Some people try to complete their PhD asap, others try to make major breakthroughs. I think these aims are mutually incompatible, one is going against the other.

What are pros/cons of each for somebody whose intended career is research in academia?

The answers should be general, but I myself am interested in pure mathematics.

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    If you're early in grad school, it's too soon to worry about this. If you're getting near the end, then the answer probably depends on what problems you have ideas for working on, and how long you think it would take you to make progress on them. If you have an idea for an extensive research program that could take years to develop fully, then you might want to move on and do that as a postdoc.
    – user1482
    May 11, 2014 at 23:57
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    This seems to be strongly related to that other very recent question. May 12, 2014 at 5:24

5 Answers 5


If you are aiming for a career in mathematics at a research university, then trying to complete your Ph.D. as quickly as possible is a bad idea. In the U.S., you should plan on spending four or five years in graduate school. You should not graduate in three or fewer years unless you write an absolutely extraordinary thesis (or personal concerns force you to leave graduate school). Graduating in four years is reasonable, but most people are better off taking five. Even if you've reached a natural break point in your work, it can be valuable to stick around and work on something else for a year.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it's based on three principles that describe how junior candidates are evaluated in mathematics:

  1. The job market is brutally competitive, and you need the strongest application you can put together.

  2. No extra credit is given for graduating quickly. People who graduate in three or four years compete on the same footing as those who spend five. [However, there can be a penalty for taking six or more.]

  3. Once you graduate, the clock starts ticking. If you take longer than average to find a tenure-track job, it will be held against you.

The net result is irrational: the job market judges it better to spend five years in grad school and then do a three-year postdoc than to spend three years in grad school and then five years as a postdoc. The former looks normal, while the latter looks like you graduated too quickly and then were unable to find a tenure-track job after your first postdoc (so what might be considered a compensating plus/minus pair turns into two negatives).

Five years in graduate school is something of a cut-off, for two reasons. Most grad schools discourage staying longer, because of limitations on space and funding, and spending six or more years starts to look like you were unable to complete your dissertation. However, up to five years, longer is usually better.

One way of thinking about this is to consider the question title:

Longer PhD with a deeper result vs a shorter PhD with a sufficient result

What constitutes a "sufficient result"? Sufficient to graduate is a weak condition, since getting a good postdoc is much more difficult than merely completing a dissertation. However, a good postdoc won't get your career off to nearly as strong a start as a great postdoc would. If another year in graduate school could make the difference between a good and a great postdoc, it may well be worth it. But what if your work is so wonderful that you're obviously going to get a great postdoc? At that point you should raise your ambitions and aim to get a Clay research fellowship.

There's an enormously high ceiling, and you never reach the point of being able to say "OK, I've done enough." Graduate school is not a matter of doing enough and seeing how long it takes you. Instead, it's a matter of taking the standard amount of time and seeing how much you can do.


There are several considerations regarding whether to graduate now. I'll go through them from most to least important (in my opinion).

  1. Thesis readiness: You can't graduate unless your advisor and your committee feel your thesis is good-enough. For some departments, you need to have 2 or 3 separate projects which are in advanced enough state or even published.
  2. Research readiness: As @seteropere noted, if you feel that you are able to do research independently, and your advisor agrees, then you are ready to graduate.
  3. Future job situation:

    • If you can get a tenure-track job or post-doc in September 2015, then go ahead and graduate in June 2015.
    • If you can't get any academic jobs in September 2015, then maybe you should stay one more year.
  4. Job prospects this year vs next year: For some fields, getting a good job requires a student to have papers in advanced stages of the publishing pipeline, i.e. submitted is good, under second or third round of review is better, and accepted is best. If you have a great paper but it is not yet ready, waiting until the next year before you apply for jobs may allow you to have that great paper in a more advanced stage of the publishing pipeline which can't hurt your job prospects.

  5. Funding from advisor: Is your advisor willing/able to support you for an additional year? Some advisors limit their support to 4 or 5 years, and students who wish or need to stay longer may have to carry heavy teaching loads.
  6. Research environment: Are you learning from your advisor, and doing good work with the other students/professors in your current institution? If so, leaving for another position becomes more risky because the situation may be worse than your current situation.
  7. Financial situation: Usually, a PhD salary is less than a post-doc salary, which is less than a tenure-track job salary. For some students who may be supporting a family, earning more money as soon as possible is an important consideration.

somebody whose intended career is research in academia?

I believe any PhD student who can

  • Identify interesting research problems
  • develop solutions to them
  • publish in good conferences/journals

should graduate and enjoy the freedom of research. PhD is not a lifetime career. It is just the beginning. Longer or shorter PhD does not matter; what does matter is that you are an independent researcher when you defend.

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    But there are independent researchers with sparser records and independent researchers with more established records. The latter tend to get jobs more easily than the former.
    – JeffE
    May 11, 2014 at 22:33
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    @JeffE would it change anything if the "deeper" result is included inside the PhD thesis as opposed to published after a smaller-but-sufficient PhD thesis?
    – Peteris
    May 12, 2014 at 10:45
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    @Peteris At most two people will ever read your PhD thesis, and that's assuming you're one of them. I think what you mean is "Would it change anything if the 'deeper' result is published before or after the PhD?" And yes, it would.
    – JeffE
    May 12, 2014 at 12:18

others try to make major breakthroughs

This can be a trap because not everybody is able to make major breakthroughs. Besides not being smart enough, a major factor is the group of people you are surrounded by. It could easily take years for your cohort to catch up with the leaders in the field. If your project involves a major leap, consider the alternatives.

Evaluating what is do-able and the time involved is understanding your field, and an important part of a PhD. In fact, big companies have 'domain specialist' positions where your job is to review the value and effort involved in a project.

There is a category of people with a fast PhD who are successful because they understand what is relevant to pursue.


My supervisor used to tell me regularly that there is no such thing as a "PhD with bar" (that is some extra merit/credit/marker to say it was really good - it is just yes/no).

On the other hand several of my students have one university or professional association prizes for their theses, and there are opportunities for publishing a good thesis. A good thesis is something you will want to cite for the rest of your life. You don't want something that you will be ashamed of in a decade - whether or not you "pass".

I get students to decide on three innovations that if they succeed with any one of them would be sufficient for the PhD. Some may be dead ends, but most students do manage to hit two or three bulls eyes. But one is enough.

The questions really are: will your thesis get up? are you employable? could you get a research job? The way to be confident of this is to have multiple publications (my students tend to have 5 from their PhD, mostly conference, with a couple of journals - those who did a Masters will have some from them as well).

The other thing is that if you have a scholarship or a TA contract or other support, make the most of it, use all of it - don't submit early. It is far easier to publish during your PhD than once you are in a full time academic position preparing teaching notes for half a dozen different courses. So aim for publications first, building up your thesis as you go (either a resource from which you pull out publications, or a compilation made by putting together your papers). The papers related to a chapter should be identified in the opening and/or closing pages (e.g. with footnotes), and in some universities you can do a thesis by publication or include verbatim papers with a bit of glue text. But examiners don't really like this (they tend to read the same intro material over and over again), and I encourage a coherent readable monograph approach (which is then publishable which a collection of already published papers isn't). But one way or another if referees from a stack of reputable conference and journals think your work is publishable, how can they turn down the thesis that spawned them.

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