How Long for a Compressed PhD?

David Ng at Boing Boing asks an interesting question:

How long would your Ph.D. have taken if everything worked?

When I meet other scientist types, this can be one of the most interesting questions to throw out there.

We can use mine as an example. […]

6 months.

Fine, fine. Interesting enough premise, but this page really shines in the comments section. Commenter #4 known as “complicity” takes Ng back to school:

The question misunderstands the role and purpose of the PhD. The PhD’s outcome is not the thesis – that’s just a byproduct, an artefact, a recording- but the critical thinking, understanding and knowledge of the person who earns the PhD. You’re not the person who started the PhD; you’re someone else.

So, time for reading, understanding, and developing skills, thought processes and judgement usually needs to be factored in.

The PhD is not just doing the experiments and getting the results; it’s formulating the experiments and understanding why you want to run them, and what the results mean in a broader context.

My PhD took just over five years. Even if all the experiments and programming had worked without error, and other human factors had not occurred to slow things up, a decent number of years would still be needed for developing an understanding the field and formulating the right questions. Less than three years seems unlikely, given my starting point.

In much the same way, undergraduate courses take a number of years, and the person who graduates successfully is very different from the younger person who entered the course.

Often, gaining the necessary maturity can’t be rushed.

[More discussion @ Boing Boing]

[image via PhD Comics]

September 2, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading.


  1. John Farrier replied:

    For many years I harbored a poorly-reasoned goal of getting a Ph.D. It would have been in the humanities of some sort, so a lot of this article wouldn’t apply.

    Now I’ve heard too many horror stories of people impoverishing themselves and enduring years of abuse only to be told “no”. Now, even if I was independently wealthy, I wouldn’t seek one.

  2. philliposophy replied:

    Even in the humanities, you’d still come out the other side as a different person.

    I recently got my Masters in toxicology. Truly not interested in any more school after that experience and that’s mostly due to the self-imposed poverty you mentioned.

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