD students do not get a tenure track job at any point. If they do, it is based on their performance as a postdoc - usually the PhD is already in the distant past.

Your PhD supervisor cares how long your PhD takes because they want to have a reputation for rapid degree completion.

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It is common enough and has many possible reasons in the US, at least. In fact, both burnout and extremely ambitious research projects can explain such a length.

The important thing is what you accomplish, not how long it might take, for this and for later research.

Einstein took ten years to come up with Special Relativity, but it was worth the time and effort.

Your story sounds familiar to me. There are places, however, that do restrict the time you may spend in one way or another.

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    Also, the pandemic... Sep 5, 2023 at 19:14
  • @paulgarrett, yes, of course, lots of other things. Family issues, Illness. I was lucky enough to be retired before COVID. I'd have had trouble with online classes and with continuing collaborations - very deaf.
    – Buffy
    Sep 5, 2023 at 19:20
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No-one will care (or even notice)

Taking an extra year to complete your PhD (beyond the usual expectations for your peers) is such a small difference that no-one will care, or even notice. Moreover, the fact that you have gone straight into your PhD program after your undergraduate degree means that you will probably still be relatively young when you graduate. Selection panels for academic positions (or other professional positions) are primarily interested in your present level of skills and knowledge rather than how long these took you to acquire.

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