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I have a rough draft of my PhD dissertation, on which I was working on and off for about a year, but mostly I was doing other coursework. I have about 90 pages so far.

My dissertation advisor tells me that what I should do is pretty much make sure it is well-written and apply the theory to a few examples. By my estimates, if I go berserk on this, I can finish all that in under one month.

However, the dissertation advisor says that usually, it takes about 3 years to complete a dissertation in my department, and I should not expect to complete it soon. Also, he says that the level of my draft was intermediate (some time ago) and not yet advanced (but he hasn't reviewed the current one yet).

When I ask or suggest about expanding the scope of the dissertation / adding additional chapters, the dissertation advisor says he does not think it is necessary.

So, it appears that the dissertation is almost complete, but I should not expect to complete it soon. How should I interpret this apparent contradiction?

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    What field are we talking about? – Benedikt Bauer Sep 28 '14 at 20:09
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    How long have you been working on your dissertation and did it lead to any publication? Also, depending on your subfield, “applying your theory to some examples” is the major, time-consuming challenge. – Wrzlprmft Sep 28 '14 at 20:15
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    if I go berserk on this, I can finish all that in under one month. — So three years sound about right, then. (Ha ha only serious.) – JeffE Sep 29 '14 at 1:48
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    To all those focusing on publishing: in some fields (e.g. math) people have gotten tenure-track or tenured positions without publishing a paper. It's extremely rare, and maybe it couldn't happen in the current state of affairs. But there is precedent, so I wouldn't say "impossible". Just very unlikely. – David Ketcheson Sep 29 '14 at 13:35
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    @JeffE: There's a rule I once heard: "To determine how long a task will actually take: make your best estimate, double it, and switch to the next higher unit of time." So "two hours" becomes "four days", and "one month" becomes "two years". It should be Somebody's Law but I don't know whose. (Hofstadter's Law is closely related.) – Nate Eldredge Sep 29 '14 at 14:39
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My PhD advisor once told me that one aspect he considers when rating a thesis is how much the candidate did try to go beyond the initial idea or goal. If they are like "I solved the initial problem, here's the thesis, I just want to finish a fast as possible" then they will earn an intermediate grade at the end. Only if they try to go beyond the initial problem, try to at least estimate the further implications or steps or apply the outcome of the initial problem to further problems, they really can earn a top grade.

To my experience, to successfully finish a physics PhD within roughly a year, you have to have had really great luck to find something really excitingly new that provided a huge progress to your specific field. In most cases after one year you can't even tell for sure what the final focus of the thesis will be. Those applications of the theory to some example cases can easily take up more time than the whole development of the theory as there might come up issues and flaws that you were not expecting. Also their importance is not necessarily reflected in the number of pages they make up in the final thesis.

Therefore it seems to me, that you are somewhat belonging to the first type of people mentioned above who are just heading to leave before really having understood the implications of what they were working on.

  • The topic I am working on is considered to be quite "hot", and the theory I have developed is substantially new. It would be directly applicable to some high-profile research currently in progress at certain major laboratories. – Jake Sep 28 '14 at 21:02
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    The objective I have in mind for the dissertation is to complete it as quickly as possible, because I have lots of plans and ideas I can't wait to start working on after that, but I will take as long as it takes in order to not compromise on quality and scope. – Jake Sep 28 '14 at 21:03
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    What you describe sound like a paper, not a thesis. By all means, finish your current work, publish it, and move on. But that's independent from finishing your thesis. (Warning: I work in a different field with different cultural expectations.) – JeffE Sep 29 '14 at 1:51
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    @Jake You seem to be viewing a PhD thesis as being merely a document that meets some specific set of criteria. It isn't. I think you should have a discussion with your adviser about what exactly a PhD is and what is expected of a thesis. – David Richerby Sep 29 '14 at 14:11
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    @Jake To build on David's comment, you also seem to be viewing a paper as being merely a document that meets some specific set of criteria. It isn't. – JeffE Sep 29 '14 at 14:25
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Science is really a publication driven field, not a dissertation driven one. I would highly encourage to you to put your time in to turning your research into peer-reviewed scientific publication, instead of doing just enough for a dissertation. If you can publish 2-4 papers out of what you have written in established journals your adviser will most likely graduate you. However, I imagine, since this was my experience too, that as you start to write your papers you will find holes that need to be fixed, etc., and fixing those holes will be a substantial part of the work.

Bottom line: focus on doing publishable research and getting published first! After you've done that, the dissertation will be easy and you'll graduate without a problem.

  • I agree that it would be best to publish 2-4 papers. The subject matter in my case is pretty straightforward, but you are right about certain seemingly small items that may require substantial work. I have a list of such items, and on average, each of them takes about 1-3 days to be addressed. The advisor and I agree that the main concern is that my draft is not very well-written yet, and for the same reason, I don't have much publishable material at the moment. – Jake Sep 29 '14 at 13:50
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Trying to get a PhD in a year or two is a bad idea, because employers will not take such a degree seriously. The only exception is if you're a once-in-a-generation talent (and the odds are you're not the next Albert Einstein or Lev Landau), in which case you'd already have a number of publications to your credit and enough work to justify a PhD.

So I would echo Benedikt Bauer's advice and not try to rush through things. Instead, focus on the quality of your thesis project. Have you completed publications? Have you personally explored the ramifications of the work you've already done? What else have you done "beyond the basics" of the original problem?

  • "Have you completed publications?" I wrote a technical report and an article during this time. The article is yet to be reviewed by the advisor. – Jake Sep 28 '14 at 21:14
  • "Have you personally explored the ramifications of the work you've already done?" Yes, I have done that, but the only thing I head from the advisor on that is that he thinks I should not over-do things like that. – Jake Sep 28 '14 at 21:16
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    One paper in any event is not really sufficient for a PhD. Even for a three-year PhD, one would normally require output corresponding to multiple journal papers (or the equivalent in your field). For instance, I expect my students to have completed work roughly equivalent to three papers. – aeismail Sep 28 '14 at 21:43
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    @DavidKetcheson Basically that's true, but getting a PhD is also not a drive-by task. And the attitude that shines through the OP is something like "I was attending some courses the last year and the time remaining beside the course work I wrote a bit on my thesis." It's unquestioned that some famous people may have achieved their successful work in a similar way (as aeismail noted already), but it's quite unlikely that this happened to the OP as well. Also if the OP was one of those talents, I guess their supervisor would show some more enthusiasm about their work. – Benedikt Bauer Sep 29 '14 at 13:52
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    I think that I can perhaps technically complete the thesis within a few months of normal-paced work, and the advisor understands that, but spending an additional year or two would guarantee a substantial improvement in its quality, and perhaps that's what the advisor wants me to do. – Jake Sep 29 '14 at 14:19
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In all the programs I am familiar with, you become a "doctoral candidate" (or something similar) only after having successfully proposed a topic for your dissertation. Usually that proposal includes several pages of detail regarding what will be accepted by your committee as successful completion. Of course, research is uncertain and there must be some flexibility, but your proposal can be viewed as the basis for deciding when you are done.

If you have such a document, you should reference it specifically in discussions with your advisor. If you do not, perhaps you should create one and iterate with your advisor until he/she is willing to agree to it.

  • The confusing thing is that what remains to be done is simply brushing up the existing draft, perhaps even deleting some extra material, and adding application of theory to some examples, the latter being already done to a small extent for proof of concept purposes. So it would appear that although I have recently started, I am almost done, but at the same time, the expected timeframe remains about 3 years in total. Perhaps I can practically complete the thesis in a few months and spend an additional year simply improving its "awesomeness" factor. – Jake Sep 29 '14 at 14:02
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    Do you have a proposal document that defines what remains to be done? If not, your perception and your advisor's may be vastly different. – David Ketcheson Sep 29 '14 at 14:22
  • A formal thesis proposal is not required in my department, but I have discussed this in maximal possible detail with the advisor, which is limited by his time availability and willingness to discuss those details. In the latest discussions, it was apparent that his expectations for scope are somewhat smaller than mine. I can easily satisfy all of the requirements he mentioned perhaps even all too quickly, and he does not think I should be concerned about anything else. – Jake Sep 29 '14 at 16:20
  • All I can think of is that he wants me to do a lot of additional unspecified work on the thesis, which would be pretty much reworking every detail to a higher quality, and that I should take time doing it, and not merely complete the dissertation plan with sufficient quality. – Jake Sep 29 '14 at 16:23

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