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length of grad. student careers

S L Forsburg forsburg at salk.edu
Thu Aug 1 10:51:19 EST 1996

Sarah Boomer wrote:
> So - here are some specific questions for the group:
> Is seven years under such circumstances a horrific, disgraceful thing?
Absolutely not.  If you have been productive (and you have--you said you will
leave with several solid publications) and you have overcome the
collapse of a mid-term project, you have gotten a lot more REAL experience
out of your graduate degree than the 4-year hotshots who never had a thing
go wrong.  Speaking as one who hires postdocs, I'd hire someone with your
sort of experience without hesitation (assuming good letters and a good
interaction between us.)   

> What is the average time - particularly in a field like molecular/virology
> and are other dept's dealing with these kind of problems?
ENORMOUSLY variable depending upon the type of dept.  When I was a grad
student at MIT, it ranged from 5 to 10 (yes, count them) years with the
average probably around 6-7.   Private schools are more likely to let people
drag on than public schools (UC, for example, requires people get out within
6 max, preferably 5).  As long as the PI pays the student, many depts don't
care---and the PI gets an incredibly skilled worker for cheap, which is 
part of the problem.   In big postdoc labs, often the few students get
lost and it takes them 7-8 years to finish because they are mostly on
their own--those are often the hotshot labs.  Everyone knows this.  So
it isnt a stain on your character to take a long time!
> How do other dept's perceive issues like weeding the garden (masters
> doorprizes), equalizing committees?
IMHO, the drive for more-hands-in-the-lab has led to a lot of people who
don't NEED a PhD, don't really WANT a PhD, getting sucked into a PhD program,
when they would do best with a solid, tight terminal masters which should be
a valuable degree in its own right.  I think most programs try to weed in the
 1st-2nd year qual exams.  Unfortunately, there are students
who get passed through these because their PI wants their hands, and that
does no one any favors.  However, just because a student doesnt want to
proceed down the academic research track doesnt make a PhD for them a waste
of time, if they are qualified and they want to do it!  It's 
intrinsically valuable to science (because of the work  that gets done) and 
to the student for all sorts of reasons.
> What do you all do when the project crashes and burns and the student has
> been a productive, decent, and loving person for 3-4 years?
That happens all the time!  There are no guarantees in science.
  My opinion as a PI is that you salvage what you can from the 
project, which may take a bit of time but recovers something of value from
all the time that was spent on it.  Then  move the student on to something 
sure-fire  and short term, and make sure that the student still manages to get 
a range of approaches, intellectual and technical.  It's nice to have
a thesis that tells one cohesive story, but more common to have one
that has several disparate chapters.  Especially in a young and growing
lab <rueful grin!>.

I know it gets very frustrating as the years tick by (been there, after all).
It's hard  to see the progress you have made because it is so incremental.  
But if you could compare you at the beginning to you now, you'd see an 
enormous amount of growth and experience and polished talent.  


Susan L Forsburg PhD
MBVL, The Salk Institute
forsburg at salk.edu

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