What I learned in grad school, part 1

One thing no grad student starting out is ever sure of is how long his doctoral degree will take. That was sure the case with me. Professors in my department often told prospective and first-year graduate students that an “average” degree took five or five and a half years or so. I was always a bit skeptical of these pronouncements, because I never got to see any data. So I never knew how long my Ph.D. would take.

But now that I finished my Ph.D., I can finally answer the question! Completing my Ph.D. program took me 2081 days, or about 5.7 years. How does that compare to the “average” grad student? Unfortunately, that’s a question I can’t answer, because I don’t have access to the proper data, and even if I did, I suspect the answer would vary from institution to institution, from department from department, and from year to year.

But I have been keeping track of my classmates who matriculated to MIT with me back in 2003, and who subsequently qualified as Ph.D. candidates*. Twenty-four of the 39 members of my grad school cohort defended their thesis before I did. Two have already defended after me, and I know six more whose defense is imminent. Two of my cohort left the Ph.D. program shortly after qualifying as Ph.D. candidates, for what I understand to be personal reasons. Of the twenty-four who finished ahead of me, I should note that two of these were in a special degree program, designed to award a doctorate in engineering “practice” after about three years of study instead of the usual five.

And speaking of the “usual” five-year Ph.D., I can also say that in my professors were right! The median time to graduation** for my cohort was 1830 days, or almost exactly 5.0 years. (We won’t know the “average” or mean time to graduation until everyone has defended.) I guess I should give a retrospective kudos to my professors for being well-informed and forthright on this subject.

How long does a Ph.D. take?

This chart shows the progress of my grad school cohort through our Ph.D. programs. It includes all graduate students who started study with me in 2003 and subsequently qualified as a Ph.D. candidate. The red dots indicate participants in a special, shorter degree program. As of today, everyone in the cohort who has not yet defended has been matriculated for 2092 days. (Two students left the program before completing their degree, for what I understand to be personal reasons.)

How does my particular cohort stack up? I don’t have data for other years in my department, or from other departments at MIT. Digging up some old national-level data wasn’t too hard, though. From the looks of it, my cohort is doing very well (or, depending on your perspective, is getting off easy). Nationwide in the early 1990s, only 31% of chemical engineering Ph.D. students graduated after 5 years. Compare that to 50% in my cohort this year. I hope we can keep up the good work.

* – One student, IIRC, left our program for personal reasons a few weeks after matriculation but before taking our Ph.D. qualification exam after the first semester of graduate study.

** – I have been tallying the time since matriculation to doctoral thesis defense. The thesis defense is not quite the same as graduation, I suppose, but close enough.


One response to “What I learned in grad school, part 1

  1. Pingback: What I learned in grad school, part n « minglingken

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