length of grad. student careers

Hannah Dvorak hdvorak at cns.caltech.edu
Fri Aug 2 14:42:49 EST 1996

In article 
<Pine.A32.3.92a.960731190749.62656B-100000 at homer30.u.washington.edu>, 
sarai at u.washington.edu says...

>So - here are some specific questions for the group:
>Is seven years under such circumstances a horrific, disgraceful thing?  Am
>I right to just want to leave science and get my masters in education and
>say it was fun but...
>What is the average time - particularly in a field like molecular/virology
>and are other dept's dealing with these kind of problems?

Like your department, the average time for a biology PhD at Caltech is
6.5 years.  The numbers range from 4 years (for those few that latch
on to a project that works right away, and often have the luck of working
closely with excellent postdocs) to >9 years.  Also like your department,
our faculty are supposedly trying to bring the average down towards five
years - if for no other reason than to stop scaring away prospective 
students. :)  So, we too go through cycles of revamping the process of
admission to candidacy.  When I went through, there was a set of written
qualifying exams to be taken in May of our second year, followed by an
oral thesis proposal to our committee 6-9 months later.  I believe they're
planning to give the written exams earlier in the second year.  Oh, and
we have no required courses.

>How do other dept's perceive issues like weeding the garden (masters
>doorprizes), equalizing committees?

The MS is definitely a consolation prize here.  There's no terminal Master's.
Anyone can get one after twelve months in the PhD program, however, so if
they subsequently bail out they have at least something to show for it.
Very few people get actively weeded out, as far as I know - it's pretty
much self-selection.  

>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?

This happens to many people.  The general response seems to be to
salvage what you can, and start over.  This doesn't help the average length
of stay any.

- Hannah

Hannah Dvorak
Division of Biology 216-76
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125

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